3 stress-free steps to tackling your task list

Break your larger tasks into small steps to keep from being overwhelmed.
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In prior years, this annual series covered individual apps. This year, we are looking at all-in-one solutions in addition to strategies to help in 2021. Welcome to day 14 of 21 Days of Productivity in 2021.

At the start of the week, I like to review my schedule and look at the things I either need or would like to accomplish. And often, there are some items on that list that are relatively big. Whether it is an issue for work, a series of articles on productivity, or maybe an improvement to the chicken enclosures, the task can seem really daunting when taken as a single job. The odds are good that I will not be able to sit down and finish something like (just as an example, mind you) 21 articles in a single block of time, or even a single day.

21 Days of Productivity project screenshot

21 Days of Productivity (Kevin Sonney, CC BY-SA 4.0)

So the first thing I do when I have something like this on my list is to break it down into smaller pieces. As Nobel laureate William Faulkner famously said, "The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." We need to take our big tasks (the mountain) and find the individual steps (the small stones) that need to be done.

I use the following steps to break down my big tasks into little ones:

  1. I usually have a fair idea of what needs to be done to complete a task. If not, I do a little research to figure that out.
  2. I write down the steps I think it will take, in order.
  3. Finally, I sit down with my calendar and the list and start to spread the tasks out across several days (or weeks, or months) to get an idea of when I might finish it.

Now I have not only a plan but an idea of how long it is going to take. As I complete each step, I can see that big task get not only a little smaller but closer to completion.

There is an old military saying that goes, "No plan survives contact with the enemy." It is almost certain that there will be a point or two (or five) where I realize that something as simple as "take a screenshot" needs to be expanded into something much more complex. In fact, taking the screenshots of Easy!Appointments turned out to be:

  1. Install and configure Easy!Appointments.
  2. Install and configure the Easy!Appointments WordPress plugin.
  3. Generate the API keys needed to sync the calendar.
  4. Take screenshots.

Even then, I had to break these tasks down into smaller pieces—download the software, configure NGINX, validate the installs…you get the idea. And that's OK. A plan, or set of tasks, is not set in stone and can be changed as needed.

project completion pie chart

About 2/3 done for this year! (Kevin Sonney, CC BY-SA 4.0)

This is a learned skill and will take some effort the first few times. Learning how to break big tasks into smaller steps allows you to track progress towards a goal or completion of something big without getting overwhelmed in the process.

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Kevin Sonney is a technology professional, media producer, and podcaster. A Linux Sysadmin and Open Source advocate, Kevin has over 25 years in the IT industry, with over 15 years in Open Source. He currently works as an SRE at elastic.

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