How do I tackle long term projects?
October 11, 2011 11:56 AM   Subscribe

How do you take a big, long term project and break it into reasonable chunks? What's your process?

Ok, I'm crappy at time management, and I'm dealing with a bunch of perfecitonism/ADD issues. I'm working on it with medication and therapy, but as of right now, I have a big project that needs to get done within the next 4 weeks or so.

I'm having trouble seeing the trees, when all I can see if the crazy, scary forest.

I'm a PhD student in the social sciences, and this specific project is a review of literature. I have some articles already. I have a spreadsheet. I feel like I've taken the right steps so far, but I just can't seem to find a path forward.

I realize that breaking things down is the way to go, but I can't seem to figure out how to make that work for me. It's like, if I can't finish the whole project in one sitting, it isn't worth it. I've tried to trick myself with individual tasks, but it always feels like part of that greater whole, and that's what fills me with dread/frustration.

I have problems with these amorphous, giant projects, and I never seem to be able to chunk them properly. I end up missing things, making the steps too ambiguous (find more sources!), or other things. I also don't know when I'm done with one section - am I finished writing this part, or is there more? Do I move on? I've tried to do this GTD style, but my "next actions" never seem to work. I put "Read through 5 articles in backlog" on my todo list, and it just sort of sits there, while more "pressing" things get done.

If you're good at this, how do you do it? What's your mental process when making these chunks? How do you deal with the fear that you might be missing something, or that the steps may not be as concrete as you'd hoped? How do I get a handle on big, long term projects?
posted by SNWidget to Education (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've tried to trick myself with individual tasks, but it always feels like part of that greater whole, and that's what fills me with dread/frustration.

Write these tasks down, in a list. On a big white board or note pad or something. Something you can show someone. Cross them off as you go along and get things done.

I am a procrastinator and perfectionist (this is such a bad combo) and this was the only way I could tackle projects without feeling overwhelmed and inclined to do other things.

One of the things I had to come to grips with, doing this method though.. was that I couldn't be all perfectionist about that list. I had to tell myself that it was okay to forget things. It was okay to write in the margins and scribble in the forgotten step.

It also helps to take that list to someone else and ask: Am I forgetting something? (although this is only helpful if your boss or your coworkers understand the steps in the project)
posted by royalsong at 12:18 PM on October 11, 2011

When I do this, I use a spreadsheet and estimate times as well. So I take the whole project and break it into large chunks. Something like:
1. Brainstorm workflow for feature 1
2. Design user interface for each screen
3. Define APIs
4. Write tests
5. Write code
6. Test

Or, you know, whatever makes sense for you. Then I go back through the steps and see if I need to break them down further. I assign estimates to each step, just using my gut instincts. ("write unit tests: 8 hours"). Then I go back regularly and update my estimates ("new estimate: unit tests 16 hours"). The good thing about this is that you'll start getting good at planning and estimating-- you'll realize you're always off by half, or that you're faster than you think.

Basically, this is a matter of working through the project in my head; it took some practice, but eventually I got REALLY good at it. It's an iterative process, so you keep going back through the list and adding as you go, no pressure if you realize you forgot something.
posted by instamatic at 12:37 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I put "Read through 5 articles in backlog" on my todo list, and it just sort of sits there, while more "pressing" things get done.

I think that's a todo item that needs to be broken down even more. You might be better off writing "Read Smith 1997" so that you've taken all the effort out of deciding what to do.
posted by thegears at 12:58 PM on October 11, 2011

I break things down with mind maps, if they're large enough and disorganized enough to warrant it.

Most project I work on these days aren't either.

I did locate / download / install a new mindmap program with an integral to-do list that looks interesting, but I haven't needed it, yet. It's called MindOnTrack . Might be of some value.

Today, I am barely motivated enough to breathe, and that's a different thing... the getting started thing. There are 1000 hacks. None work reliably for me, but some do, sometimes.

If it's a 4 week project, you'd better be aiming at 3 weeks, too. You need time at the end for review/improvement and if you don't put in excess time, you'll hand in crap, either barely on time or late. Save yourself some grief!

Now, get off metafilter and go to work! ( I will, too!)
posted by FauxScot at 1:09 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

if I can't finish the whole project in one sitting, it isn't worth it.

I think you need to focus on the step you're on and consider that "a project". Don't think at all about the other steps, what's left to be done, etc... When you finish that step, stop and give yourself credit. Maybe take a break.

Then, the next step is another little project.
posted by elmay at 1:11 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few months ago my husband attended a three-day seminar, to do with project management because that's, essentially, his job, where he works to his strengths. While he has a lot of that down, that being his thing both naturally and as his work, one thing he picked up there was the importance of Action Plans (hah - it was right there for me to paste from the question I just answered).
Action Plans are simple lists of all of the tasks that you need to finish to meet an objective. They differ from To-Do Lists in that they focus on the achievement of a single goal.

Action Plans are useful, because they give you a framework for thinking about how you'll complete a project efficiently. They help you finish activities in a sensible order, and they help you ensure that you don't miss any key steps. Also, because you can see each task laid out, you can quickly decide which tasks you'll delegate or outsource, and which tasks you may be able to ignore.
We now use them all the time, in all sorts of applications, from buying a car last week to, fixing our toilet yesterday, to our kid's cleaning up her room and getting to school and bed on time. I'm a convert, because, damn, they work despite some scoffing on my part early on and I am so, so weak when it comes to getting things done. The link here is a start - there's more information available, of course - but the next time I get an opportunity to do a workshop myself, I will.

I also consider myself a polychronic person, so I need to use a lot of external prompts to get me through completing my work, like environment, rewards, timers and false deadlines.
posted by peagood at 1:32 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Write a large outline of what needs to be done in the project, even if at a high level.

Prioritize them by complexity, deadlines, external factors, etc.

Break down each high-level task into smaller chunks of work.


Repeat until you can break down the tasks into sub-tasks that seem reasonable to you. Reasonable might depend on the complexity of the tasks, the amount of estimated time per task, dependencies, etc.

It is fantastic to get things done in one sitting, but impossible if the project is too big. Take advantage, yet modify this mindset by getting smaller tasks done in one sitting. You will slowly see the outlined, prioritized tasks get chipped away until your forest just becomes a manageable set of trees.
posted by seppyk at 1:41 PM on October 11, 2011

After taking 6 years to write the first 6 chapters for my PhD thesis, I recently completed the last chapter in one month. Here's what I did:

(First of all, I write in Scrivener, an amazing piece of writing software, and some of its tools were very helpful. As great as it is, however, I am not saying that Scrivener is the answer. I was using Scrivener for the first 5 years and 11 months, too.)

-I decided that a reasonable length for a chapter would be 12,000 words.
-I set a deadline.
-I came up with an outline for the chapter that I was willing to commit to, at least to start.
-I divided my 12,000 words among the sections of the outline.
-I directed Scrivener to calculate a daily word goal for me, based on the deadline and the number of days per week that I planned to write.
-I sat down and wrote those words, picking the section of the outline that looked easiest to start with. Whatever research or reading I needed to do to write those words, I did it; but no more.
-At the end of the day, I revised my estimates about the length of each section, based on what I had written that day. Mostly, the sections got longer than I had planned. Occasionally, I was able to shorten them. I changed the overall word goal for the chapter to reflect the new reality, and re-calculated the daily word goal accordingly.
-I used Scrivener's built-in functions to visually track my progress using colored progress bars. I took screenshots of these progress bars every day.

At the end of a month, I had a complete 17,000-word chapter. Here are the key points that I think made this system work for me:

-I worked on the project every weekday, and took the weekends off.
-I made a mental commitment to working on one thing at a time, and I let myself pick the thing that looked easiest every day.
-I evaluated my progress and re-factored my daily workload every single day. Most days, when I sat down to write, my daily word goal was a little bigger than it had been the day before. But even though the tasks were getting a little bigger, I could still be on schedule every single day, which was an enormously motivating feeling.
-I reminded myself constantly, using colored pictures, of how much work I had done already, in relationship to the total amount of work and the amount left to be done. The visual record of screenshots showing my progress proved to me, even when I found it difficult to believe, that I had a chunk of work already behind me; and that what was left was a small and steadily diminishing fraction of what I had already finished, and that it did not, therefore, need to take the rest of my life.

For me, the concept of next actions, in the context of a writing project, is a loss. Researching and writing are too spontaneous and unpredictable for this to work. I do much better committing to doing a measurable amount of work in a day, and then doing whatever I need to do to get it done.

In my opinion, therefore, it is most important to divide the work into chunks of any size that make sense, but on which you can make measurable, incremental progress (count words; count pages read; count hours). Steps that can only be checked off when they are completely done, no matter how small, will cause a problem when you don't finish them on the day you planned to. Don't worry if your plans and estimates aren't perfect. Improve them as you go along, and change your work plan on a daily basis to reflect the updated situation (as instamatic also describes). And find a way to track your progress that encourages you to think about the progress you are making on individual parts in constant relationship to the progress of the whole.
posted by bluebird at 3:37 PM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Two things:

1. Lit reviews are really hard to scope and chunk, even for those of us that are GTD or to-do list masters. This is because it's very difficult to know beforehand how many articles or primary sources you're going to need to read before you've gotten fairly deep into the project; this leads to real difficulty in estimating and writing down each step you'll need to take on a to-do list.

Embrace (or at least accept) the iterative nature of literature reviews means that the traditional "chunk into discrete pieces, map out on a timeline, then do one thing each day" is a recipe for madness. Instead, to conduct an efficient lit review, you need to do things: (a) have a plan for knowing when you just STOP with the ever-expanding reading list and put pen to paper; and (b) tackle procrastination so that you're making good progress on this iterative process and don't run out of time at the end. My best piece of golden advice here is that I never, ever, ever have felt like I have started writing "too early" in the process but often feel that I start too late in terms of maximal efficiency; oftentimes, it's starting to write a really, really, really rough draft that focuses me on where the gaps in my reading have been and helps me be very focused in my research and reading.

2. If you're a perfectionist and also struggle with items languishing on your to-do list, you might find this short read from Zen Habits useful. In short, you may be having issues with prioritizing things correctly (urgent is NOT the same as important) and in order to make real progress--especially with an amorphous task like a lit review--it may be more helpful to restrict yourself to having one item on your to-do list every day. Note that this actually works really well with iterative processes that don't have well-defined tasks or stopping points; instead of needing to figure out the unknoweable way in advance you can merely take five minutes every morning to decide what a reasonable amount of progress for that day looks like. If you restrict yourself to one task, you also force yourself to focus on what the most important thing is, for example "read these five articles I know are important" rather than "noodle around on Google Scholar and see if there are any cites I've missed."

In line with my observation about starting the writing or outlining process as early as possible, I'd probably consciously decide to make "writing" more important than "reading and researching more" whenever possible; that is, once you're past the initial stages of having read a few sources you should force yourself to have days where you pen to paper, in order to help you see more clearly how to be productive on days when you're looking for more information or reading material that you've gathered.
posted by iminurmefi at 3:45 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get a DVD. Look at the way they break the film into the chapters and look at the titles they give them. You'll see they have effectively divided the film up into the bullet points you need to see in order to get the film. Do the same with your project.
posted by dougrayrankin at 5:18 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all of the help, everyone. This thing is about to drive me mad, and I think I have a better plan now.

In case anyone comes around to check what I'm planning to do, I think I'll try breaking down my steps into really, stupidly small chunks. Like iminurmefi suggested, I'm going to stop reading and do a little writing as well - even if I have to go back and change it all later. Peagood's Action Plan idea looks interesting as well, but I may try it next time (or on some less volatile stuff than this current lit review).

Every day is a fight - I can't seem to work more than 2 days in a row. Hopefully, with a new plan, I'll be better about it.

Thanks for everyone that helped - and if you have any other suggestions, I'd love to hear them.
posted by SNWidget at 12:42 PM on October 12, 2011

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