Subtasks, or “buckets of activity” as renowned entrepreneur and productivity hacker Tim Ferris calls them, are key to breaking the procrastination spell for good. Although many project managers use subtasks, they don’t necessarily take advantage of all the benefits they have to offer. Keep reading to learn more about what subtasking really is and follow 12 tips that will maximize its impact. 

What is subtasking?

Subtasking is a project management method that breaks down to-do list items into manageable steps. For example, if a marketing company is working on a blog post, they will list “research the topic” as a task. In this case, “research” can be further broken down into its most basic subtasks such as “email in-house expert to set up an interview about the topic” and “review three credible industry blogs to see what others are saying”. 

Subtasks are important because they help project managers accurately assign resources (such as project hours, personnel, and budget) to each task. They’re also great for forecasting since they give a clearer picture of where there might be conflicts within the project itself. 

How to break down tasks into manageable pieces

First, highlight all tasks on your project to-do list that represent a single step. A single step in this case requires no preparation or has already been prepared. Once that written to-do list item (and only that item) is acted upon, the subtask is complete. 

A single-step task for one person might be a task that needs to be broken down into manageable pieces for someone else. For example, “posting an Instagram photo” might be a matter of simply pressing publish on a drafted image. Or, it can be broken down into subtasks like: edit photo, choose filter, write caption, tag location, research and add hashtags, and tag featured products or brands — then hit publish. Use your own discretion to determine what is or is not a single-step task for your team based on what you do or don’t have prepared ahead of time. 

After you know which tasks are single-step tasks, set those aside and take a closer look at the rest. For each item, ask yourself what steps you need to take in order to cross it off your list entirely. Each step represents a subtask. Get input from team members who have specialized knowledge of tasks you’re not as familiar with. Do additional research where needed to determine what needs to be done and how long it will likely take.

Finally, go back through your list of single-step tasks and subtasks. Stuffing your to do list with subtasks is not the goal, so eliminate any that are not directly related to your big picture objectives. Some tasks might be time-wasters or “nice to have”s rather than direct actions that need to be taken or else the project can’t be completed.

How to make the most of subtasks

  1. Follow Tony Robbins’ advice and chunk related tasks into categories to save time on prep work and waiting for team members to get in the zone when working on them. 
  2. Add checklists within each task and assign individual items to relevant team members. 
  3. Give each subtask an assigned level of effort such as how many hours they are expected to spend on it. 
  4. Assign deadlines to each subtask to keep everyone aligned with the broader project scope. 
  5. Consider task dependencies and what subtasks could potentially result from to-dos such as “get feedback from client”. 
  6. Always trim the fat of your subtask lists by reviewing whether or not that specific subtask is absolutely essential for the success of the main task it supports. 
  7. Use an Agile project management solution to accommodate subtasks that come up as the project progresses. 
  8. Clearly define all project phases before diving into subtask creation so that the focus remains on big picture goals. 
  9. Keep the S.M.A.R.T. goal method in mind when creating subtasks. 
  10. If more than one person is needed to complete the subtask then break it down further into even smaller steps to avoid unnecessary roadblocks like repeated work. 
  11. Look to time estimates for similar projects your company has done in the past to estimate the time each main phase, task, and subtask will take. 
  12. Make sure that each subtask uses status updates to let everyone know what still needs to be done, what is already in motion, and what is needed next. 

When is the best time to use subtasks?

The best time to use subtasks is before the project begins so that you can properly estimate what needs to be done and what resources are needed. However, creating a flexible project plan is important because new subtasks might be needed along the way. 

When should you not use subtasks?

You should not use subtasks for to-do list items that only take one step to complete. Also, as things come up during the course of the project, remember to review your remaining subtasks and eliminate those that are no longer relevant. 

How to develop a to-do list with subtasks

To develop a to-do list with Subtasks, you first need to identify what major steps or phases need to be taken in order to achieve each project goal. For example, if your goal is to attract more qualified leads to a client’s website, your phases may include updating the website copy, creating new graphics, and doing additional market research. If you’re using a project management solution, add these to your task list then create checklists underneath each task that further define what steps need to be taken. 

How to create and manage tasks and subtasks in Wrike

Wrike helps project managers strategically brainstorm, revise, and add subtasks to parent tasks with ease. 

When you create a subtask in Wrike, be sure to:

  • Add a description that explains what it is and why it’s important
  • Add any necessary attachments such as digital assets or research materials directly to the task
  • Assign the task to a team member who will complete it and another team member or client who will review it
  • Add custom fields so users can easily search for and find related items within the greater ecosystem of your projects

When all subtasks are captured in a single visible platform, they can easily be assigned to team members, linked to task dependencies, and aligned with parent tasks. That means even if changes are made throughout the project, your subtasks can be completed on time and adjusted alongside your main tasks. In other words, you won’t have to rework the entire puzzle of your project management plan just because one piece changes. Instead, each subtask, parent task, and phase will be linked together in an easy-to-understand way that allows for simple and painless modification at any point. In Wrike, you can also duplicate existing tasks to save time creating new ones for each phase or project. 

See for yourself how Wrike can help you make the best use of subtasks with our two-week free trial.