Productivity Hack: Chunk Your Work to See Forward Progress!

Chunk your work to see forward progress!

Chunk your work to see forward progress! Photo credit: By Ditty_about_summer/

One way to focus your work projects is to “chunk” your work. This post will give you 8 tips for breaking your next work or school project into chunks so that you can decrease the overwhelm, see your progress going forward, and have the satisfaction of crossing steps off your project list!

Productivity Hack: Chunk Your Work!

Hacking is a term you have probably seen a lot. I’ve used it in several posts and it basically means to use a shortcut or to make a task more manageable

What do I mean by chunk your work? I mean that you should break down your tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces by creating project phases or steps toward completion. Once you have chunked your work, you can then attack the work in a concentrated way according to the steps you’ve outlined. 

I introduced the idea of chunking your work in my post about the 7 Ways to Stay Focused on Your Work and Stop Procrastinating!  

“Breaking up your work into smaller, concrete steps can put the whole project in perspective. The thought of tackling one piece at a time, rather than the project as a whole, might make it easier to fathom getting the work done.  Neuro and behavioral scientists refer to the brain’s preference “to grab immediate rewards” (Pychyl & Flett, 2012) as present-biased preferences (O’Donoghue & Rabin, 1999). Getting one small piece of work done at a time might set you on a psychological roll toward completion” (Thompson, 2016, p. 4).

How Do You Break Your Project into Chunks?

When you have a large project – a major assignment for a class or coordination of a work project, for example — if you break your work into chunks, phases, or steps, you may find it easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel because you will see progress related to your project as you complete each chunk of work. 

Let’s take an example and say you have a research paper to get done as a final assignment. You know the due date from the course syllabus. You have the directions. You usually have weeks if not the whole semester to work on this paper. But it seems so overwhelming. So what do you do?

  1. Get Clarity: First, read the directions for the assignment. What questions do you have? Write them down. Are you sure they are not answered in the directions? If not, ask your instructor to clarify your areas of uncertainty.

    “Get clear on the purpose of the assignment (or charge to the workgroup, etc.), so that you can focus your research and efforts on the right things!” (Thompson, 2018).

  2. Reverse Engineer Your Schedule I: Write the due date down in your planner. Now mark a date the week before the paper has to be handed in. This is a hack I talked about in multiple blog posts about productivity (7 Ways, Schedule Work, Parkinson’s LawWork-Life Balance). The purpose is so that you build in time for Murphy’s Law or other contingencies. This is the date that you will commit to having the paper finished and ready for proofreading and final edits.
    • If you have the paper done a week before it is due, it will give you time to make any last minute formatting changes and have someone proofread your work and then to make any changes that may be suggested. If you give yourself a week to do this, your stress level will be reduced and you won’t be doing any last minute, and often sloppy, work. 
  3. Outline the Phases or Steps of Your Project: Read the directions again — what is the purpose of the paper and what are the sections the instructor requires to be included? 
    • For example, let’s say you need to do a paper on best practices and evidence-based practice in the clinical setting. We’ll assume that the point of the paper is for you to get experience searching the literature, choosing relevant and valid systematic reviews or clinical practice guidelines, evaluating the evidence and comparing to practice in your institution, and showing how the findings can be applied to clinical practice.
    • The instructor asks you to identify a clinical problem, introduce the problem and its significance, describe the current management of the clinical problem according to best practice, identify whether your institution uses these best practices, and provide a recommendation for practice. Provide a cover page and reference page.
    • Now create an outline of the chunks of writing this paper. Well-written directions will help you with this outline.
      Chunk your work in an outline

      Chunk your work in an outline. Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

      1. Identify a clinical problem that you’ve noted in practice or clinical rotations. 
        1. Search the literature for background information on the clinical problem you identified (patho, epidemiology, mortality, morbidity, professional impact, etc.). For tips on how to do this see my earlier post on How to Craft a Search Strategy to Answer Clinical Questions
        2. Search the literature for how this clinical problem is managed according to the best evidence. For tips on how to do this see my earlier post on How to Craft a Search Strategy to Answer Clinical Questions
      2. Keep track of your search strategies as you do your research – databases searched, keywords, number of hits, number of relevant studies/systematic reviews/meta-analyses, etc., if this info is required in your paper. 
      3. Write the introduction section with info from steps A and A.i.
      4. Write the section about how you searched the literature using your notes for step B, if required.
      5. Write the section about how this problem is managed using the best evidence (from A.ii.). 
      6. Get information about how this clinical problem is managed in your institution. 
        1. Check the policy & procedure manual, nursing care plans, protocols, order sets, etc.
        2. You might want to interview nurses with Infection Control, Risk Management, and/or Quality Assurance departments for info, if related to your clinical problem, too. 
      7. Write the section about how your institution manages this clinical problem (using data collected from steps F.i. and F.ii.).
      8. Think. Compare best practices from the literature with the policy and procedure in your institution. Do they match? Why or why not?
      9. Write the final section using info from step H. Make a recommendation for continuing current practice or changing practice using the evidence to support your recommendation. 
      10. Compose your cover page. 
      11. References should be written according to style format your instructor wants (e.g., APA, MLA). Keep a running list of the full citations of the articles you used for background and foreground information throughout your search process. 
  4. Estimate how long it will take you to do the research for the steps outlined above and to write the specific sections. Note these by your outline steps. To estimate how long it should take you to write the paper sections – look at the points the instructor has allotted to each section for a clue as to how much time (and pages) you should allot to those sections! 
  5. Reverse Engineer Your Schedule II: From the “final” date you noted in the second Step above, now work backward to schedule dates in your calendar or planner to have the A-K steps completed. You might take one whole day to do the search for Steps A. You can, and should, document your search strategies for B, as you are doing this research. It might take you one work session to write the introduction; it might take you multiple work sessions to write the best practices sections. 
  6. Focus on Your Chunks!: Now, work on one chunk of your project at a time according to the schedule you created.
    • Obviously, if you finish a chunk ahead of your schedule – YAY! – you can move up your other deadlines to give you more breathing room. Adjust your schedule accordingly to accommodate unforeseen situations, of course.
    • Set the sections aside periodically so you can look at your work with “new eyes” and refocus as needed. Have others proofread your work for clarity and logical flow, if you have that support. 
    • Finishing Touches: Because you have scheduled your internal due date earlier than the instructor’s due date, you can now check formatting, make changes suggested by proofreaders, and ensure there is no plagiarism. You should have time for those corrections and still be able to hand in your assignment on time, or early if you want! 
  7. Celebrate! You can now congratulate yourself because the paper is done. Get it handed in so you can be completely worry-free. Enjoy some downtime. Now your mind is ready for the next project. And you can use this process for your next big task! 

How to Cite this Blogpost in APA*:     Thompson, C. J. (2018, January 30). Productivity hack: Chunk your work to see forward progress! [Web Log Post]. Retrieved from *Citation should have hanging indent


O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Doing it now or later. The American Economic Review, 89(1), 103-124. Retrieved from

Pychyl, T. A., & Flett, G. (2012). Procrastination and self-regulatory failure: An introduction to the special issue.  Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 30(4), 203-212. doi:10.1007/s10942-012-0149-5

Thompson, C. J. (2016, November 1). 7 ways to stay focused on your work and stop procrastinating! [Web Log Post]. Retrieved from