Slices of bread with ticks cut out of them

Clear up stale tasks with the ‘breadcrumb’ technique

Get more done using this nifty productivity trick

What is the oldest thing lurking on your to-do list? And how do you feel now that I’ve reminded you of it?

Perhaps you think people leading satisfying lives don’t keep old to-do items without taking action. You might believe they have their shit together and are excellent at managing their action items and getting things done.

In reality, many people have some older items on their to-do list – and they don’t feel great when they are reminded about those incompletes. 

However, there is a simple way to tackle them, which means no one has to have a robot’s discipline to get the important things done and enjoy life!

Are all ‘old tasks’ bad for you?

Everyone’s task list habits are a bit different, and there can be good reasons behind keeping items hanging there for a while. 

Some people might include things they don’t want to forget (if now isn’t the right time), or tasks they can’t complete until someone else contributes, or tasks categorized A, B, or C, and other list habits. They have a system which is working for them.

But then others experience stress and procrastination, which impacts negatively on their productivity levels.

Confession time

This morning, a business owner client was sharing updates on her goals. Despite her many accomplishments she seemed stuck on a project she hadn’t made much progress on in months. As we sat down over coffee, she lamented,

“Ugh, I STILL don’t have it done. No matter how much I tell myself I’m going to do it this week, and schedule time in my calendar, I don’t feel like doing it when the time comes, or I have something time sensitive that needs to be handled. I’m frustrated because I never seem to have enough time or energy or focus to just sit down and knock it out.”  

When was the last time you had a thought like this? For many, this to-do list discomfort is the norm, which can include feelings of anxiety, guilt and even reduced confidence.

Why do you feel bad when you see old tasks on your to-do list?

 The sense of anxiety and guilt doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.”

David Allen

In the groundbreaking classic book “Getting Things Done; the Art of Stress Free Productivity” David Allen reminds us that negative feelings come from broken agreements and that we have 3 options for eliminating the negative consequences: either don’t make the agreement, complete the agreement, or renegotiate the agreement. While I address the other two options regularly with myself and clients in other ways, the technique below is specifically helpful in keeping promises to yourself by making it possible to complete the work as intended.

Stop falling for the same old trick

Each time you add an item to your list, you’re creating an agreement with yourself. If it’s not clear how you’ll achieve it, you might fall for the old trick of thinking you’ll “figure it out.” 

Remember the Peanuts’ Lucy assuring Charlie Brown she’ll let him kick the ball this time, then yanking it away and watching him fall on his butt? Every time. Is it possible when you add something vague to your list you’re setting yourself up for failure?

Unless you intentionally provide yourself a path to success, you could experience the repeat fake-out just like Charlie Brown!

Recently while working with another leader who’s been feeling overwhelmed with too much work I asked, “What would you really like to accomplish with our time today?” The answer was immediate: 

I need some structure. I need to know exactly what to do to make progress.

He recognized that just assuming he would get to it wasn’t working – and he was ready for another approach.

Whenever I hear a client tell me they’ll “figure it out” regarding something on their list, and they’ve already moved it around on their to-do list or in their calendar, I wonder if they will benefit from what I call “breadcrumbing.” 

Productivity crumbs lead to action

Once upon a time in a client session discussing their tendency to procrastinate, I suggested they break their to-dos into tiny steps creating a path to success. I compared it to Hansel & Gretel leaving a trail of breadcrumbs intended to help them find their way out of the forest. While the fairytale doesn’t have much to do with productivity habits, I’ve shared the technique with clients countless times since. The term “breadcrumbing” just makes it easier to remember the concept.

Firstly, I suggest breaking down to-do items into smaller tasks and writing them down. Clients immediately feel better because they have identified options for taking action. 

Secondly, for extra assurance on tackling a challenging to-do item, I will often ask them to describe how they will take action. 

I’ll say, “Tell me what that looks like.” As they start to answer, their mind shifts into a different mode and they can see themselves taking action.

This is a little-used but powerful (and fast) technique to creating successful agreements with yourself, aka tasks that you will actually complete and not ignore.

You too can benefit from this breadcrumbing option. Instead of fuzzy, complex, or incomplete tasks showing up on your to-do list, you’ll have actionable bites identified which lead you to achievement and success! You’ll be less likely to procrastinate when it’s clear what to do, especially when you can also picture how you’ll take action.  

If it helps to have a specific example, here’s one from my own work

Every time I have a new project, whether it’s designing a training course, creating a Coaching Plan, or writing a blog post, I go through almost the same process to break it down to manageable crumbs:

I brainstorm key elements of the project and divide larger tasks into smaller sub tasks with deadlines (I use XMind and Asana for this but neither are required for success).

Typically I define a task as something that takes 20 minutes or less. Things such as: 

  • Make a phone call
  • Google search for articles
  • Create rough draft
  • Mindmap key points 
  • Update template file
  • Final review
  • Send follow-up to client, etc.

20-minute tasks means I can tackle multiple small tasks in a work session, but if I have a week that’s especially hectic I might only do 1 or 2. I will still be more likely to complete a couple of crumbs and keep the project moving forward rather than waiting until I have a big enough chunk of free time to catch up (because you know how well that tends to work out!).

Tips on applying the breadcumb technique:

  • The next time you add something to your to-do list, be mindful that you’ve just made an agreement with yourself. Take the extra 30 seconds to identify 1 or 2 actions as crumb-sized tasks which will allow you to be successful.
  • The next time you hear yourself say “I need to figure it out” when referring to work that hasn’t been getting done, make notes breaking it down into bite-sized tasks. 
  • For your team:The next time you assign work, if you notice signs of resistance or procrastination with team members, ask them to chunk the assignment down into smaller parts and to identify which needs doing first.

Experience this now

Pick an aging item from your to-do list. Break it down into sub-tasks. What is the first action you could take that will lead to completion? Follow-through and enjoy the win!

Aah, doesn’t that feel better?

If you want more practical productivity techniques, you’ll love Blazing Productivity.

Heather Legge
Verified Coach
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Since 2006, Heather Legge has worked with business owners to help them achieve their vision. You too can develop the productivity habits and leadership skills for business success. Email or book a free call with Heather now .

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