Micro tasks: We know it works, but what size is just right?

I had just finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, and was really excited about becoming 1% better every day through the power of small wins.

Armed with my motivational psychology theories, I grab the biggest, baddest task I’ve been procrastinating. In the words of musical geniuses OutKast: “We gon’ break this thing down in just a few seconds!!!”

An hour later, I’ve broken the mean mammoth down into hundreds of 2-minute intervals.

Now though, I’m staring at a mammoth-sized to-do list.

My heart sinks.

This new mammoth checklist is starting to feel just as overwhelming.

Why micro tasks can feel overwhelming.

Our brains are limited.

Our working memories, the one that deals with and executes immediate tasks, have an average holding range of between 5 to 7 units. Let’s call this the hold capacity.

Even if each unit is small, going beyond the hold capacity becomes too much for our brains to contemplate dealing with. It’s like a cup overflowing; there’s simply no space to hold everything and you start drowning.

There’s an easy way to find out your hold capacity:

How many can numbers can you memorize from the following string?

There’s a rule: read each number individually ie 9 = nine.

Read it out loud in full, look away (no cheating!) and see how many you can recite from memory.

Ready?

Go!:

91647606123211

There’s a trick to increase this capacity.

It’s the number of units that matters, not so much the size of each unit.

Instead of reading each number as singles, read them as doubles, ie 20 = twenty instead of two – zero.

Repeat the numbers exercise with this change.

Read it out loud in full, look away (no cheating!) and see how many you can recite from memory.

Ready?

Go!:

2929829874893665

Start small, then keep on winning.

Now that you know your hold capacity and the trick of flexing the size of tasks, it’s time to use this to your advantage.

First, the number of items on your to-do list should be no more than your hold capacity.

Second, since motivation kicks in after getting started, the task list should launch with the easiest win possible.

This launch task should be no more than 2 minutes. It should be almost effortless to do.

  • Working out: change into active wear.
  • Meditating: opening up your meditation app.
  • Journaling: one line about your day.

Once you have a small win, check that task off. The brain rewards you with a hit of dopamine, and motivation starts to pick up. The second thing on the task list should be a slightly bigger unit, get that second hit of dopamine, and so on until you are conquering that whole task list of 7 units.

Scaling this even further.

The concept of the flexible size of mental ‘units’ can be applied in increasing scale, like a Russian doll.

Let’s say my holding capacity is 6.

I could apply it as such:

One task broken into 6 micro tasks. One routine broken into 6 tasks. One day broken into 6 routines.

There are natural limits of course. Asides from the obvious one of time, energy levels is another.

Sequencing matters. Within a day and even within a task, you’ll want to balance draining and recharging activities.

Before attempting to scale from a task to a day (and beyond), you’ll also want to start slow and easy.

Learning what works for you is an iterative process, and you’re bound to learn a surprising thing or two along the way especially in the early days.

Don’t break a mammoth down just to have another mammoth system to deal with when you realize you need to make a change.

Start with just one hour.

Maybe design your fitness routine first and see what size of unit and sequence works best.

Then move on to your work routine, morning routine, evening routine…

When is a task too big?

Attention spans for focused work ranges from anything between 20 minutes to several hours.

That’s not very helpful, I know.

For me personally, I work best with tasks that range from 3 to 15 minutes, and can work comfortably up to 90 minutes before needing to switch gears.

Since what works is as unique to the individual as thumbprints, you’re going to have to rely on self-knowledge here through feedback and iterations.

Here are a couple of questions to keep asking:

  • When are you at your best?
  • Are you a night owl or morning person?
  • When and how often are you likely to be uninterrupted?

Adjust the size of your tasks to bring out your best, but also be realistic.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for example would do his writing from 11pm to 2 am. Whether or not he was actually a night owl, that was mandated by his day job.

Or perhaps you’re a parent of young children. You’re much more likely to have an unpredictable schedule that follows the timing of their needs.

The unit size might then be a maximum of 15 minutes, but you can have many of these throughout the day.

The beauty of breaking down tasks into smaller units is that each is specific and stand-alone, so even if if you’re interrupted by life, you know clearly how to pick up again after.

Here’s a challenge for you today:

Take something you’re procrastinating on and break it down until you’ve identified what the hardest hour is.

For that hour, divide it into 6 boxes (or your holding capacity from the test above).

In the first box: design the easiest possible 2-minute launch task. In the next box, design a slightly longer and more challenging task. For a start, don’t go beyond 15 minutes per box. Keep going until all boxes are filled.

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