How to break down work projects and tasks into steps that won’t stress you out

How to break down projects and tasks into steps that won't stress you out, woman writing in a notebook

At a glance

  • Task management and tackling work projects can feel overwhelming.

  • Breaking tasks down into the smallest possible steps makes the work more manageable.

  • Once you know all the steps, it’s easier to create a plan for getting through the task.

So, you’re staring down that project. The one that feels huge and that you don’t know where to start. The one that seems impossible the longer you look at it. It feels overwhelming and makes you incredibly stressed out. 

If you have trouble tackling projects or managing individual tasks (I’ve got ADHD and task management is definitely a challenge for me), the good news is there’s a way to break your work down into manageable chunks. And the even better news is that you can often do it in less time than it takes to explain it. 

5 steps to break down work into bite-size pieces

  1. Look at the big picture. Start by thinking about your overall project or a task. (A project is a series of linked tasks.) Write down the basic information: When it’s due, what you need to deliver, who needs to see it, etc. 

  2. Then, think small. Identify the steps or subtasks involved in getting the task done. (Try imagining an assembly line of things that need to happen to get to the finished product.) Write down each step.

  3. Review each step. See if it can be broken down even further and add any new subtasks to the list. 

  4. Make the steps specific. Instead of “meet with the team,” write, “meet with the team to brainstorm a plan B in case this approach doesn’t work.” Include details like “schedule meeting with the team.”

  5. Factor in other people. Think about whether the task or any of the steps relies on other people or requires approval or input. Make a note where that’s the case.

Up next: Turning the pieces into a plan

Once you have all the steps broken out, think about how much time you’ll need to get each step done. Then you can give each step a due date and add detail to the steps. Here’s an example of what that might look like.

Say you have a report due on April 14. This report will need a chart and a written evaluation. You’re tasked with writing the evaluation and gathering the information for the chart. Your co-worker Bethany is in charge of designing the chart. 

So you go through the steps above and end up with this:

Project: Quarterly sales report. Due April 14. Bethany to design. Presentation date: April 18.

Needed: Chart

  • Gather and send quarterly sales numbers to Bethany (April 3)

  • Schedule first check-in with Bethany (April 3)

Needed: Written evaluation

  • Research last quarter’s sales numbers (April 5)

        –What worked and what didn’t?

        –What sold best? Worst? 

        –What measures are changing next quarter?

  • Write first draft (April 11)

  • Edit first draft (April 12)

  • Finish second draft (April 13)

  • Format with chart (April 13)

  • Send report to sales team (April 14)

As you go, don’t be afraid to cut tasks into smaller subtasks if that would help. You can also combine tasks that go well together. The point is to give yourself small pieces of work that you can easily make sense of and address. 

The ability to get through tasks and projects requires a set of skills called executive function. These skills include focus, planning, and organization. Many people struggle with executive function. That includes most people with ADHD.

Key takeaways

  • Give yourself small pieces of work to make task management and work projects easier to tackle.

  • Getting through tasks and projects requires skills known as executive function.

  • Lots of people struggle with these skills, especially people with ADHD.


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