Subtasks: What They Are and When to Use Them

Jul 17, 2018
Post Masthead

Many people find subtasks a great way to organize large and complex projects. By breaking down a massive project into more manageable parts, project managers feel empowered and confident in successful project completion.

While the ability to add a 2nd or 3rd tier subitem to a more substantial task can seem appealing, you should use them carefully. In fact, subtasks, when misused, can lead to terrible management practices, inefficient use of time, low morale and all around chaos.

Each team’s way of project management is different, and just because you can break a project down into infinite amount of subtasks, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

That said, when it comes to subtasks, here's how to handle no matter the type of organization you're in or project you're managing.

Why Use Subtasks

Explaining to executives and stakeholders as to why a week-long project ended up being five weeks is a gut-wrenching conversation to have.

Most of the time, bad estimation is the culprit when a project goes past the due date. That’s when subtasks can come into great help.

You definitely don’t want to micro-manage nor do you want to overdo a task list. But depending on your project, industry, and players involved, glossing over task details could be costly.

There are many benefits in using subtasks such as:

  • More effective estimates in cost and dates
  • Identify bottlenecks, points of trouble, and inefficiencies, and thus, solve the problems
  • Ability to plan around day-to-day operations
  • Ability to create stopping points
  • Glean into insight to improve workflow and enhance efficiencies
  • Communicate better and provide full transparency

Subtasks are best used in instances where a project moves at different levels. For example, "Onboard New Client" is one large task, but there's actually several moving pieces and teams just within that one task.

It's not uncommon for the original task at hand to be modified.

For instance, waiting on review or feedback from a client or another 3rd party is separate from the initial task yet not entirely independent to be a task on its own.

To resolve this problem, many task and project management platforms incorporate some variation of "checklists" that sit within a task.

You can assign them to people, add due dates, etc., but it doesn't communicate those items moving forward. In other words, the task gets stuck until all items in the checklist are completed.

You can't really see those items moving forward, and therefore it appears as though the parent task isn't really progressing.

Subtasks, on the other hand, can sit inside a parent task, similar to that of checklists, but also moves forward and breathes like an independent task.

Other dependencies can be handled with subtasks as well but you may find in many situations, creating separate tasks can be more useful.

How to Develop a Task List

Ideally, you would want to create all tasks during the planning stage, but we all know we don’t live in an ideal world.

Therefore, you’ll always want to remember to stay agile and develop a way in which you can adjust your project management accordingly.

Task list management is an entirely separate category that goes beyond the scope of this article, but in general, there are two ways in which you can organize your task list.

The first method is a top-down method by which you identify the major phases, or summary tasks, first and then break it down into individual tasks.

For example, in building a website, you may have the below steps:

  • Research and Discovery Phase
  • Project Planning Phase
  • Design and Visual Creation Phase
  • Development Phase
  • Content Writing and Assembly Phase
  • Test, Review and Launch Phase
  • Regular Updates and Management Phase

From there, you can divide and conquer tasks and subtasks. If you can think of a task that doesn’t fit under a phase, you are most likely missing a phase.

The second method is a bottom-up method in which you list out all the possible tasks first and then begin grouping them into phases.

This is a good approach if you are given a project your organization has never handled before or there are a lot of unknowns you have yet to discover.

Part of project management is consistent re-iteration for optimal efficiency. That said, your tasks should:

  • Be measurable
  • Have responsibility and ownership clearly defined
  • Have a clear start and end date
  • Have an estimation of time and cost

To Subtask or Not to Subtask, That Is The Question

If you’re deciding whether you should break down a task further, ask yourself the following questions.

Is it easier to assign?

If you find yourself having multiple owners and parties involved in a given task, controlling the success or failure becomes too difficult if not impossible.

You should consider breaking down a task if many individuals are involved in one given item.

Is it easier to estimate?

The amount of man-hours is highly dependent on your organization and industry. For example, in a typical 2-week sprint cycle, a task should not exceed 80 hours.

However, other industries have entirely different project cycles and should, therefore, be adjusted accordingly.

If you are just beginning to learn the ins and outs of project management, consider tackling a small project with small tasks at first to gain a foothold on time allotments.

Is it easier to track?

Effective project control requires reliable measurement of completion estimates. In other words, between your measurable status points, such as weekly check-ins, tasks should fall within the duration so you can measure completion at 0%, 50% or 100%.

Is it well understood?

If it’s not, break out the parts that aren’t well understood and determine why.

Usually, there are clear-cut contingencies in which a project transitions from not being perceived to being understood.

This should also be clearly documented and communicated to stakeholders as they pose as risks to the project.

Manage By Time

By far, the best way to organize a project and subsequently, any subtasks that can be created in the process, is to manage your project and overall workflow based on the ultimate deadline.

We're pretty allergic to tracking projects by hours.

You're simply never going to be correct unless you have a turn-key project for a turn-key solution, and the chances of everyone accurately reporting is pretty much impossible.

But we recognize the need for some part of the project to be time-based (it's the only finite thing on this planet!).

We are however, mostly fans of managing by a deadline you or your team has set.

The only caveat: this somewhat falls apart in terms of product management, which needs a completely project management philosophy.

Accurate time estimations are the bane of every project manager, but deadlines, at least, can be managed in a variety of ways.

Determined Deadline

If the deadline for a project is already set, you’ll want to reverse engineer the steps and plan them out accordingly.

You’ll want to factor in the inevitable hiccups that will occur and delay projects, especially when other stakeholders and team members are involved and add buffer days accordingly.

There will be times that Susan gets sick and won’t be able to sign off the final proofs or Robert will forget to save the final edits before launching a landing page live.

Deadline To Be Determined

Sometimes when you’re given a project, you don’t have a deadline set and instead have to schedule one out to keep things moving along.

For a novice and experienced PM alike, this is where errors typically arise.

You’ll want to list out all of the items that need to be completed, including subtasks, and generally estimate the number of hours (or days) it will take to complete.

This is also where subtasks become of great value.

For example, writing a 10,000 page e-book is not a one-day project. The tasks might be:

  • Create outline
  • Conduct research
  • Write chapters
  • Revise and edit chapters
  • Add/create appropriate graphics
  • Send to final revision
  • Publish and launch
  • Promote

The complexities come when many other people are involved and you need to ensure everyone clearly understands the scope of the work and overall project goal.

You have a writer, maybe two, a graphic designer, an editor, upper management and then you have your development team as well to create a landing page to promote it, analytics, so on and so forth.

Within each task, you might have a series of subtasks.

For instance, creating an outline also involves the approval of the framework.

You wouldn’t create a separate task for “awaiting approval” as it’s closely tied to the actual creation of the outline. For “Writing Chapters,” you might break that down into subtasks of each chapter title and content owner (if different ones).

In this sense, it makes more sense to pair similar tasks as sub-tasks.

By that same token, it may make sense to separate each chapter as its own task to keep the flow going.

Perhaps, while a writer focuses on Chapter 2, an editor can edit and tweak Chapter 1 and then send it off to a graphic designer to keep a steady flow of work streaming along everyone’s pipeline in a consistent and manageable flow.

Estimating Time

If you or your team can accurately assess the work on your own, you’re in a good position.

That’s not always the case though.

In those instances, there are a handful of other resources you can rely on:

Previous projects - almost all projects are similar to previous ones unless you are just beginning. There are always other projects you can extrapolate data from to get a sense of timing and task involvement.
Even better is if the projects have documentation of issues and special callouts to tasks and items.

Templates - projects should consider a template list of activities. For instance, there is a general flow of writing a blog post: outline the article, conduct research, write, edit, add graphics, post.

That’s a template not to be confused with the projects that may go before that in a more thorough content marketing strategy which is more complicated and includes brainstorming themes and topics, determining what type of content to create, keyword research, etc.

Expert Guidance - especially for a new project manager, don’t be afraid to leverage the experts around you if you have them.

Ask them how the project should be divided, what the estimated duration is, what are the required resources and any other things of importance.

The Challenges With Subtasks

On an individual level, breaking down projects into tasks and tasks into subtasks can be extremely beneficial.

Crossing an item off on your to-do list, no matter how small, and reporting successful progress to stakeholders and managers emits dopamine, which is connected to euphoria, accomplishment, and motivation.

Nobody really gets excited about cleaning their apartment. And if you’re one of the many that have ADHD, the task seems daunting. But if you break it down into items such as:

  • Wipe kitchen counters
  • Vacuum living room floor
  • Dust bookshelves
  • Put the clothes on your chair in your closet

You not only feel capable of managing it, but you also get a feeling of accomplishment and motivation in wanting to complete the next task.

The problem lies when subtasks get out of control and are layers deep, making it difficult to identify the parent item.

If you’re managing a variety of different projects and different team members with specific tasks within the projects, trust that your teammate or resource responsible has it under control for successful delivery. Micromanaging and keeping an eye on every single minute detail is not efficient for any project manager.

At times, instead of creating subtasks, having individual tasks can foster and boost morale.

Subtasks can also slow down productivity in many ways. As a project manager, breaking down a task takes time, and when it’s not necessary, you end up wasting time on constant re-prioritization.

If the first item on your To-Do list is to re-organize your To-Do list, you have officially lost your mind.

This also goes for team members assigned the tasks.

When they are just assigned a task with no understanding of the bigger picture at hand, they lose sight of their level of importance in the mission.

At times, it’s not a matter of task management as much as it is team management.

An alternative is to simply manage the weeks’ goals and ensuring everyone is clear on what the goal is as a whole and theirs individually.

As a result, you can prioritize what’s important and keep everyone focused; you can feel confident everyone will meet their deadlines; individual team members can take their own individualized initiative of self-management and receive proper recognition as a result of success.

Subtasks in Rindle

No project is the same, and no style of management is the same.

That’s probably one of the many reasons there is a slew of project management tools out there and for a novice PM, choosing the best one for your team can be a challenging task in itself.

Though there are many variables and unique instances, one thing that is consistent in project management regardless of industry is the need for flexibility.

There may be times you divide a task into a few subtasks only to find out that a particular subtask is a task of its own or is of higher priority than the original task at hand.

That’s where Rindle excels.

Not only is each subtask treated as a separate task, allowing you to assign them individually, add due dates, comments, and file attachments, you have the ability to move them out of subtasks and into a separate task anywhere on your kanban style board.

Vice versa, you can drag and drop a task into another task to create a subtask. This creates the flexibility that most other project management solutions lack.