by Susan Caplan McCarthy
When you look at your to-do list, do you see things like, “organize the garage,” “plan vacation,” “clean office,” and other items that take up a mere line on your list but can take hours (or days) to complete?
If you find that you can never motivate yourself to start these projects (because you know they’re much more involved than that single line item suggests), let me help you break that project into manageable actions.
Sorting Tasks from Projects
Let’s think of a chore or a task as something that can be completed without a break. Yes, I know that you think that you can work three-hours straight, without a break; but, realistically, consider that you can be productively focused for 20-to-30-minutes.
You’ve got yourself a project if you need to do several types of activities to complete something, or it involves several locations (and by location, I mean boxes, shelves, drawers, wall, section of the floor, etc.), and it is going to take you more than 30-minutes to complete.
If it’s a project, you want to break it down into smaller tasks, turtle steps if you will. This doesn’t mean that you still can’t work for three-or-four-hours; however, you’ll be giving yourself mini-goals along the way so that you can check in with yourself and know you are accomplishing what you want.
Break Down an Organizing Project into Tasks
Many of the objects we use to store or display our stuff can be divided into areas such as individual shelves, drawers, bins, surfaces, etc. that naturally suggest manageable projects. Don’t have a lot of stuff on that shelf? Bonus! You’ll finish fast and feel a sense of accomplishment.
You can track tasks by making a physical list or keeping a mental checklist.
For example, the dresser in my bedroom has six drawers. I’d list each drawer as a separate decluttering task. The top of the dresser is another task. The jewelry box sitting on the dresser is another task. If I stored stuff under the dresser, I’d make that its own task. I might even decide to list cleaning the mirror attached to the dresser as a tenth task.
As a list, that one item in my bedroom looks like this:
Why Task Thinking Can Help You Get More Done
I know, I know, you might be thinking, hey, hold on there, you just made more work! Nope. We’re still talking about the same dresser. However, if it’s 9 p.m. and you were hoping to squeeze in some decluttering and organizing, if you think, “I want to go through my dresser,” you’ll look at the clock and realize you don’t want to be up until midnight and so you might walk away from this project, leaving it for another day. However, if you go up to the dresser with a task mindset – clean that drawer, you’ll realize that you have the time to get it done.
If you are thinking, “big deal, one drawer;” remember, if you looked at the entire dresser as your to-do and you walked away because it was too overwhelming, you got nothing done.
Attics, garages, basements, and sheds can be trickier. If there are shelves, treat each shelf as a task as opposed to thinking of the entire shelving unite (of course, how much stuff is on the shelves can also make a difference).
Since boxes and bins can contain a lot of smaller components, judge each box as a separate task. If it takes 10 minutes to sort, fantastic! Move onto the next box.
When you finish a shelf or drawer, you’ve completed a task that’s part of a larger project. After each task, you could take a bathroom or water break or snap a photo and post it online. Depending on how much time you have, you could move on to another task. You could do a series of tasks in your allotted time.
Give Yourself a Time Limit
Set the timer on your smartphone or watch for 20 or 30 minutes (or, compromise at 25). If the timer goes off and you aren’t finished with the task, examine why. Did you finish one task and segue into another task? Was the task too large and involved? Did you get distracted and start micro-focusing on something?
For example, you found a packet of photographs and started looking through them instead of emptying and sorting the contents of a drawer. If you find something that will become its own task, set it aside for your next block of time.
By setting the timer, if you’ve gotten off track, within a few minutes the timer will go off and act as a reminder for what you intended to be doing.
When to Break Projects into Tasks
A Year of Decluttering is the free, year-long program I’m offering in 2018. Daily emails give you a focused task to work on for 15-minutes a day. It’s not too late to jump in and start decluttering.
I help people focus on what's important to them by guiding them through clearing clutter and distractions from their lives. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; courses; speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.