Breaking It Down

Ever had one of those tasks that just seems to sit endlessly on your to-do list? Every day you see it, waiting there, just screaming for some progress. But the end of the day comes, and there it still sits, without any update or progress to report. What is it about these kinds of tasks that makes them so unpleasant to start that they remain in perpetual limbo?

Well, among other things, according to the folks at PsyBlog this can be caused by our tendency to think at too abstract a level. Citing a study by Piers Steel at the University of Calgary, the referenced post does a great job of explaining the difference between abstract and concrete thinking. While I’m not going to go into detail about the study or its results (if you’re a former psychology nerd such as myself, you’re welcome to read it on your own), the basic finding was that by forcing people to think in a constructive, concrete manner, they were able to cut the average time to complete a seemingly meaningless task nearly in half (20.5 days down to 12.5 days on average). That’s an impressive result to anyone.

I found this to be true in my own experience, but was never quite able to verbalize it. I’d find that there were certain things on my list which would simply sit, incessantly staring back at me day after day. Whenever I tried to start working on them, I instantly lost motivation and inevitably moved on to something else. It was not until after I read this post that the light bulb finally went on: I wasn’t being concrete enough in my definition of the task at hand.

Here’s a good example: I might have a task called “Update documentation for product X.” Well, at first glance, you might call that a fairly specific item. But thinking further, I might begin to wonder “What exactly do I need to update about the documentation?” This invariably led to an even more detailed analysis, fostering questions such as “What screenshots do I need?” or “How can I prove out that my updates are correct?”

What I began to discover was that “fairly specific” task was in fact an entire project! All this time, my resistance had been due to what a project manager might diagnose as a failure to break work into small enough chunks to be easily tracked and defined. Once the task was broken down into chunks taking no more than a half hour or so, it suddenly became far easier to begin working on the item at hand.