A new project, a long report, a goal for the future: these are all daunting prospects at the start. How on earth do you sit down to start that 10,000 word report? Or where do you begin in your end-of-year goal to change a long-standing management practice? The key is breaking it down into manageable chunks.

We all like to be rewarded for our efforts. In fact being rewarded for effort is the basis of all learning, from being potty trained as a child to getting a promotion in work. As children when we learn a new skill or complete a chore we are usually rewarded for it. Unfortunately in adulthood the frequency of these rewards is reduced meaning we have to motivate ourselves to complete long or arduous tasks for a future, sometimes unforeseeable, reward. This is why we need to break down tasks into smaller parts.

Take out a sheet of paper and write your big goal at the top. Then write down the steps you need to achieve that goal. Try to keep the steps small enough that they don’t seem daunting when you look at them individually. For example, the first step in changing a long-standing management practice may be ‘Read current protocol’; the second step may be ‘Arrange meeting with HR to discuss strengths and limitations of current protocol’ and so on. Now comes the fun part. Write down what rewards you will give yourself for completing each of these tasks but make the types of rewards different. For example, you might have rewards in the categories of social (engaging with friends or colleagues), consumption (a sweet treat or a hot drink), activity (a walk, an exercise class, listening to a podcast) and any others that you think of. Write down what reward you will give yourself for each task that you complete. Here’s a tip though: the key is to mix up the categories of rewards so you are aiming for a different one each time. A recent study found that people were more motivated to work on a project when they knew they would receive different types of rewards for every task they completed [1].

We’re simple beings at the end of the day. That 10,000 word report as a fully-fledged adult isn’t really much more difficult than being potty trained was for your younger self. Break big tasks down into management chunks and reward yourself for each part. Soon you’ll find yourself with a completed project saying ‘well that wasn’t so hard now, was it?’

  1. Wiltermuth, S.S. and F. Gino, “I’ll have one of each”: How separating rewards into (meaningless) categories increases motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2013. 104(1): p. 1-13.

Originally published at thepip.com