Making Hard Work More Approachable

how breaking down work into smaller pieces can unlock progress

Do you want to increase your contribution at work? Do you want to have more impact? My work is important to me. I want to help people to have more happiness and fulfillment at work, at home, and everywhere in between. Over the years, I've learned and tried many techniques for having more impact. And there are a few practices that have stood out as being most helpful.

Breaking Down Batches

Many of the practices I routinely use in my life are things I first learned at work - working in teams and using agile practices. One of the most impactful practices I've found is breaking down work into smaller batches. Breaking down batch size is about taking something big - an outcome, a project, a problem, etc, and breaking it down into smaller more approachable increments. These smaller increments are often more approachable and thus are more likely to get completed. And often, completing one increment can provide the motivation to work on the next increment, resulting in a fortuitous cycle of making progress on hard but impactful work.

An Example

As an example, I recently added a new feature to Onward.ly to support adding photos to journal posts. I frequently journal about my work to observe what's happening, what’s working, what’s not working, reflecting on it to identify better options and make better decisions. My journal is an invaluable partner for my work, helping me to have more impact and more fulfillment. As a journaler, I find that being able to express oneself through a variety of mediums can be helpful. Sometimes words are great, but sometimes a photo, a drawing, a video, etc are more useful in a given situation. They’re all different forms of expression and together they can tell a more complex story.

Supporting all of these different types of rich media can be complex and a lot of work. It could easily be many weeks' worth of design, development, testing, and marketing. But the big things and the hard things are often the most valuable things. Based on my experience and learning from other people, adding rich media support seemed like something that would be very valuable.

This is a great example of an opportunity to break down batch size, which is what I did. First, I broke down adding support for rich media into separate increments - adding an existing photo, taking and add a new photo, adding multiple photos, etc. I decided to focus on adding a single existing photo first. I then broke down that increment into tasks - selecting a photo, displaying the selected photo, uploading the selected photo to cloud storage, changing the selected photo, caching the photo if the app is offline, deleting the selected photo, etc. In this example, tasks are really just smaller increments. These increments are valuable in terms of making progress but aren't really valuable by themselves to Onward.ly's users. In any case, all of these tasks were starting to become a lot and feeling overwhelming. Could I split up the batch size into even smaller increments?

I thought about it, breaking down the increment of adding a single existing photo into adding a single existing photo but splitting off the ability to change or delete the photo. I assumed users could delete the post as a workaround - at least for a while. I also split off the ability to cache photos, knowing Onward.ly's users normally have a network connection. I have a backlog of ideas for Onward.ly which is where I add things I split off. It’s a helpful tool to not forget ideas while also not having to focus on those ideas in the present moment.

And then I got down to work, working on each task one by one - adding the ability to select a photo, display the selected photo, upload the selected photo to cloud storage. 4 hours later I was done with the increment. It felt good. It felt like an accomplishment. It felt motivated. Using that burst of motivation, I started another increment - supporting caching. 2 hours later I was done. More accomplishment and fulfillment. Then I moved on to supporting changing or removing the selected photo. Momentum begets momentum. It's addictive, loops of fulfillment and motivation which energize me to be able to make progress on hard work.

Now what I didn't tell you was that I had avoided adding this feature for about a month because it seemed really big and challenging. Breaking it down into smaller more approachable batches is what helped me to actually starting working on it. And once I started working on it, I got the motivation I needed to keep going. I think this batch will provide a good increment of value to Onward.ly's users and also leave space for me to learn with them to help inform what's next. It’s also super motivating to me to know someone wants something that would be helpful to them. It’s another strong form of motivation for me.

Why It Works

I find it can often be helpful to abstract a practice into its component parts to better understand why it works and help apply it to your situation. So what was the magic of breaking down batch size?

More Clarity

By breaking down a big batch into smaller increments, the work involved becomes clearer. You can see the potential increments and how to split them into smaller pieces. These can be splitting an increment into multiple increments or splitting an increment into multiple tasks. These increments and tasks represent clarity and options.

More Options

By breaking down a big batch into smaller increments, you can then make further decisions to remove increments, remove tasks, etc. You have options you didn’t have before. Big batches have one option - yes or no. Breaking down big batches into smaller increments and tasks provides more options - yes to this, no to that, maybe later to this. You can also combine these smaller increments into different options and different strategies.

More Motivation

Breaking down batches can make work more approachable. And making work more approachable and thus more likely to get started can start the fortuitous cycle of small wins - working on a task, accomplishing it, feeling fulfillment which when turns into motivation for the next task. There's still a cold start problem in starting the work in the first place. I've learned through experience to just push through it with some grit. I find that if I commit to starting a task, that's normally enough to get me to the point of experiencing some accomplishment and thus starting the fortuitous cycle. This is also known as a positive feedback loop in a system, where the action of one part of the system has a positive effect on another part of the system.

More Impact

Smaller batches mean that you have more opportunities to revisit your work to refine it or try different approaches. In the example of adding an existing photo to a journal post, Onward.ly’s users will likely have feedback to make it better. I can learn and get feedback before I work on the next increment - maybe adding a drawing for example. I enjoy collaborating and co-creating with users, thus, I just want to put enough out there to have something to collaborate on to co-creating impact together.

Try It

What's something that's a big batch in your life that's hard and isn't approachable? How could you break it down into smaller increments that are still valuable? Pick something and give it a try.