Last Updated: January 2023
Where do you start when you have a big project looming? How do you manage your time and energy when the thing you’re building has so many moving parts?
Whether you’re creating an online course or launching a product line, big projects can easily become overwhelming. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that when we’re overwhelmed, we’re not getting things done. Instead, we need to find ways to stay calm and focused on the outcome we’re creating.
I think this topic is best explained with a very specific example, so here’s mine! ⬇️
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be asked to teach an in-person workshop with Make Lemonade, a coworking space in downtown Toronto. I’d originally pitched them on doing my Inbox Zero 101 workshop for their community, but they suggested that I teach a broader topic and suggested the title “Do More In Less Time”. While I was thrilled at the prospect, I was also definitely kind of overwhelmed! There were so many tasks involved with this project, and I was starting from scratch creating the new workshop.
The wonderful team at Make Lemonade provided a basic outline with deadlines for smaller tasks like uploading a profile photo and event description, but there was just one big deadline to submit my finished content, one week before my talk. This meant that it was up to me to figure out how to break down such a big project and get it done on time.
Here are five things I did that helped me break down the project into manageable tasks:
1. Do a Brain Dump
The very first thing I did when I got off the phone with the team was draw myself a bubble bath. I was super excited that I’d confirmed the class, but I also felt overwhelmed and was having a serious bout of Imposter Syndrome. You know that feeling? Happy you committed, but simultaneously panicking that you don’t have it in you? That.
So I grabbed a big notebook and a Sharpie and had a bath. The Sharpie was important because, as Basecamp reminds us, it’s important to ignore details early on. I wanted to be able to simply dump out my thoughts without censoring them, without organizing them, without even imagining the finished product.
This is the kind of step it’s easy to ignore, because we want to get to the shiny stuff. We want to get to the finished workbook, the perfect slide deck, the neat list of published podcast episodes. It’s easy to skip over the messy stuff because we don’t always see how it gets us to our imagined end result. But it does! Scribbling out ideas and filling pages with thoughts & concepts was exactly what I needed in that moment. It reminded me that I had a lot to share, which gave me confidence. And most of all, it also eventually became the (VERY rough) outline for my class!
After I did my brain dump, I closed my notebook and didn’t open it again or try to work on the talk for several days. This is an important step, because it gives your brain time to breathe. The point of a brain dump is to get the good stuff out of your head, not to immediately start working on other parts of the process. Take a beat.
2. Organize Your Thoughts
No matter what kind of project you’re trying to break down, chances are that your brain dump can be split into “piles” of related concepts, tasks, or ideas. For my workshop planning, I used simple index cards to capture those different categories. Working slowly, I went through each of the ideas I’d dumped out in my notebook and grouped them together on the back of an index card. It’s important to note that initially, I didn’t know exactly what each of the over-arching themes were! I could just sort of tell which concepts went together. It wasn’t until after, when I had them all listed, that I could see what themes each group of ideas were pointing to.
If you had been brainstorming tasks rather than ideas, the same steps would still apply! Let’s say your project is to build an e-store and you brain-dumped all the tasks you can think of to get you from Point A to Point B. You’d still organize them into piles and categories would emerge, perhaps headings like “Technical”, “Marketing”, “Design”, and “Content”.
There are two reasons I like using index cards for this part of the process. First, they’re tactile, so I can move them around much easier and re-order them as necessary. Second, they’re not too big! It’s hard to fit more than ten points onto a card. This keeps me focused and succinct, and not over-ambitious in my scope.
3. Find a Structure
My ideal method for organizing projects is visual, specific, and time-based. It’s important that I be able to visualize the project as a whole and map out when tasks need to be done. The specificity means that the system has to allow me to break bigger tasks down into tiny components I call “microtasks”. And I also need to be able to visually understand how much time I’ve got to do something! Dates have a way of sneaking up on me.
The system I was using at the time was Asana, specifically because of their Calendar and Kanban views. I’m now using Notion, but the system is more or less the same! I like being able to see all my assigned tasks for the day in one spot. This also instantly lets me see if I’ve given myself too much to handle on any given day! And the Kanban view allows me to break down different kinds of tasks into categories and tackle them one at a time.
As soon as I got my package from Make Lemonade, I immediately made a new (yellow!) project on Asana and input all of their tasks with their assigned due dates. This way, I’d remember my timelines without having to always check back to the document they’d sent. Then I added a bunch of tasks of my own, to break down the bigger projects like “Submit finished workbook” into smaller, more manageable deadlines for myself. Along the way, I thought of new tasks that I’d need to do, such as “Create a featured section on my website homepage” and “Brainstorm FAQs”, and gave them deadlines too.
You might prefer an analog structure, or maybe you plan your tasks in your Google Calendar! Just make sure you have a way of visualizing all the moving pieces of the project you’re working on.
4. Give Yourself Easy Wins
Guess what? Doing a brain dump is an easy win! So is setting up the structure you’ll use to plan the project. Once you’re done tasks like these, you might think, “Is that it?” “Shouldn’t I do more?” The answer is no.
Easy wins are a very important part of any project break down. They keep you motivated and give you momentum without burning you out. You should almost feel cheated by how easy they were to accomplish!
It’s almost funny how much we’re trained to always make ourselves push through and do more, more, more. It can feel hard to let ourselves stop and say, “I’ve done enough for today.” But as long as you’re keeping track of your deadlines and structuring your time wisely, you can stop after completing a small task. Here are some easy wins I let myself have throughout this process. Note that after doing each of these, I let myself be done work (on this particular project, at least) for that day. That’s how easy they were!
- Create an Asana project and input all the tasks
- Write a crappy first draft of the event description (but do not edit yet!)
- Create the website page that will eventually house the resources (but do not add resources yet)
- Transfer all index card notes into the workbook document in point form (but don’t flesh them out yet)
- Go through document & beautify it (but don’t edit the content yet)
5. Share the Process
Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of sharing your progress publicly as you go. While this may not help you “break down” the project in the traditional sense, it does help you break it down from a psychological perspective. Big projects are daunting! They feel scary and hard, especially when we’re doing them alone. Sharing about the process along the way is a balm for that anxiety and overwhelm. Doing so lets you get feedback from others, whether in the form of encouragement or helpful tips. And it also helps you see the bigger picture! When you look back on what you’ve shared, you can see clearly how much work you’ve done and how far you’ve come.
While I was building my Inbox Zero 101 online course, I frequently shared about my progress on my Instagram stories. I also talked about it in my mastermind group (in person and on Slack) to get their input. For this workshop, I used the same strategies! Posting lots of updates kept me accountable and had the added bonus of creating interest in what I was building.
Break It Down
I hate to break it to you: as much as we can break down big projects, we still have to go through all the steps and complete all the tasks that stand between where we are and where we want to go. This can be daunting, but it’s also somehow reassuring! Big projects are just a series of teeny-tiny tasks strung together. If we have a good process for handling them, it means we can accomplish almost anything we set our minds to. The more you practice this process, the more that no project seems too big or scary to handle. We just need to take it one step at a time.
I’d love to know: How do you personally break down gigantic projects into manageable pieces? How do you set up your own workflows to ensure you get things done? What systems do you use to capture and complete tasks? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @stephpellett.
Once you’ve broken down your project into tasks, you might need a productivity boost to get everything done! Check out my free webinar on ways to up your productivity right here ⬇️