Time management – two words that either make your eyes light up or strike fear into your heart. It’s a vital skill to master, and the stakes get raised as the task size increases. Today I’m sharing four steps to keeping your cool and delivering results when a big task lands on your plate.

Before I jump into my tips for handling big tasks, let me get one assumption out of the way. I’m assuming you’ve already got a pretty good handle on managing your time on a day-to-day basis. If that’s something you still find yourself struggling with, you will continue to struggle with tasks both large and small regardless of what you read below.

If you need some help with the day-to-day, daily to-do lists are a good place to start. This Forbes article has excellent tips on how to implement to-do lists in a way that actually works.

How are Big Tasks Different from the Day-to-Day?

It’s a lot harder to stay on track with bigger tasks or projects that you can’t complete in a single day or week. The main reason is because they’re so easy to put off until “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow” has a tendency to never become today; especially when your deadline is weeks or months away.

The thing is, if you want to be effective with your time and in your job, managing those big tasks is crucial. Are you hoping to get a raise or promotion this year? Start kicking butt on those big tasks now.

Stephen Covey (of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame) calls these big important tasks “Quadrant II” tasks, and says they are the foundation of a productive and fulfilling life. Sound good to you? Then let’s get to it.

4 Steps to Knocking Big Tasks out of the Park

At the end of last year, I found myself with a big task of my own that was a bit daunting. The marketing team decided to send some of our clients something personal and meaningful for the holidays – homemade cookies. I volunteered to do all the baking myself, and we calculated that we’d need approximately 40 dozen cookies.

Baking 480 cookies seems like a lot of work in and of itself (and it was), but it was only the tip of the iceberg in this project. These are the steps I followed to get it done:

1. Determine Your Deadline

First things first, figure out what your deadline is. If there isn’t already a deadline in place – say, set by your supervisor or based on external factors like a product launch, holiday, etc. – set one for yourself. If you don’t have a deadline your task will take an eternity to get done, assuming it ever gets done at all.

Our holiday cheer packages had a general deadline – sometime before December 25th. A general idea of when something needs to be done is not a real deadline. Based on when I needed the packages to arrive and how long shipping would take, I set a firm deadline to mail the cookie packages by 12/14.

2. Break the Task Down

The deadline is set. That means you know how much longer you can push this task off for now, right? Wrong. So wrong. The biggest reason deadlines are missed is because the amount of time needed to complete the task was underestimated. The reason you underestimate a task is because you don’t take the necessary time to break the task down.

Any of this sound familiar? “I had no idea it was going to take this long.” “I didn’t think of that before I started.” “It never occurred to me that I would be stuck waiting on A and B before I could start C.”

If you get super granular with your task breakdown, you won’t find yourself muttering those phrases.

This is what my task breakdown looked like for the holiday cookie packages:

  • Hold cookie vote (the Liquid team lent their taste buds to the project)
    • Research and choose cookie recipes
    • Bake test batches
    • Display cookies, create ballot & explanation, tally votes
  • Estimate total gift number
    • Take 1st pass at client list
    • Check against budget
  • Choose cookie packaging
    • Research food safe packaging options
    • Determine components needed
    • Estimate cookie size to determine packaging size
    • Order packaging
    • Design/create additional packaging components
      • Apply Liquid branding (create labels)
      • Explain the cookies are homemade (create labels)
      • Purchase, write and sign greeting cards
  • Finalize mailing list
    • Iterate on first pass, getting required input from others
    • Get mailing addresses, may require input from others
  • Order shipping supplies
    • Research the best way to ship baked goods
    • Research shipping box options based on final package sizes
    • Consider additional packaging needed beyond boxes (tape, bubble wrap, mailing labels, etc.)
    • Order shipping supplies
  • Bake 40 dozen cookies
    • Shop for ingredients
    • Bake more than 40 dozen cookies (assume some will break, burn, get eaten, or otherwise be unusable)
    • Freeze immediately after baking to maintain freshness
    • Keep frozen until just before shipping
  • Package and ship cookies

What becomes apparent when you break down the big task is that completion is dependent on a lot more than the final deliverable. In my cookie example, several components of the project required that another step be completed prior. I couldn’t start baking the cookies until a winning recipe was chosen. If I didn’t decide on cookie packaging and shipping supplies soon enough, they wouldn’t arrive at the office in time to get the cookies shipped out by my deadline.

Seeing all the smaller tasks and how they affect each other naturally leads to step 3.

3. Create a Timeline

Work backwards from your deadline to determine milestone deadlines, making sure to include external factors you can’t fully control. Things like shipping times, internal approvals or needing input from others take control out of your hands – make sure to account for that time.

What you’ve created at this point is a best-case scenario timeline. Life rarely follows the best-case scenario. Assume you will have a few hiccups along the way, and add buffer time so that when that occurs your deadline isn’t affected.

I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to bake all those cookies, so I took my best guess, tripled it and set up a window of time to get it done. The baking took me significantly longer than I expected it would, but it wasn’t a problem, because my timeline still left me plenty of time AND I started on time.

4. Execute

At this point, you’ve got a solid plan. No matter how well you’ve planned, the final results will only be as good as your execution.

You must stick to your plan. Set up reminders to help yourself stick to the timeline and hit key milestones. I’m personally a fan of the Todoist platform. It’s especially helpful when you’ve got several big tasks in progress at once. Something as simple as putting reminders on your calendar works too.

The beauty of your timeline with nicely buffered subtasks is that when something goes wrong, you won’t be stressed out about it. You won’t worry about missing your deadline, because you’ll still have time to get back on track. At least, that’s usually the case.

Sometimes, despite solid planning, something happens to knock you off your game. Maybe you get hit with double pneumonia and are laid up for a week. Maybe there’s a company emergency, or maybe you made one really big mistake that your buffer space just couldn’t cover. Don’t give up. Figure out what you can do to stay on track.

  • Put in extra hours: When my cookie baking was taking longer than I anticipated, I started putting in extra time on nights and weekends to get it done.
  • Ask for help: Instead of running myself a little bit ragged for a couple weeks, I could have also just asked someone else to help me out. Many hands make light work.
  • Adjust scope: If worse comes to worst, figure out how you can modify the final deliverable to hit the deadline and still have a successful outcome. If I couldn’t finish baking all the cookies in time, we could have cut down the mailing list, or opted to hand deliver to the closest recipients eliminating shipping time and buying a few more days to finish baking.

Master these steps and you’ll start getting a reputation as the person who gets things done. Know your deadline, consider all the components involved in the task, create a worst-case scenario timeline, and stick to your plan.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I hit my deadline and those cookies were delicious.

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Laura Pruitt (Alumni)

About Laura Pruitt (Alumni)

Laura Pruitt served as Liquid’s Marketing & PR Manager. She was responsible for planning and executing Liquid’s marketing efforts, leveraging the skills and expertise available within the Liquid team.