It’s a sentiment you’ve probably heard since primary school: break down big tasks into smaller ones, and suddenly completing it won’t seem so difficult.
This simple strategy is likely a deeply ingrained part of your life already – you may be paying off loans, mortgages and even clothes month by month. You’ve had that book next to your bedside table for months, but it’s being read night after night, slowly but surely.
It’s an age-old technique, and there’s a name for it: ‘microproductivity’. Here’s the science behind why it works so well:
1. You can’t remember that much
As with anything else, there are limits on your memory – you can’t remember everything. In fact, a study by University of Missouri’s Nelson Cowan found that our working memory storage capacity – which is the mental space we have for cognitive tasks – can only store three to five “meaningful items” at a time.
“If we rely on our memory, we’ll stop at every step of the task and think, ‘What am I supposed to do next?’” workplace productivity coach Melissa Gratias told Trello. “Those stops are opportunities to get distracted, get off track, or miss a step.”
So because you can’t remember everything you need to do, breaking things up into little tasks will help you identify what it is exactly that you need to do next.
2. You work better when there are specific goals to hit
Say you’re leading the launch of a brand new website for your company. By when? What needs to be done? How will you make this happen? This goal suddenly seems obscure and vague. You’ll need to outline more specific tasks to get there.
According to goal-setting theorists Gary Latham and Edwin Locke, there are five core principles to goal-setting:
Clarity: goals need to be clear and precise. This leaves no room for misunderstanding, and is measurable in its specificity. The ‘how’ of this goal should be outlined.
Challenging: the goals should neither be too easy nor too difficult in order to ward off demotivation. The sweet spot should be difficult, yet realistic and attainable. One way to make goals more challenging is to add a tangible figure – e.g. “convert 50 per cent leads to customers” rather than merely “convert customers”.
Commitment: everyone in the team needs to understand and agree to the overall goals. Team members are also likely to work harder for a goal if they’ve had a hand in setting them.
Feedback: Don’t be surprised if you lose enthusiasm for long-term goals and projects – especially if you realise months into a project that you’re totally off track. The good thing is you won’t need colleagues for feedback; self-criticism works just as well. Check back in with yourself weekly to monitor progress of your goal.
Complexity: Just as goals shouldn’t be too challenging, they shouldn’t be too complex as they can become overwhelming. Providing enough time is crucial to allow team members – who are likely already highly motivated – the space to succeed at overcoming the task.
3. You’re impatient for results
People don’t love to-do lists just to keep them on track: ticking a box off your list will result in a rush of dopamine, the ‘feel-good chemical’ responsible for our desire to seek out reward and associated with addiction and motivation.
Because you like the feeling you get, you’ll want to repeat the process to feel good about yourself again.
“You’re wasting opportunities for an adrenaline rush by making a task too big,” Gratias pointed out.
“We are working with our own desires for reward and feedback by breaking a large task down into its component parts.”
“As humans, we’re not excellent at delayed gratification,” she added. “We like to see progress, and we like to see progress quickly and often.”
The next time you’re hit with a mental block, break it up into bite-sized pieces – or head over to a cafe.
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