Friday, July 11, 2008

Little Pieces of Work

I was thinking about how we can break down tasks.
One of the things that I have heard reported by many writers is that they are daunted by the size of the project that lies before them. "Overwhelmed" is a word I hear a lot.

I know what it's like to feel overwhelmed by a project--a sense that the project is this massive monolith that cannot be moved. We have to learn to chip away at it.

Every big project is composed of little projects. As the saying foes: the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Not only does it begin with a single step, but it is carried to its completion by always taking one more step, until the journey is over.

Every big piece of work is made of simply taking he work one step at a time. It can be daunting to sit down in the morning and say "ok, now I'm going to work on my dissertation for the next three hours." But if we can see that three hour period as made up of a number of smaller tasks--a few fifteen minute tasks, maybe a few thirty minute tasks--then it may often be easier to engage in the work.

It's great to make optimistic plans. It's great to assume that you're going to be extremely productive. But it's also great to take reality into account. It's fine to make a plan that you're going to work on your dissertation for eight hours on Saturday--but if the reality is that on Saturday after Saturday you don't work eight hours, then you need to reconsider the plans you're making. So for me, instead of making big plans, I like to make small plans--or at least, I like to make small plans that break apart my big plans. This analytical process--this process of dividing a project--can be problematic in many ways, but I find that it really helps me get moving.

If I can set myself a task for fifteen minutes--that's easy. If I can see the need to write one paragraph on a specific subject, well, writing one paragraph is not a daunting task. If I can get myself to take action for fifteen minutes, that's better than planning on working three hours and getting nothing done. But even better is that if I can do the one thing in fifteen minutes, then I feel good about myself, and I feel good about working, and I can try something else for the next fifteen minutes, and if I get something done in that fifteen minutes I feel even better about myself.

If we keep our goals really small and really focused, then they are not overwhelming. It's not surprising that someone would be overwhelmed if they were thinking "I have to work on my dissertation." It would be a lot more surprising if someone got overwhelmed saying "I have to write one paragraph on subject X."

Of course if someone did get overwhelmed just trying to write one paragraph, we could break the task of writing that paragraph into different steps.

Back in the day when I still was relatively current on computers, I was a teaching assistant for a basic programming course. This was maybe 1993 or 1994--the course taught the computer language "pascal", which I knew fairly well, and was, for the first time, integrating html into the course material. As a programmer, it's easy to get used to thinking about the very small steps that make up a process. The more so, the more primitive the language. Html and Pascal both are high level languages in which single commands get translated to many different little commands for a given computer (actually, html isn't really that kind of language at all, but rather specific programs use html as sets of intstructions--but that's kind of beside the point).
In the class for which I was a TA, we had on one exam a question that asked the students to write pseudo-code for boiling water.
Most students answered something like this:
Fill a pot with water
put it on the stove
turn on the stove

Well, that is fine, but it leaves out a lot of detail. Take that first step, for example: "fill a pot with water." Where does the pot come from? where does the water come from? how does the pot get filled with water? If we wanted, we could break this step down into smaller steps:
Find a pot
pick it up
carry the pot to the sink
place the pot beneath the faucet
turn on the faucet
wait for the pot to fill

We might have to break some of those steps down, too.
There is complexity that we take for granted--we know where we keep pots in our kitchen, and we know how to fill them with water, so we take those little steps for granted.

But in writing a dissertation, we are not so familiar with the terrain. We need to be willing to take the project even the simplest, smallest step at a time. We need to be able to exploit that way of looking at the project: if we are feeling overwhelmed, just take the smallest task that we can find and work on it.

My one caveat: don't let that one next task always be to read something else--because there's always something else to read, but if you don't write, you won't get finished writing. That being said, the writing tasks can be broken up into very small pieces--write a paragraph on one subject, a page on another, two sentences on yet another. Whatever the size, it is more important to do a little work, than it is to make a big plan and do less. By breaking your project up into little pieces of work, you can focus your efforts.

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