Thorsten Zöller

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Making Progress, the Easy Way

2019-11-25

I would like to share an easy way to make — and track — progress with tasks which consist of a large number of repetitive sub-tasks. It may sound rather obvious and most likely not very amazing to you, but I found it to be really helpful.

As an example, let’s assume that I would like to declutter my e-mail inbox. I know that there is a large number of e-mails that are no longer relevant to me (or were never relevant in the first place). The task of deleting them is very simple, but it is nevertheless not a small task, since I may have to go through dozens or even hundreds of e-mails.

Creating a task “delete irrelevant e-mails” on my to-do list is less than perfect: While technically this is precisely the task at hand, it is not very actionable: In order to close it, I would have to delete each and every irrelevant e-mail in my inbox, which I most likely won’t be able to do in a single session.

Instead, I create a task “delete 10 e-mails”. By restricting myself to a definite number of e-mails, I have created a task that is highly actionable: I will just have to carve out a couple of minutes, look for 10 e-mails I consider irrelevant, delete them, and close the task.

Now here is the point: As soon as I have closed the task, I will immediately create a new one with the same content (maybe I will change the number of e-mails to be deleted, since I noticed I can easily manage to delete 20 in a single session; or it took me longer than expected to identify 10 e-mails which can be deleted, and I will therefore decrease the number to 5 for the new task).

Obviously, there is no magic involved here; it is merely a change in perspective. While the task itself has not changed at all, by chopping it into small, actionable sub-tasks I have made it much more approachable. This in turn makes it much more likely that I will work on the task, and in particular that I will continue to work on it until it is completed.

Simple, isn’t it?