Task Analysis and You!

Complex behaviors like playing the piano can be more easily learned by using a technique called task analysis.

Today I wanted to talk about the amazing wonders of Task Analysis in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). This is probably one of the most useful tools you’re going to get from this blog.

For those that don’t know, ABA is the application of all the behavior principles I’ve been talking about in this blog. You’ll usually see ABA practices used to help children with learning disabilities or helping schoolchildren learn in a classroom setting. 

Task analysis is one of the techniques used to help almost anything learn, but I’m going to be honest here, task analysis is useful in almost every situation where something is trying to learn. This includes teaching a skill to someone else, or if you’re just struggling to learn how to do something at work. 

What is Task Analysis and How do I do it?

Questions are always encouraged, and Task Analysis will only get easier if you keep asking how you can help.

To perform a task analysis, all you have to do is break down a task into its most basic steps. I know I’ve used this example in a previous article, but let’s say we’re trying to teach a child to brush their teeth.

A task analysis will try to break down brushing one’s teeth into its basic constituent steps. In this example, a task analysis may look like:

  1. Pick up brush.
  2. Wet toothbrush
  3. Put toothpaste on brush.
  4. Bring brush to mouth.
  5. Brush teeth.
  6. Take Brush out of mouth.
  7. Rinse.

Pretty simple right?

One of the benefits of this system is that, if you’re struggling at any of these steps, you can further break it down into more steps. 

Let’s say that our subject wasn’t totally sure what exactly happens at step 5 (brush teeth). If we broke that step down into smaller steps, then it would look something like this:

  1. Move toothbrush to upper left quadrant of mouth.
  2. Move toothbrush in circular motion on teeth and gums. 
  3. Move brush to upper right quadrant of mouth.
  4. Move brush in circular motion on teeth and gums.

…and so on.

What’s important here is to break down complex actions into easily accomplished and understandable tasks. This way, anyone can complete these tasks and you’re always focusing on how to get your subject from one step to another. 

Real World Example

Today’s example is brought to you by a writer in a constant struggle against the forces of procrastination.

For a real-world example, if you’re like me and trying to write every single day, let’s use task analysis to see how you can build up a regular writing habit. 

Let’s do an analysis of one of my writing sessions. It would look something like this:

  1. Walk to computer
  2. Turn on computer
  3. Sit down
  4. Pick music
  5. Open word document
  6. Write

Task Analysis lets me see what steps I need to complete and in what order. It also lets me break down when I can reinforce myself if I need to.

In this example, if I’m struggling to get out of bed, it’s overwhelming to consider the entirety of my work as “I have to get out of bed and then finish an article by 3pm.” However, if I considered just getting out of bed as step 1 and then just focused on doing that before I care about step 2, then the entire task of finishing work becomes much easier. I usually also make some coffee for myself early in the morning so I can reinforce myself for the action of getting out of bed despite its difficulty. Then, once I’ve sat down, I drink the coffee to reinforce myself for getting this far.

How to Use This

Task analysis is another useful tool to help you build behavior how you want to.

Once you’ve done the task analysis, there are three major ways you can use a task analysis to your benefit. 

They are forward chaining, backward chaining, and total task teaching.

Forward chaining is when you start on the first step of the task and then learn each individual step. This is the most common way to use task analysis. Think of it like following instructions to finish building an IKEA table. You look at step one, you follow step one and get the table leg then attach it to the main table board, and then you look at step two, get the next leg, etc..

Backward chaining is when you start your subject on the last step and then progressively teach them each step from there. 

An example of backward chaining can be seen when teaching your child how to put on a shirt. After you break the task into smaller steps, you can complete all of them for your child (getting out the shirt, putting a sleeve over one arm, putting a sleeve over the other arm, then putting the shirt over their head) except the last one which you can have your child do for themselves (pulling the shirt down). Then next time, you complete all the tasks except for the last two, and have the child finish the last two for themselves (put shirt over head, pull shirt down).

Total task teaching is a specific kind of forward chain and probably what most people in your life have done poorly to teach you. They’ll try to teach you the entirety of the task from beginning to end and only stop when you start struggling. However, the difference here is that they never stopped to do a task analysis on the part that you were struggling with. Total task teaching will only break down steps in the parts the subject is struggling with. 

What makes Total Task Teaching unique is that the subject is expected to do all the tasks in their entirety with little break between each step. For example, if you’re teaching someone how to tie their shoes, you can’t reward people for each step. What matters is finishing the entire task. As a result, the subject has to get through each of the steps with few breaks, and will only be allowed to stop once they finish tying their shoes.


Task analysis is the simple act of just taking a complex behavior and breaking it down into easily achievable steps.

If you’re ever having difficulty doing any particular task, then I highly recommend you use this technique to help yourself learn or to help teach a subject how to do something they could be struggling with.

Once you’ve identified the smaller and easily accomplished tasks, you can use Forward Chaining or Backward Chaining in order to help you teach the task. This becomes invaluable as tasks get harder and harder and your subject finds itself struggling more.

Thank you for reading! My bad this article is a bit late, but I’ll see you all next week!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s