How to break down a project in manageable steps

Some time ago, I was at a party of the car dealer, where I bought my car, for the inauguration of their new showroom.


Glasses of with pink champagne decorated with lavender


They really thought of everything: The new showroom was beautiful, in a pure, modern, minimalistic style, filled with the latest models of the cars, a plant or a flower creation in strategic places and modern artwork decorating the walls. The management welcomed every guest personally at the entrance, and the staff was mingling and talking to clients and other guests. For all guests there was Champagne and other drinks and, lots of “Amuse-bouches”, appetisers and small snacks. There was a band playing, and everyone was having a good time.

The project manager in me suddenly realised that this party was the result of a tremendous amount of work to organise it. This was not just having the showroom ready, and the catering ordered. It was a full-blown project!

It can just be a family get-together or a wedding party, the start of a new business, building a house or any other passions project. It is never as simple as it looks at first sight.

How do you eat an elephant in three simple steps

You probably know this little riddle: How do you eat an elephant?… Bite by bite. Translated to projects, the question would be: How do you run a project?… Break it down in manageable steps. Is it that simple? It is… Kind of…


Colorful square wooden tangram puzzle


Where do you start? And then what? You can follow these three simple steps:

  1. Start with writing down the big parts of your project.
    E.g. If you want to organise a big party like for the new showroom of the car dealer, the big parts would be what you need to do before, during and after the party.
  2. Break each big part into smaller parts
    Now that you have the big chunks, you need to break them down into smaller pieces. E.g.

      • Before the party:
        • Invitations
        • Get the showroom ready,
      • During the party:
        • Catering and service
        • Music (the band)
        • Tasks for management and staff,
      • After the party
        • Clean-up. Etc…

    Of course, a real project has a more exhaustive list of items than the ones above. These are just examples.

  3. Keep breaking down your project parts until you arrive at the level of a simple task. In the example of organising a party, we would break down the ‘Invitations’ in
      • Create a list of invitees
      • Create the invitation
      • Get the invitations printed
      • Send the invitations

    You see it’s very straightforward.

    I almost feel like it’s too obvious, too logical and too simple to write a blog post about it. Almost. Because, as always, the sting is in the details.

Where can you go wrong?

  • Forgetting significant parts: You need to look at the end-to-end process. In our party example, it would be easy to forget the after-party clean-up. While this is an important part, you will have to do the clean-up anyway, it can completely mess up your plans of what you wanted to do in the day(s) after the party. Other plans or projects might get delayed because of forgetting this part.


Handsome young working with computer at an iron table in the garden.


  • Scope creep: This is another frequent pitfall, and you can find out more about this in ‘The number one reason why your passion projects don’t get finished’. E.g. You start with the organisation of a party. You want to send out very special invitations, which means that you need to buy a new printer. Then you find out that the software doesn’t run on your existing system and before you know it, you added an IT project to your simple project to organise a party.
  • Keeping everything in your head instead of writing it down. Even small and simple projects can have a long to-do list. If you don’t write anything down, it’s impossible to keep an overview of what still has to be done and what is already done. It’s also very easy to forget tasks even if they are essential for the success of your project.
  • Making your task list too detailed. A too detailed task list only gives you more work without adding value or giving advantages. It is also much more difficult to keep having an overview.E.g. For the task ‘Send invitations’, it would be exaggerated if you would break it further down in:
    • Fold the invitation,
    • put in an envelope,
    • put a stamp on the envelope, and
    • give it to post office.

Advantages of a work breakdown structure

Breaking down your project in smaller pieces like above is called creating a Work Breakdown Structure.


WBS work breakdown structure written in notebook on a white table


There are important advantages of writing down a work breakdown structure for your passion project:

  • It gives you an overview upfront of the work that needs to be done in your project
  • It is the basis for the estimation of workload and effort required to finish your project
  • It gives you a basis to schedule your tasks
  • It gives you a basis to estimate the budget that your project will need
  • It gives you the basis of what other people need to be involved and with whom you will need to communicate.
  • While working on your project, you can check off finished tasks, so you have a good overview of the status and where you currently are in your passion project, which can be very motivating to continue.

Have you noticed that I frequently used the word ‘basis’ in the list of advantages? Breaking down your passion project in smaller steps is important because it creates the foundation on which you can build the rest.

So, for any project that you want to start, it’s a good practice to break down your project into manageable steps. The next step is to put these steps in a logical order, so afterwards, you just have to follow your plan, step by step.

Your view?





How to break down a project in manageable steps
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