On Chunking

For those of you who struggle with ensuring that delegated tasks are completed on time, I have some good news for you. New work by some behavioral economists has shed some light on this difficult situation.

Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of chunking in large part because of a famous paper published in 1956 by George A. Miller entitled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.

The idea is that our short-term memories can only remember 7 +/- 2 items in a list, such as number, unless we chunk it down into groups of numbers. Some common examples would be phone, credit card and social security numbers.

More interestingly, some behavioral economists have demonstrated that the same concept can be applied to the assignment of tasks. When an assignment is given to a person to complete, it is far more likely to be completed if it is chunked into two or three sub-tasks, rather than just assigned as a single task.

Rory Sutherland refers to this in many of his presentations. Here is one from the APA. He talks about this concept beginning at 2:45, but watch the whole thing it is great stuff!

The lesson here for professionals is this – whenever you give an assignment break into at least two parts, even if it seems somewhat artificial. Some examples:

  • “Enter this data, then call me.”
  • “Review this document for clarity, then email it back to me.”
  • “Create the report layout you want, then convert it to a pdf.”

I believe this will work when you assign tasks to fellow team members, but, more importantly, I believe it will help with tasks that you assign to your customers.

I have begun to experiment with it and it seems to be working.


  1. Makes sense. We have all been told repeatedly to break large projects down into smaller tasks, and defining “next actions” is an important theme in David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology. So to the extent you can help this process along for the person you are assigning work to, it can only be a positive.

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