Let’s face it: it’s hard to start a project at all when you’re looking down range at a target that will take months or even years to achieve. Whether you’ve got a 3,000-word article to write or you’re ready to get started on your 5-year business plan, most goals feel like the biggest undertaking when you’ve still got most of the work ahead of you.
Before you find yourself looking at a blank screen and hyperventilating into a paper bag, remember you can break any project, no matter how enormous, into smaller, more achievable tasks. You’ve simply got to follow the foolproof process outlined below. (When you take it one task at a time, I promise it doesn’t seem so daunting.)
Here’s how to distil the work down into baby steps and GSD.
1. Don’t Procrastinate.
You’ve just had a massive research or brainstorming session, and you’re brimming with inspiration for your project. But you don’t know where to start, so you sit on it. The next day, the inspiration has waned, and you’re even more stumped than before.
Don’t wait. Every second you spend distracting yourself by scrolling through your Facebook feed and watching videos about food is keeping you from getting started. As soon as the inspiration hits you, take action. Otherwise, you never will.
2. State Your Goal.
With that out of the way, let’s begin. Open up a Google doc or your task management software and type out your goal. Maybe it only takes one sentence, or maybe it’s a paragraph. Whatever is sitting in your brain, get it out. Once the page isn’t blank anymore, thinking becomes much easier.
It’s even better if you took notes during your brainstorming or research session. Copy those into the document. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one who can understand them. They’ll soon morph like a beautiful butterfly into a structured, detailed, and easy-to-follow plan. Just wait and see.
3. What’s It Gonna Take?
Once you’ve got something on the page, you can start to dig deeper. Re-read your goal. Ask yourself: What is it going to take for me to reach this goal? Get ready because you need to type out everything (in detail) that pops into your head.
If my goal is to buy a new house in one year, then some of the things I need to accomplish will look like this:
Browse house listings to get an idea of what I’d like to buy. What kind of monthly payment can I afford? Check my credit score. Find out if there are any negative charges on my credit report. Calculate my total monthly income. List my expenses. What’s left? What amount will I need to put down up front? How much does that break down to that I’ll need to save monthly? What expenses can I cut back on to save X amount? Set an automatic monthly bank transfer to my savings. Find a realtor. How much is my current house worth? Get an appraisal. Take pictures of my current house. List my house. Schedule a moving company.
You get the picture. Keep going until you can’t think of anything else.
4. Break It All the Way Down.
Stop looking at everything you just wrote on your page. Scroll down to the blank space at the bottom (I know I just told you to fill up your page, but bear with me for a minute).
Make three categories on your page. You can name them anything you want, but the concept is the same. Category one is for things that are super urgent. These items will be the first things that need to get done before anything else. And, let’s face it, they probably needed to be done yesterday. The second is for things that are still important but require other tasks (read: category one) to happen first. Category three is for the last-minute stuff that will need to happen near the end of your project.
Of course, this is a very vague outline that can fit a variety of different types of projects. If you’re making a plan based on a timeframe such as a year, you could break these categories up into the four quarters. If you’ve got something you need to complete in a month, split the categories into four weeks. Just try not to go beyond four or five categories because it starts to get counterproductive. Whatever makes sense for your particular project, do that.
5. Fill Out Your Outline.
This step is where you revisit your stream-of-consciousness mumbo jumbo and start to sort through it by dividing it out into your timeline categories. Cut and paste are your friends. Cut anything that you need to finish right away out of the paragraph and paste it into category one. Things that you won’t be able to do until near the end can be cut and pasted into category three. Everything else falls into category two.
While you’re doing this, you may notice some holes that need filling. Feel free to add those in whenever you’re able. Try to get your list as complete as you can. Of course, other things will come up as you work toward your goal, especially if this project isn’t something you’ve ever done before. But that’s okay.
This outline is a living document, and you make the rules.
6. Assign Tasks AND DUE DATES.
You may be able to do this step at the same time as the last one, especially if you’re working in a task management software like Trello or Asana. Even in Evernote, you can add a tick box next to each item on your list. To set some accountability for yourself, you absolutely must set deadlines. Each task should have a due date next to it.
If you miss one, you’ll likely experience a domino effect of other missed deadlines so make sure you stay on top of it. It is helpful to use a task management software in this case because they’ll usually let you set up alerts that will ping or email you when a task is due.
7. Build In the Time.
Once you’ve set the due date, you’ve got to make time in your schedule to do the things. Look at your calendar or planner and write in blocks of time that you know you’ll be able to work on these tasks. If you’re using Google calendar, set a reminder for yourself.
8. Try “Sprinting” for the Finish Line.
One thing our team has been recently trying is to set aside one full day, or even an entire week, to get our tasks done. In the Agile community, this is called a work sprint. We’ve put it on the calendar, we’ve cleared our schedules, we’ll even put our away messages up as if we’re on vacation so that we’ll have uninterrupted time to work on the bigger picture business goals we’ve set for ourselves this year.
If you’re working on a personal goal, you may want to consider taking a day off work to do something like this for yourself. It might not be as fun as going to the beach in July, but you’ve probably got something waiting for you at the end of this process that will be more rewarding than a day of instant gratification at the beach.
9. Bonus: Throw in a Few Small Rewards for Added Incentive.
Along those lines, it often helps to set up some smaller rewards for yourself along the way. “If I can write 500 words for my paper, I’ll take a break and play Candy Crush for 15 minutes” or, “If I do these five tasks by next Friday, I’ll treat myself to a frozen yogurt/manicure/few beers/new puppy/new car.” (We don’t know your life.)
That’s it! Now, take a deep breath and get started. Before you know it, your once daunting project will be a structured schedule of completed tasks that lead you to your big goal.
What will you use this structure to accomplish? Sound off in the comments or on social media @dontpanicmgmt. GIFs strongly encouraged.