Why Small Tasks Are The Most Important On Your To-Do List

February 13, 2014

Every year, rather than set New Year’s resolutions, Chris Brogan chooses three words. Those three simple words serve as a guiding force for his year ahead.

Although this isn’t something I do myself, I know others who do and they all fall into a category I would label Generally Successful People. I don’t think that’s by coincidence, either.

While resolutions are often big and grandiose, three simple words are decidedly small and focused, yet generally broad enough to be achievable in a number of ways.

Want to lose 15 pounds this year? Step on a scale Dec. 31, 2014, and see how you did. You either lost 15 pounds (or more) and succeeded or you did not and failed.

But pick a word like “untangle,” “seek” or “ask” as Brogan has in the past and you really can’t fail. Not in a way that is measurable, at least.

What I’m getting at here is small wins. When you arrive at work in the morning and write your to-do list, odds are the big priority gets scribbled first while smaller tasks may not be written down at all. That’s a mistake.

As author Charles Duhigg explains in “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, performing relatively minor (if not inconsequential tasks) first allows us to take on bigger priorities with greater vigor and determination. It’s all about experiencing the “habit loop,” which is defined by three simple phases:

habit_loop

 

For example, perhaps you work in PR and one item on your agenda is writing a Facebook post for a client. So you put it on your to-do list. You know it is one among many things that needs to be done, so that’s your Cue. So, you write the Facebook post and it takes all of five minutes because you have written thousands before. This is the Routine — the moment of action. When the routine is completed, you reach the Reward. In this case, you get to cross an item off your to-do list, which leaves you feeling like you have less work to complete.

duhigghabitDuhigg explains that habits are formed the more we experience the full habit loop, and starting small leads us to much bigger accomplishments:

“Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. ‘Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,’ one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. ‘Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.’ Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”

It’s time we start thinking of goals and achievements in simpler terms.

Here’s another example: Last year, I decided I wanted to run a marathon, though I had never run more than 5K. Finishing a marathon would be a huge personal achievement, but I couldn’t just start on race day. I had to start small. Each day I went for a run, training was the Cue. If I didn’t train, I knew I wouldn’t eventually work up the endurance to finish a marathon. So I started with shorter runs — 1 mile, 1.5 miles, 2 miles. This was the Routine. When I finished, the Reward was an endorphin rush and knowing I was a little closer to achieving my goal.

Cue-Routine-Reward-Running_thumb

Whether you are training for a marathon or just trying to keep up with your workload, start small. Small wins snowball and give us the momentum we need to achieve those back-breaking, 26.2-mile tasks.