Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Why Tackling Big Tasks Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal

Strategies and goals

Some of the tasks that are hardest to get ourselves to do are the big, overwhelming ones like cleaning out a junk room or garage, doing a full-scale edit on a novel, or organizing papers or files. Often we think about these kinds of tasks as requiring one big push, a big chunk of time that we imagine will be available sooner or later.

That kind of approach to a task can work out badly in at least two ways. First, a task that we think of like that may never get done. Second, even if we do accomplish the task, before long we may find things quickly getting back to the same situation we were in originally. When these kinds of problems rear their ugly heads, it’s time to think about breaking the big tasks down, not only into smaller pieces, but into habits.

What I mean about breaking a task down into a habit is looking at what kind of regular behavior can make the problem go away permanently. For example, regardless of whether older papers are filed or not, if new papers keep piling up, there will always be something out of order, and more often than not it will be a big stack (or three, or twelve …). This kind of situation calls for adopting a new habit, possibly even a new rule, about how new paper is handled, regardless of the old stuff. The new habit can be based on an event (for example, every time a new paper comes into the office that isn’t actively in use, it gets recycled or filed) or on a schedule (for instance, all papers get filed every Thursday morning).

Notice that this new habit doesn’t require old problems to be taken care of before it comes into play. It’s easier to be motivated when no old problems are looming, but not letting a problem get worse is still a meaningful and relieving change from ever-renewing chaos.

New habits can even help take care of old problems. For instance, with filing the new habit might be to file each new thing as it comes in along with at least one old paper. In this way, the filing gets done slowly but also fairly painlessly, and it reinforces the value of the new habit. What’s more, doing a little bit of a task that used to seem huge and unmanageable can be very freeing and empowering, often supplying the necessary motivation to get a lot more of it done.

Alternatively, old problems can be handled in small chunks separately from new habits. For instance, you might tackle a junk room or a filing job just 15 minutes at a time whenever you have a free moment.

Regardless, clearing the old problem away can be enormously freeing in terms of the pressure it relieves. Strangely enough, under the right circumstances taking care of something you’ve been avoiding and perhaps even been a little fearful of can be powerfully enjoyable, if you can push past the initial jitters and focus on the progress you’re making and not the problems you may have had in the past.

Photo by f1rwb DClik.



  1. Guy Stewart  •  Aug 14, 2009 @9:58 pm

    This was perfect length, easy to read and easy to apply…BUT…it lacked the “weight” of the others because there was no current research attached to it. We both know that research doesn’t ALWAYS mean something is “right”, but at least one source outside yourself — a reference, a brief quote, even an aphorism, proverb or parable — would add an extra feel of authority to what you point out.

  2. Kaizan  •  Aug 17, 2009 @4:07 am

    Great post!

    I never thought of it like this, but you’re so right. Instead of looking at my big pile of papers for filing and thinking “I must get around to sorting this out”, a habit of filing stuff as it arrives would destroy the pile before it got started.

    Very insightful!

  3. Patsy  •  Nov 13, 2009 @10:23 pm

    Thank you for the information The perceived size of a big task and the frustration already built up because it is there prevents us from ever starting. Stopped before we even begin.

    I find a digital kitchen timer set for 20 minutes works to get me started. Then do something else for 20 and then come back for another 20 pretty soon you are actually doing the frustrating task and feel good about it and therefore accomplish something.

  4. Luc  •  Nov 13, 2009 @10:34 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Patsy. The kitchen timer idea seems useful–perhaps as a reminder that only a small part of the task needs to be done to start making progress?

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: