One Step at a Time

Looking at your to-do list, do you see an endless list of tasks, or are they really projects? If your answer is, “huh?”, you are not alone. Often, my clients will have lengthy “to-do” lists that contain such big items as, “Do taxes.” Or “Find summer camp for kids.” What these folks haven’t realized is that their lists contain things that are projects, and not tasks. A task is something that can be accomplished in one single step. A project is something that requires multiple, single-step tasks. “Do taxes” is definitely one of those multi-task projects. Consider what it takes to do your income taxes, whether you do them yourself or hand them over to an accountant.

You must:

  1. Collect your receipts and other documentation, such as your W-2 and 1099 forms.
  2. Categorize your receipts into the appropriate deductible categories.
  3. Tally up the receipts in each category.
  4. Fill out any forms for your accountant or download the appropriate software or forms, such as Turbo Tax.
  5. Fill out the tax return (if you do them yourself.)
  6. Send all information to your accountant (if you have them done by someone else.)
  7. Sign your return.
  8. Write a check, if necessary.
  9. Package it all up and mail the return.

This is just one example of a multi-task project that ends up as what looks like one task on many to-do lists. Realizing what items on your list require more than one step to accomplish will go a long way towards making that list more manageable. Breaking big projects down into single step tasks gives you a more realistic grasp of how much time it will take to get everything done. It also makes your project seem much less daunting. While “do your taxes” may seem like a huge undertaking requiring hours of work, tackling one step at a time, such as setting aside an hour to collect all of your receipts in one place, is much less intimidating.

Taking a few minutes to actually sit down and list all of the steps your project will take will save you time and angst later on. The first step is to do a giant “brain dump” – get every single step out of your head and into writing. There are many ways to do this, such as:

  • Writing each task on a separate index card, then sorting the cards into the order in which the steps should happen.
  • Writing each task on a post-it note, and arranging them in order on a whiteboard.
  • Making a list on your computer in a simple Word document and cutting and pasting them into the proper order.
  • Using a mind map – either with paper and pen or with mind-mapping software.

Once you have all the individual steps out of your head and clarified on paper or digitally, assign each task a time in your calendar. Set a realistic “time boundary” around each task, and give those more brain-taxing tasks prime time if they need it. Giving tasks a real-time place to live in your schedule will make it more likely that they will get done. It also gives you a much better idea of how long it will take to complete your project. And you will also have the satisfaction of checking each step off your list as you accomplish it!

Knowing that you’ve got every step out of your head and in a time and place where they can be done will help you knock those big projects off your list, get them off your shoulders, and into your rear-view mirror!

“The man who moves a mountain begins
by carrying away small stones.”

(Chinese proverb)

Lisa Griffith

About The Author

Lisa Griffith is a speaker and consultant who provides services, both on-site and virtually, to help busy professionals organize their offices, systems and calendars. In addition to business and home office organizing, productivity and time management coaching, she provides workshops & seminars for business and community groups.