In my How Do I Adult series, I do my best to break down tasks that might seem large and overwhelming into small, bite-sized, easily understood portions that can be taken one step at a time. Knowing how to break down tasks like that is a skill unto itself (I know, because it is a skill I have not always had), and it occurred to me that it could make a How Do I Adult post unto itself.
Disclaimer: I’m not sure how this post is going to go. Trying to explain how to break things into pieces is actually kind of challenging, but I am going to do my best.
I’m going to use a couple of examples to walk through this: cleaning the house (which is generally a huge task for everyone) and raking the leaves (which many people consider an easy task to figure out, but not everyone).
So let’s say you have decided that you need to clean your house. This is a huge, overwhelming task. So you try to break it into smaller parts. Thing is, the task of breaking up the task can also be huge and overwhelming. There is just so much involved! How do you put it into smaller pieces that make sense without missing things?
My answer to that is to start with big chunks, which can each be broken into smaller chunks, which can again be broken into smaller chunks, and you can keep going until each task size is manageable. So for a house, the big chunks might be rooms. Bathroom, bedroom, living room, kitchen, etc. Pick one room, and figure out the best way to go about cleaning it.
Some people go by surfaces – clean a desk or a dresser or a bed, and clean surfaces one at a time. Other people might go by type of task – throw away trash, then get laundry together, then put away clutter, etc. For a bathroom, you might go by bathtub, toilet, sink, etc.
So we’ve broken it down to rooms, and items in the room. The task in front of us is cleaning the shower and tub. This can reasonably be called a single task, which we can break down into individual parts. These can be broken down into bringing together the tools needed, actually doing the cleaning with those tools, and then putting the tools away again. For something like this I may try to think through the process of cleaning and jot down the various tools/cleaners needed so I don’t forget anything only to realize I need it halfway through.
Another aspect of breaking down a task into manageable parts is figuring out how much is actually manageable. A friend of mine, Laura M, has a number of autoimmune disorders as well as an arthritis. Much of her life involves figuring out how to make tasks manageable for her, and she gave me a lot of wonderful information. For her, even a “small” task like raking the leaves can be large and unmanageable.
There is also the question of just how small of pieces you need the task to be broken into. Some people do fine with just “rake the leaves.” Other people will need it broken down a bit more, into gather tools, rake, bag, haul to curb. For yet others, it may need to be broken down even more. For instance, “gather tools” might need to become a number of individual tasks like take any necessary medications, put on appropriate clothing, take out rake and bags (assuming you are bagging your leaves).
For all tasks, from “clean the house” to “rake the yard” you need to decide how much you can reasonably do at a time or in a day and plan accordingly. This is not simply a matter of time, either. It is a matter of your physical or mental capacity, of sensory stimulus, of what how much you can do at a time before getting tired or overwhelmed. Basically, it’s about your spoons. So for my friend Laura, who has a number of physical challenges, she might need to break up the yard into quadrants, and then rake, bag, and haul to the curb one quadrant at a time. She may only be able to do one or two quadrants per day.
If I were going to rake a yard, the primary limiting factor would probably be ambient noise. I am very sensitive to sound and would need to either pick a day when it’s quiet, or if I can’t do that, take frequent quiet breaks to recover from the noise. Or, of course, wear earplugs or listen to music. Earplugs bother my ears, but for some reason ear buds for listening to music are ok.
Another thing to consider is the tools you want to use for breaking down tasks. Personally, I like to go into google docs and make lists. I start writing down what I need to do, and what is necessary to do them. I like to do this digitally because while I am in the process of writing, I tend to remember thing in random fragments or flashes of images. It’s helpful to be able to freely edit my lists and add to them as I think of things. Plus, since I never seem to be able to remember a full list all at once, it’s helpful to have it all written down for reference.
Ultimately, remember that figuring out how to do a task is often a task in and of itself, and it can be very useful to treat it as such. Approach this task thoughtfully, and work through it a piece at a time. Remember: big chunks, then smaller chunks.
How do you figure out how to accomplish big tasks?