Three Ways to Break Down a Project into Manageable Tasks

John Reeve | September 22nd, 2014 | , ,

Three ways to break down projects into manageable tasks

You’ve shaken hands with the client, filed away the signed contract, and deposited your first payment. Now what? Before your team can dive into a project, the project manager must break down the scope of work into smaller, manageable tasks.

This first step can seem daunting at first. Especially on larger projects. But once you find a methodology that works for you, the process becomes more intuitive. Having performed a few hundred trainings and webinars for our task management software, Intervals, I’ve discussed several different methodologies with our customers. In this post, I’ve written about the three most popular methods for breaking down a project into manageable tasks.

One task per job

Many project managers choose to break down the project very little, if at all. Instead of managing a job with multiple small tasks, they tackle it with one overarching task. This methodology works well for smaller projects with fewer details, because there is less information to track.

For example, a creative agency working on a business card redesign may opt to track the entire job on one task. All of the meeting notes, thumbnail sketches, and design comps would be in one place. The task itself contains a chronology of task updates along with an accounting of billing time.

This approach works in this scenario because there is no added benefit to managing the project with more granular tasks. And you can find out at-a-glance how much billable time was spent, without having to run a report. However, this approach can slow you down if the amount of information becomes too much for one task.

One task per deliverable

Creating a task for each deliverable is one of the most straightforward methodologies, and by far the most popular. The idea is to break down the project into tasks that correlate to client deliverables. This way, each task can be closed out as it’s deliverable is completed. And as the project progresses, the task list gets smaller.

A good example for this type of project is a web site design project. Each step along the way is comprised of different deliverables to be reviewed by the design team and the client. There might have one task for wireframes, one for copywriting, one for a first round of design comps, and so on.

Breaking down projects in this way has several benefits. We can easily gauge where the project is at based on what tasks have been completed. Task due dates inform us if the project is falling behind schedule or pulling ahead. And, we can easily delegate tasks across our design team with clear and concise communication as to who should be working on what.

One task per day, week, or month

Projects that are repetitive in nature, like retainer agreements, work well when broken down into tasks representative of date ranges. The tasks don’t correlate with any specific deliverable. Rather, they detail the nature of the work to be completed in that time-frame.

For example, an agency that does SEO work may sign a retainer agreement to monitor keywords and generate content for a client’s web site. They would create a task for a writing weekly blog posts, then use that task to keep track of details, progress, and time spent. Some agencies will use one new task each week, while others might use one task for all weeks in a given month or year. I’ve seen agencies use both approaches effectively.

This approach works well for tasks that have a given shelf life, regardless of whether or not the work is considered complete. When coupled with time tracking software we can gain highly useful metrics on retainer projects. For example, the data can help us quickly calculate how much time was spent on weekly blog posts so we can determine if the retainer is profitable or not. Just one of the many useful outcomes of breaking down a project into time-framed tasks.

Which methodology is right for you?

If you are looking for a better way to manage your projects and tasks, try one of the methods above when breaking down projects into tasks. The method you choose will depend entirely on your projects and preferred style of workflow. These three methods are the most common for good reason — they work well for a majority of agencies. And they each pair nicely with our task management software, Intervals. If you don’t already have an account, create a free and fully functional 30 day trial to try it out.

Photo credit: David Lofink

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John Reeve
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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Jennifer Payne
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Jennifer Payne

Jennifer is the Director of Quality and Efficiency at Pelago. Her blog posts are based largely on her experience working with teams to improve harmony and productivity. Jennifer is a cat person.
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Michael Payne
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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