Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Do You Chunk?

Nope, chunking isn't a new dance craze akin to crunking. It's an anti-procrastination technique. I first came across it in a counselling session several years ago and I've used it ever since. The idea is to break down tasks into small, manageable chunks.

A lot of people try this, then say it doesn't work because the chunks aren't manageable. They give up and continue putting things off. Instead, they should break down the chunks into smaller and smaller chunks until they become manageable.

Since this is easier to explain through doing, I'll show you an example. Here's something that has been on my to-do list for months:

Sort out photos on camera

Last night, I decided to 'chunk' this to see if I'd find it easier to get off my butt and do. Here are the chunks:

1. Save all photos on USB stick
2. Create folder labelled 'Decent Photos'
3. Look at photos and copy good ones to 'Decent Photos' folder
4. Save 'Decent Photos' folder on USB stick and computer

Simple, right? And I did all of those last night, taking each step one at a time. It took twenty minutes.

But what if those chunks hadn't felt manageable? I found them relatively easy, but I'm doing pretty well at the moment and felt quite motivated. There are times when I feel absolutely demotivated and even this list would seem too big and exhausting to cope with.

I would break down the chunks into smaller chunks. This can be difficult, but visualising the process of each step makes it easier. So this is how I would chunk the first chunk:

1. Save all photos on USB stick
a). Take camera out of my handbag
b). Take photo card out of the camera
c). Turn on computer
d). Put photo card in computer slot
e). Put USB stick in computer port
f). Open 'My Computer'
g). Double click on the photo card
h). Right click on the folder and select 'send to' and then 'USB stick'

Also remember there's no rule that says you have to do all the chunks at once - quite the opposite, in fact. Even taking out the camera and putting it by the computer can be a huge step if you're suffering from depression, for example, and feel overwhelmed by everything. I ended up doing all of the steps last night because the task turned out to be quick and easy for me, but any chunk you complete is progress.

I love chunking because it's so versatile. During the worst phases of my mental illness, I have used chunking to cope with everyday tasks like taking a shower or preparing lunch. I also use it a lot for writing.

Because writing requires a lot of abstract thinking, so does breaking it down into chunks. You need to be creative to split big chunks like 'edit manuscript' or 'write chapter 7', but it can be done. If you have a daily word target, you can easily break that down into smaller chunks - doing 10 chunks of 100 words is less daunting than a huge 1000 word chunk!

Experiment and find out what type of chunking works for you: whether it's easier for you to edit through chunks like 'edit first 100 words' and 'edit next 100 words', or
whether you progress better using chunks like 'underline good bits in green' and 'mark clichés in red'. I prefer the latter and believe it results in more thorough editing. Again, be creative in choosing your chunks - something that sounds ridiculous might be astonishingly effective.
Here's how I've chunked a short story idea I want to draft:

1. List the plot points
2. Expand each plot point into a list of scenes
3. Write each scene - without worrying about how terrible it is!
4. Print and set aside

I've had the idea for a while and have planned a lot, so it's developed enough to start at this point. In fact, I already knew the plot (though I hadn't yet written it into a list or any other clear format) and some of the scenes. I completed the first two steps last night (yes, I was a busy girl last night - must be something in the air!). I aim to complete step 3 today and it seems rather daunting - but it's already been split into smaller chunks because I have listed each scene I need to write. I will tick off each one as I write it.

Confession: I haven't been using chunking very much of late. I should have been chunking, because it makes things much easier and the planning alone makes me feel more productive. Now I've rediscovered chunking (though it hasn't been that long - only a few months), I remember how effective it is and hope this post has been useful in showing you how effective chunking can be. I plan to do a lot more chunking in future!


  1. Very useful advice, Hayley, thanks. I suppose I have used chunking, without being conscious of it. Especially writing longer pieces, when the thought of the whole story is too much to cope with. Sometimes writing just one scene, or even a paragraph, is plenty. Doesn't matter how small the chunks are, as long as you feel the process is moving forward.

    1. Thanks Joanne :-)

      You're right - I'm sure I chunk without thinking consciously about it a lot of the time. It's when things go wrong that I have to spell it all out for myself!

  2. This is an excellent way of tackling both the daunting and the everyday tasks, Hayley.
    It reminds me of my father. He suggested a different approach to doing things when, as a teenager feeling low, I didn't feel much like doing anything at all. He said to do everything slowly, far more slowly than I would usually expect to do it. He took the example of making a pot of tea, asking me to concentrate on each step of the process and to make time to enjoy each of those steps, aiming to really think about the detail of what I was doing and live in that moment.
    It worked really well and I still automatically do it today, all these years on. It's similar to chunking, I think, in that it makes everything more manageable. By the end of the task, you feel as if you've actually enjoyed it, which is the best thing of all.

    1. Thank you Joanna :-)

      That sounds like a mindfulness technique - something else I find useful and need to remind myself about! It's particularly good when I'm stressed/anxious and can't stop worrying about what has/will/might happen(ed).

  3. Very interesting, Hayley. I think I do it sometimes without realising, when I don't want to spend too long on anything. Funnily enough, I'm going through the hundreds (thousands?) of photos on my computer to sort them into a better system and I'm doing it in chunks!

    1. Thanks Rosemary :-)

      That sounds scary - weeding out the decent pics from fewer than 150 was bad enough! It was time though: I had ones from a year and a half ago still stuck on my camera!

  4. I love this! And it really does work, but I never knew there was a name for it. Very cool. I think I've forgotten about it lately though, so I need to pick it up again. I'll get a lot more done!