Microtasks

July 17th, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

Sometimes we procrastinate on projects because we don’t know where to begin.  A goal like “write a book” might seem straightforward enough when first set, but when it’s time to act, the goal becomes this huge, amorphous blob.  Procrastination soon follows.

A popular suggestion is to define the immediate next action that must be taken, and then focus on that.  Once that’s done the next action after that should become clear.  I’ve had mixed results with this approach.  It helps in some cases, but sometimes it isn’t enough to get things moving.  Even when the next action is simple and achievable, I’ll still sometimes avoid getting started because I know it’s only going to lead straight into that enormous blob of complexity again.

A solution I’ve found more effective is to break a large project down into a lengthy list of “microtasks,” planning it all the way from beginning to end if possible.  A microtask is a very basic action item, so small that you’d be hard pressed to break it down any further without it being ridiculous to do so.  An example of a microtask is to make a 5-minute phone call.  If you have to break it down into dialing the phone number, you’re going too far.

A typical microtask can be completed in less than 30 minutes, ideally in less than 10 minutes.  Again, these are very small, well-defined actions.

You may be thinking that it isn’t always possible to break a large project down into microtasks before you’ve gotten started.  Sometimes, however, another person has already done most of the work for you.  For example, if you want to know how to write a book, you can find books with step-by-step instructions on how to do that.  I wouldn’t say they break it down all the way to the level of microtasks, but they do come close.

There are indeed situations where there’s simply too much uncertainty to plan a project from beginning to end at microtask granularity.  A good example is software development, which often works best with an iterative development process.  In such situations, you can still use microtasks to plan out as far as you can reasonably see.  Then when you reach a certain milestone, update your plan for the next stretch ahead.

Microtask outlines

For many tasks it can be helpful to create a microtask outline showing all the steps you’ll need to complete from start to finish.

Here’s an example 20-step microtask breakdown for the task of writing a new blog article.  The steps are in sequential order:

  1. Define a primary objective for the article (inform, persuade, entertain, or inspire).
  2. Brainstorm topic ideas, or review the list of reader-submitted topic suggestions.
  3. Select a topic.
  4. Do a quick and dirty, free-form writing session to get ideas down without regard to structure.
  5. Decide how to organize the ideas for clarity (chronological, topical, hierarchical, sequential, etc).
  6. Sort the output of #4 based on the desired structure.  Define the main sections and subsections.
  7. Identify supporting material to include (examples, analogies, quotes, statistics, images, stories, etc), and add it to the outline.
  8. Refine the outline from #6 and #7 for completeness and balance.
  9. Expand each section of the outline into paragraphs (and bullet lists if appropriate).
  10. Insert meaningful subheadings into the article.
  11. Write the opening.
  12. Write the closing.
  13. Edit the article for content, clarity, and conciseness.
  14. Spell-check the article.
  15. Brainstorm possible titles for the article (clear, interesting, keyword-rich).
  16. Select a title.
  17. Select blog categories for the article.
  18. Decide when to post the article (now or future-post).
  19. Publish the article.
  20. After the article has been online for several hours, evaluate reader feedback and fix any reported typos.

Notice that every item begins with a verb.  OK, so #20 starts with a preposition, but it gets to the verb soon enough.  The verbs are important because these are physical actions to be taken, not just ideas to ponder.  The more clear and concise your verbs, the better your outline.

To an experienced blogger, the list above may seem excessively anal.  I don’t need such a list myself because after writing about 600 articles, the process is deeply internalized.  However, for a new and inexperienced blogger just starting out, such a list can be very valuable.  It helps you avoid getting stuck.  Most steps are simple enough that they can be completed in minutes.  The two main exceptions are #4, which involves getting your ideas down any way you can, and #9, which is where you expand the outline into paragraphs.  For anyone capable of writing an article, however, these steps are straightforward enough that they shouldn’t induce the desire to procrastinate (but if they do, you can always break them down further).

When I’m kicking off a really big project, I often like to create a microtask outline from start to finish.  Sometimes these lists can be several pages long and may take days to create.  But I usually find the effort worthwhile.  Once the list is complete, it makes the implementation go much more smoothly.  It also makes it possible to create decent estimates of when a project will be done.  I’m really bad at estimating a project’s length until I’ve created a microtask outline for it.

Microtask outlines are especially useful for repeatable projects.  When I was actively publishing downloadable computer games several years ago, I had to go through a similar launch process for each game.  This included testing and fixing bugs, creating the game installers (license agreement, order form, readme file, etc.), preparing the final gold master builds, creating the game sales pages, updating the web site and online database with the new game info, writing and sending out a press release, creating a support FAQ for the game, creating a hints and solutions page (for puzzle games), creating a shipping package for the game (CD, instruction sheet), submitting the game demo to dozens of shareware download sites, soliciting reviews from shareware game reviewers, announcing the game to the newsletter and customer lists, following up on PR inquiries, and so on.  For a simple shareware game, this process normally took several days, even when I had a full-time producer helping me.  It also cost about $2000 for the contractors and services used.  But because I’d created a two-page microtask outline of the whole process, it normally went very smoothly.  I was able to focus on the task at hand and didn’t have to worry about forgetting a key step.

A microtask day – your daily 50

You might find it worthwhile to experiment with planning a whole day in microtask fashion.  If you work about 8 hours a day (hopefully not for an evil bovine master), and your average microtask is 10 minutes, you’ll have a to-do list of about 50 microtasks.  I’ve done this a few times, but in most cases I find that level of granularity to be overkill.  Nevertheless, I encourage you to try this at least one day to see how it works for you.  Be sure to create your daily 50 list the day before you’re going to implement it.  You can use it for just your workday or for your entire day, including personal time.  (Sadly for some of you overworked minions, there isn’t much difference between the two.)

What works best for me is a hybrid approach, blending microtasks with longer tasks on my daily task list.  For example, on today’s to-do list, my morning (9a-noon) has just two tasks:  write this article on microtasks and future-post it for Tuesday (I’m writing this on Monday), and write a second article to future-post for Wednesday.  My afternoon includes mostly microtasks.  Since Erin and I moved recently, I have to update my mailing address with a couple dozen entities, so I have a long list of short phone calls to make.  While I’m doing that, I’ll be multi-tasking.  Whenever I’m on hold, I’ll be filling out various pieces of government and insurance paperwork… in crayon of course.  ;)

Managing complexity

How do I decide whether to break a larger task down into microtasks?  I make this decision based on the task’s perceived complexity.  If the task seems clear enough, and it doesn’t freak me out to put it on my daily list, I’ll add it as-is.  But if it’s new, unfamiliar, or complicated, I’ll break it down into microtasks when I plan my day.  This keeps me from hitting resistance when it’s time for action.  I like my work periods to flow smoothly from one task to the next without having to stop and think so much about what to do next.

Experiment to learn what works best for you.  You may be the kind of person who can put “launch a new web business” on your to-do list and know that you’ll get it done.  I’m not that kind of person.  I hate working in the dark.  I need to see where my actions will lead; otherwise, I’ll hit a snag and end up procrastinating.  A proper plan with the right level of subdivision can be very motivating.  It’s nice to see that if I just follow the steps, I’ll generate the intended result (or at least something close to it).

From intention to action

It’s perfectly fine to set a goal or intention without having a clue as to how it will manifest.  But once you do have a clue, it becomes your job to pull it down into physical form.  You have to meet the cosmos halfway.  If you lack the clarity to take action, then focus on your intentions.  But once those first few steps present themselves, it’s your turn to cooperate with the manifestation process and prove you’re really serious.  Otherwise, those action steps will just keep staring you in the face until you get off your behind and get to work.

A microtask outline is like a recipe.  When you follow a recipe, you’re able to focus on the process of doing without having to worry about how you’re going to do it.  You just need to follow the steps exactly as they’re written.  Similarly, when you create a microtask outline for a project, you separate planning from doing.  This helps the action phase go more smoothly, and it’s easier to slide into a productive flow.  You know that if you follow your outline, you’re going to get a result.  It may not be perfect, but it will get done.



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