“Break it Down” vs. “Dive Right In”

You are (metaphorically) standing in front of a large task. A daunting task. A beast.


Do you flare your nostrils and start working on the first thing that comes to mind that will help you accomplish the task?


Or, do you squint your eyes and start listing all the things you must do to conquer the task?


The nostril-flaring people are diving right in to the task.


The eye squinters are breaking the task down.


Which is the right approach?


In two prior posts, this one and this one, I have advocated for breaking a task down into parts.


However, I have also read books about project management that advocate less up-front planning and more iterative, do-stuff-and-assess-the-impact approaches.


BLUF (bottom line up front):  Both techniques work. It depends on the person and the task or project.


But that simple statement is not enough for a whole blog post, so let’s get into a little more detail.



Why “Break it Down” Works


We cannot remember all the steps.


Early studies on the capacity limits of human memory suggested that when given a list of things to memorize, people could recall around five to seven items from the list.


Today, studies suggest that our working memory capacity is three to five items. So, one clear reason why breaking a large task down into component parts is that, if we don’t, we’ll forget what to do next.


Goal-setting is motivational.


One of the most well-established theories of work motivation is Goal Setting Theory.


Here are some relevant aspects of this theory:

  • Specific goals lead to the best performance.  Vague (i.e., “do your best”) goals don’t work well.
  • Feedback is critical to achieving challenging goals. Feedback helps you stay motivated and adjust behavior accordingly.


Breaking down a large task into its component parts does the following:

  • Makes projects more specific
  • Allows for regular opportunities to get feedback



Why “Dive Right In” Works


We don’t know what we don’t know.


When we are embarking on something totally new, it is difficult to outline all the steps required to complete the task or accomplish the goal. Uncharted territory is, well, uncharted.


Often, the best approach is to learn how to do the thing as we go. Just make sure to draft a good Lessons Learned report along the way.


The enormity of the task could intimidate us into inaction.


Productivity guru, David Allen advocates a Next Action concept to managing tasks. When you have something to do, ask yourself, “What is my very next step?” Answer that question, and you will make incremental progress.


I find that the next step approach is particularly helpful when we are procrastinating a task that is distasteful or intimidating. Mapping out the entire project may make you want to give up.


Pro Tip:  Do the hardest thing first. Astro Teller (of Google) says that if you need to train a monkey to recite Shakespeare while standing on a pedestal, start by training the monkey, not building the pedestal.



How I Do It


I do both. My naturally spontaneous nature resists planning, so there are times I love the adventure of diving right in. The practical side of me who knows that meticulous planning is essential to managing my work/life balance flocks toward step-by-step lists.


When coaching clients, I read the situation quickly and will either (1) provide someone with a bulleted list of goals, timelines, and outcomes, or (2) ease them into the process by setting the first goal and then reassessing as the coaching engagement continues.


As usual, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Flexibility wins.


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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at getproductive@melissagratias.com or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.



  1. Linda Samuels

    I’m like you in that I use both strategies, or perhaps something else altogether. I rarely plan every single step but have a more fluid way of working. I might list things that need to happen in a given project, but then I use more of the David Allen approach of “what do I need to do next?” to move things along. There are also times when I dive in because I need to muddle around before I get a clear sense of my path forward. In all cases, I have an end goal and timeframe in mind, but it’s how I get there that varies.

  2. Julie Bestry

    I think we have to employ both strategies; the trick is to know when our gut reaction to use one strategy vs. the other is not right for the job. When I’m excited about a project, I jump right in. Usually, that’s the right tactic, but sometimes the work could benefit from, if not LESS passion, perhaps less unbridled passion. And when I’m not feeling enthused, breaking it down makes it feel less onerous, but it’s easy for me to use “breaking it down” as a form of procrastination, never quite getting to actually doing that first step. We’d probably all do better to integrate the two methods so that we have one approach all the time, taking the best from both aspects. But we’re human, so the best we can do is to reward ourselves for moving forward. BLUFF (Bottom line, up front, friend!): Keep on keeping on! Thanks for the great advice, Doc!

  3. Seana Turner

    I have that “dive right in” conversation with myself when I can tell that I am overthinking something. I typically do this when I have abundant time. When I’m busy, I just dive in because there is no choice. I love the break it down approach because you just keep at it until the task is tiny enough to feel “doable.” It really helps get over the procrastination hurdle!

  4. Melanie

    I like to use both strategies too! I find that diving in is the best way to build intuition and experience. Once I have those two things, I like to plan and finesse. I love how well you break it down. Thanks for sharing!!!!

  5. Ronni Eisenberg

    I’ve taken both strategies. So much depends on how comfortable I am with the project, how familiar or overwhelming it is.
    Breaking a project down helps me to see the whole picture, like when you’ve finished a puzzle. Diving right in is my approach when I really need to just get it done.
    You’re right, both systems work. Which ever system is going to help you move forward seems like the best way to go, at that time.


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