How to Break Down Projects Into Tasks

5 Steps for Adults with ADHD (Plus Bonus Hacks)

Published on
September 7, 2023

If you’re an adult coping with ADHD, you may have a love/hate relationship with to-do lists.

Sure, they can be helpful for keeping track of tasks —

…if you can keep track of your list

…if you remember to actually use it

…if you don’t look at it and become instantly overwhelmed with shame about all of those tasks you’ve been avoiding, and avoid them even more because of that shame

…if you know the right way to create and manage an ADHD to-do list

(Wait - there’s a ‘right’ way to create an effective to-do list for adult ADHD?? Why, yes! You can learn more about it here.)

Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to creating - and actually using - an effective task list is breaking down the tasks. You’ll see it on just about any article on ADHD time management, productivity, procrastination, overwhelm - “break down the task into smaller, more manageable steps.” But no one ever seems to talk about how to break down a task; and it’s not always obvious.

So, whether you’re not sure how to break down tasks effectively, or didn’t know you needed to do so in the first place, this blog is for you.

Why Do I Need to Break Down Tasks?

If you’re already on board with the whole ‘breaking down tasks’ thing, you can skip ahead. Otherwise, here’s why breaking down tasks is so helpful for adults with ADHD:

  • Looking at a complex task or project - for example, “revamp website” - can be overwhelming because it ‘feels’ like it will take a lot of time, a lot of effort, etc.
  • Research shows that how we feel about a task has a HUGE impact on motivation; when we feel a task is difficult, stressful, overwhelming, etc, motivation takes a huge nosedive
  • Breaking a task down into smaller steps can help with:
  • knowing how/where to start
  • estimating how long a complex project will actually take
  • having a clearer picture of what ‘complete’ looks like
  • providing more frequent bursts of dopamine (the reward and motivation chemical) when you complete the smaller tasks
  • Reducing information overload, working memory usage, and processing bottlenecks
  • Tracking progress, so you don’t feel completely lost every time you need to pause and work on something else

In fact, motivational speaker and productivity coach Melissa Gratias, PhD, says “Breaking tasks down helps us to see large tasks as more approachable and doable, and reduces our propensity to procrastinate or defer tasks, because we simply don’t know where to begin.”

Brains have limits; we can’t hold an infinite amount of information in our heads AND process that information at the same time. So when a task or project requires several different steps, and we don’t break that down, we’re essentially giving our brains an impossible job - and it shuts down in response, leading to procrastination, overwhelm, stress, and brain fog.

TLDR: Breaking down long, complex, or overwhelming tasks is one of the best coping skills for adults with ADHD because it helps reduce overwhelm, improve motivation, and improve productivity.

How Do I Break Down Large Projects and Tasks?

So, now that you know all the benefits of breaking down projects, how do you actually do it? Let’s review how to break down tasks ADHD - style. Use this downloadable template to follow along!

Step 1: Define the Task

Before you break it down, it’s important to understand the big picture. Make sure you can answer the following questions:

  • What type of task is it? A household project, a report, data entry…?
  • When is the project due? Or, if there’s no defined due date - when do I want to have this completed by?
  • Who else is involved? For example, are there other team members or family members who will need to help? Is there someone who needs to review it? A client or supervisor you’re turning this in to?
  • What is the end goal, or the ‘why’ behind it? Who is the project helping?
  • What resources will I need to complete the task? (Consider time, materials, information, programs/apps, coping skills, strategies, energy, money, skills, etc)

Step Two: Identify Milestones

This may not be applicable every time, but if a project is particularly large, it may be helpful to identify some milestones along the way. For example, if a project is going to span a great length of time, you might create weekly or monthly milestones. Or, if the project is very complex, you might break it into phases (i.e. planning, producing, revising), categories (i.e. party invites, food, entertainment), or parts (i.e. clean living room, bedroom, kitchen)

Step Three: Task Splitting

Here’s where we identify smaller “sub-tasks” that make up the project. For example, if you had an assembly line for this project, what would need to be done at each station?

  • Start with Dessert. This is the main project, the overall goal you’re working toward. For example, your Dessert might be “doing the dishes,” or “writing a quarterly report.” If you used step two above and created milestones, then you’ll have multiple desserts; each milestone will be its own dessert.
  • List the Ingredients. The ingredients are smaller, self-contained, bite-sized pieces that go into the project. For example, if your Dessert is “write a blog on breaking down tasks,” your ingredients might be conducting research, writing an outline, writing an introduction…etc
  • Turn the Ingredients into Tasty Tasks. Amazing Marvin describes these as tasks you immediately want to do when you look at them. Tasty Tasks are:
  • Short - something that takes an hour or less to complete.
  • Clear and specific - you look at it and have zero questions about how to do it, what you need in order to do it, where to begin, etc.
  • Actionable - each Tasty Task should begin with a verb, an action word, and should be as specific as possible.

Step Four: Identify Barriers

This may be the most important step for adults with ADHD. It’s very easy to skip, but identifying and addressing barriers now will go a long way toward setting yourself up for success. The kinds of barriers you’re likely to face are going to vary both from project to project, and from person to person, since ADHD shows up differently for everyone. Some of the most common to check for are:

  • Physical & Environmental Barriers—Needing to retrieve materials from several different places (also an organizational barrier); needing to carry many things, or heavy things; getting sick; sensory sensitivities
  • Logistical/Organizational Barriers—tasks that are unclear; not having the tools and materials needed to complete the task; outside dependencies
  • Emotional Barriers—maybe this is depression, anxiety, or burnout; maybe it’s stress from things unrelated to the task, and it’s difficult to take your mind off them; maybe it’s a memory of past failure

Once you identify those barriers, you can add in steps to address them. For example, gathering all the tools/materials you’ll need before you begin working, reaching out to schedule necessary meetings now, so that you don’t forget later (and have some bonus accountability), or setting up reminders to turn on some motivational music, take breaks, etc., when things get hard.

Step Five: Get to Work!

Now that you have a plan, you’ve identified milestones, created bite-sized tasks, identified and addressed barriers…you’re ready to roll!

How Do I Make Breaking Down Tasks Easier?

So glad you asked. When you’re already feeling overwhelmed by a project or task, taking the time to think about and do all of the above is (if you’re anything like me, at least) pretty unlikely. So, how to make all of that easier?

Technology is your friend, here. There are a ton of great apps out there that can help make breaking down tasks easier for folks with adult ADHD. Here are a couple to try:

Shimmer: ADHD Coaching

An ADHD life coach or executive function coach can make ADHD management a heck of a lot easier.

According to CHADD, ADHD coaching is “a practical intervention that specifically targets the core impairments of ADHD such as planning, time management, goal setting, organization and problem solving.” That means learning the coping skills for ADHD and how to consistently use them - for example, helping you learn how to break down big projects in a way that works for your brain (among other things).

Llama Life: Task Manager

There are task managers aplenty these days - so many, in fact, that finding one that works well for ADHD management is an overwhelming task all on its own! One that’s worth a try, though, is Llama Life. Their app is more than just a glorified to-do list; Llama Life is designed to help you work through a list by transforming your dreaded tasks into manageable, bite-sized chunks of productivity.

My favorite things about Llama Life:

  • Helps you maintain focus and attention on your tasks; not just managing your time
  • Their suite of in-app tools and features helps reduce the number of tabs you have open
  • Integrates with other productivity tools, like Todoist and Notion
  • Customization options are super fun to play with, which makes me more likely to keep using the app (rather than finding it six months from now in my ever-growing unused app graveyard)
  • Templates! You want ‘em, they’ve got ‘em - and you can even create your own

Breaking Down Tasks With ADHD

Managing adult ADHD doesn’t have to be hard. The adult ADHD coaches at Shimmer can help you identify ways to make your life easier and less overwhelming. You’ll learn not only learn new tools, strategies, and skills; you’ll identify barriers to using those skills and strategies, and find ways to overcome them.

Let’s tackle your ADHD, together.

Live better, with ADHD
Shimmer is the #1 coaching platform for adults with ADHD. Build a life you love through personalized 1:1 video coaching, handcrafted productivity tools, and science-backed learning modules.