Breaking (it) down?

In this post I want to talk about break downs! Or perhaps more accurately, breaking things down. Whatever we are doing in life, there are time when things start to get busy. We might be juggling lots of different commitments. It might be feeling stressful, triggering some anxiety or just simply overwhelming. It’s when the breakdowns normally happen. But what if we looked at this differently? What if we look at break downs as a sign that we just need to break (it) down?!

When faced with a large task, I usually freeze. My mind starts playing the ‘this is far too much’ or ‘I don’t know where to start’ records. Then I am frozen in fear, and suddenly those chores and cleaning seem super attractive.

This freeze might happen for ten minutes after the realisation of having a lot to achieve. Or it can last for ten days, which is more of an issue in terms of productivity.


In the past I’ve told people that I was feeling anxious or overwhelmed. The response would normally be ‘have you tried breaking it down?’. Ugh, that old chestnut.

It was so frustrating. I’d think – ‘it isn’t that easy’. Even if I break it down – I’ve still got to do it!

But nowadays I am a huge advocate of breaking things down. I just needed to learn how to do it.

If I find myself close to, or mid breakdown, with a little mindfulness and self-care I can pull myself back. From a place of observation I can see that I need to breakdown – everything I need to do!

Through trial and error I’ve now learnt the best ways for me to make tasks feel achievable. Here’s the how to break things down.

What is manageable for you?

We all work in different ways and manageability is very different for all of us.

Take two individuals and their versions of manageable will no doubt differ greatly. But also, take one person and ask them what manageable means and chances are it will differ for them at different times. A late night for example, or a cold, will change what is manageable for them.

Manageability might mean quantity, or quality,  it might mean a different form. A task based approach or a time based approach?

Breaking down big tasks into mini tasks might be helpful, but equally if you know you need to spend two days on something, you might want to break it down into hour or half-hour blocks.

Find what works for you

There are so many ways to break things down, as I’ve alluded to above.

Maybe an app on your phone that can help you track tasks? Or your outlook calendar?

Maybe the pomodoro technique works well for you?

Or perhaps you need to ditch technology altogether. Resort to a trusty old written list or a bullet journal.

It’s important to play around and see what works for you. It doesn’t matter if it seems silly, or it’s unusual, or it’s completely cliché, what matters is that it works for you.

Changing the way you write lists

A list is only as helpful as it is realistic.

In the past I’ve been notoriously bad and writing really unrealistic to do lists. But I’d also put tasks on there that were simply unachievable in one step.

A recent example was getting things booked for a conference. In the past my list would have said ‘sort conference stuff’. But now, oh now, it’s very different. It’s broken down into fine detail – a process that only takes a couple of minutes but makes things so much more manageable.

‘Sort conference stuff’ becomes: book hotel, book travel, register. If that still feels overwhelming, I’ll break it down another level. Book hotel becomes: check conference location, look for hotels nearby, book hotel and print confirmation. Book travel becomes: check nearest train station to hotel, check cheapest option, book cheapest option and print/collect tickets.

This can sometimes create a very long to do list. And it might seem like there is much more to be done. But there isn’t. That’s everything you have to do whether you write ‘sort conference stuff’ or go into more detail.

The difference is, the longer version has smaller, more manageable things to do. Things that you could probably do in a short amount of time. I find that lists like this help me get things done in ‘gaps’, where normally I might think I couldn’t possibly have time to do anything from my list.

The best part of a to do list? Well, it’s tick things off isn’t it?

The best part of a broken down to do list? More things to satisfyingly tick off – without doing any more work than you would have done with the original list!

Visually record progress

Lists are great when you’ve got lots of different tasks. But what if you’ve got a mammoth task ahead of you that is very repetitive and you have no idea how to go about breaking it down? Take marking assignments or transcribing for example!

I had to analyse about 10 hours of audio for one of my PhD studies. I could have written down each audio individually and ticked them off. But they were pretty big tasks in themselves! And it didn’t feel like it would be satisfying or represent my progress. I could spend two hours transcribing and not be able to tick anything off just because it wasn’t finished!

I decided to experiment with something different, harking back to childhood sticker charts!

A page with a grid titled transcribing, breaking it down, some cells are shaded in, representing progress on transcription for each individual interview where
I’ve recently started using a bullet journal to organise my time, my PhD and my life in general.

I made a spread to help me manage the transcribing. In this case I broke down each interview into five minute blocks of audio. I could then shade in one little box every time I completed five minutes of audio.

Not only did this help me to feel like the whole task was more manageable, but it also made me more productive. I was able to squeeze in small slots of transcribing when I’d have normally thought ‘there’s no point in doing any transcribing because I’ll only manage a few minutes’.

But this system was a game changer. I could see how all those short stints of transcribing added up to the whole. Before I knew it transcribing was going smoothly, after dreading it for a week or two when I knew I needed to get it done.

The benefits of breaking it down

Why break things down when you’re having a break down?

For me, the benefits include less procrastination, reduced anxiety about starting a big task, tracking progress, having somewhere to start and learning new things about the way I work.

Most notably, I have to be able to see, track and record my progress. And I’ve also had really good fun discovering that a new system like a bullet journal has the potential to revolutionise the way I approach things!

Why is it important?

I know that for me, one thing that was important to get a handle on, was my pesky mind! Telling me that I should be able to do these big tasks, that I was weak or unintelligent or unskilled in some way because I couldn’t just tackle one big task.

But the truth is, I CAN, I’ve just got to find a new way of doing things. One that works for me, my mind and my body. Especially when I’m managing mental and physical health issues. This type of process helps me to pace myself and work sustainably.

The time taken breaking down my tasks in whatever way suits me at the time, is far shorter than the time it takes for me to have a break down and build myself back up again.

Finally, and importantly, I’ve avoided many an emotional breakdown with this process. Which means I’m in a good place to tackle whatever it is I’m faced with.

Until next time, wishing you many super achievable, manageable, broken down tasks, and few personal break downs! 🙂

Feel free to contact me here, or come join me on instagram or twitter – I’d love to hear from you!

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