What’s your first reaction when faced with an overwhelming task or project? Do you dive right in or do you freeze on the spot, unsure where to start?
Procrastination, overwhelm, and even panic are common feelings when you come-face-to-face with a project you don’t know how to tackle.
Science says the information overload that comes with a daunting project can literally blow your brain’s fuse, causing you to freeze in the face of a big break-through.
Essentially, you have two culprits to blame here—the uncertain vibes emanating from that big, hairy project and the fear that it instills in you.
Uncertainty and fear leave you in the company of unfriendly feelings of doubt, hesitation, and self-pity. Ultimately, you find that hitting the red “ignore” button in your mind (and subsequently postponing the work) is the best way to move forward.
Even if you start this way, the good news is that you don’t have to sit like a duck forever.
There’s a way to defrost your motivation and get to work. Enter two productivity hacks that can help you go from hangry to hopeful: The Swiss cheese and salami slice methods.
Let’s see how these two, tasty tricks can help you tackle your next project with ease.
Poke The Panic Bubbles With The Swiss Cheese Method 🧀
The Swiss cheese method involves taking small bites of your task to poke holes into it.
It’s like teeny tiny wood ants feasting on large chunks of wood. They start biting off their herculean task at random spots until there are too many holes in it and the wood is all but a standing sculpture. It’s hollow from the inside, and ready to topple the moment some light breeze blows its way.
When you ”swiss cheese” an overwhelming task, you start by taking a random bite of your project (sorry, not cheese) at a random time just as these wood ants do at their moments of peak productivity.
By taking these small bites, you’re taking small steps to move your task from your ‘To-do’ list to the ‘Done’ list. These small steps are sure signs of progress, which motivates and encourages you to take one step after the other.
This progress also gives you tiny shots of dopamine — a pleasure kicker and the agent that ups your motivation. All these motivational spikes from Swiss cheesing your task help you tackle your overwhelming project in small but impactful ways.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to allot hours of your day to complete this task. The idea is to just get started. And you don’t even need to be organized about getting started.
In other words, you don’t need to grab your table napkin, start with an appetizer, and then move on to the main course before thinking of dessert. You can start with your steak first, then bite into the salad. Or just start with a bite of that too-hard-to-resist chocolate lava cake first.
So you can drill a random hole anywhere in your project with the Swiss cheese method. You can continue poking random holes or you can organize the holes you make later on when you build momentum and your panic starts taking the backseat.
This will help save time and give you a picture of how much of your project has been completed.
For example, let’s say you need to start a new blog post and you’re overwhelmed with thoughts of outlines, writing, editing, more editing, and finding the perfect references.
Instead of getting bogged down into the too-much-to-do-too-little-time vortex, slice off 10 minutes before lunch and write a short synopsis for the blog post (cheese sandwich in-hand is welcome).
Right after lunch, poke another hole in the blog writing process and jot down your section headers and start to build your outline. Now that you’ve started making holes in this once overwhelming task, you’ll feel your energy surging.
Dig another hole any time the next day and lay out a plan to find those references. Now that’s progress. 👏
In no time, the cheese chunk will have so many holes from the inside out that it will disappear altogether. And you’ll be hitting publish on your first blog post. Congratulations! You’ve just Swiss-cheesed your task.
Here’s what happened:
- You started by taking a snack-able piece from your cheese block (the overwhelming project)
- You poked holes in the cheese chunk by continuously doing small tasks one at a time throughout your work day
- You created so many holes in the cheese block that you finished it
The Salami Slice Tactic For Fighting Project Fright
Another way out of the fray is through the salami slice tactic.
The salami slice tactic comes with different names and is used in multiple fields, not just by productivity enthusiasts.
It’s a political strategy to take down an opponent, “slice by slice until it realizes, usually too late, that it is virtually gone in its entirety,” as well as a negotiation tactic.
For that big task looming on your to-do list, this method involves working on the project one slice at a time instead of attempting to consume it all in one go.
Think of it like eating a large pepperoni pizza. You can’t make the mistake of devouring all the slices at once, right?
Because it’s not humanly possible even if you’re a die-hard pizza enthusiast. It’s best to tackle it one slice at a time.
The Salami slice tactic is the same as enjoying slices from your pizza at intervals to prevent indigestion (and overwhelm).
In a Cynsations interview, Author Joseph Lunievicz shared that he finished his first book, Open Wounds, using this very tactic. He dedicated between 20-60 minutes to write a few pages for his book 3-5 times weekly.
Take a page from Lunievicz. Here’s what you’re doing when you slice your project:
- You find that your salami roll (overwhelming task) is too thick to be bitten into. Any attempts to get started leave you paralyzed with panic and procrastination
- You slice your work into manageable items. Prepare a list of tasks that make up the project, and start working on them, not the project
- You complete the slices or the small tasks that make up the project. In other words, you conquer the project slice by slice until it’s done.
So, in a nutshell, it revolves around slicing your project into smaller parts and focusing on them one-by-one rather looking at the big picture and losing your nerves.
It’s more suitable for people who can grab their overwhelming project by the neck like you would a salami roll, and slice it thoughtfully. The idea is to consciously slice your tasks off from the whole so you’re working on parts of your project in an organized manner instead of doing things randomly.
On the other hand, the Swiss cheese method demands you pick up and do something from the project at random. You wouldn’t need to grab a fork and knife to slice your project when you Swiss cheese it. Just start at random like you’d grab a handful of popcorn from a jumbo-sized bucket.
In fact, this method is well-suited for those who just can’t handle all the panic from their dreaded project. Both of these productivity tactics, however, share one major similarity—they work for the same reasons.
You need to take small steps in order to build your momentum.
Plus, the small wins keep fueling your motivation tank too so you’re moving forward slowly but surely until BOOM—overwhelm scores 0 and you win.
Educator Mehrnaz Bassiri sums up the role of these small steps well in her TEDx talk. She explains:
“Small wins have a transformational power. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion to favor another small win and another small win until the combination of these small wins lead to larger and greater accomplishments [aka the focus-shattering-procrastination-favoring task that you were putting off].”
Let’s dig in further to understand why the salami slice and Swiss chess methods work so well.
The Science Behind The Sandwich – Why Do Making Holes And Slicing Work So Well?
Both these productivity tactics have two main reasons to thank for their effectiveness:
- The power of small steps
- The forward momentum or sense of progress they welcome
Put simply, they get you to slowly chew at the challenging task until it’s no longer on your plate.
Small wins are important factors for boosting workers’ emotions, motivation, and perceptions.
In a study of 238 knowledge workers, Dr. Amabile and her team asked participants to log all their emotions and perceptions in diary entries daily.
Four months later, results showed that meaningful work (no matter how small) ranked pretty high for enhancing motivation.
The researchers noted:
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
This sense of accomplishment powered by small steps to progress in a task is the reason why many teams use a ‘Done’ list to celebrate baby steps in large (read: overwhelming) projects.
How can you get that same feeling of accomplishment?
How To Use Trello To Track Your Small Wins
If you aren’t a Trello user like I am, you can start setting your board up by adding three basic sections to your board.
Start with adding a ‘To-do’ list, followed by an ‘In Progress’ list, and finally with a ‘Done’ list also known as your “Done wall.”
You can map your progress by moving cards from the To-Do and In-Progress list. Things will get extra magical when you move the card to the ‘Done’ list.
Alternatively, you can celebrate little wins with a checklist on each task. Log in details of your project’s slices in the form of a checklist. Sit back at work. Cross off the task. Relish the spark of joy that comes with it. Repeat.
Put That Feeling Of Overwhelm On The Chopping Block
Now that you know the secret ingredients, the Swiss cheese and salami slice tactics can be used to break your paralyzing projects down into a million little pieces. These micro-steps will make those big tasks much easier to digest.
So poke holes in your project or nibble at the tasks one by one. Before you know it, you’ll be well onto the other side of the table—ready to celebrate with a cold beverage in hand.
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