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Three steps for completing large projects

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 3/1/07]

This is the final post in our discussion about completing large projects.
Last week I reprinted some general thoughts on the subject from a pair of
exceptional young adults who have certainly mastered this skill. This week
I want to move beyond generalities and focus on what we love best here at
Study Hacks: specific, clear, actionable advice.

Below, I present a three-step process for tackling major endeavors. This
information is based on a mixture of my personal experiences and the
hundreds of student interviews I’ve completed. As always, I want to hear
your thoughts – simply reply to this message if you have something to add,
question, or applaud. The next post will move us on to a new topic:
student time management (also known as: “stop being an idiot about your
schedule…seriously, stop.”) Expect that in 7-14 days. Now, on to the

Three step for completing large projects:

(1) Reduce from a project to a reasonable task.
(2) Construct a habit-based plan.
(3) Complete and repeat.

Large projects are complicated. Especially if they are of the “ambitious”
variety –something that most people your age might doubt that you can
accomplish. This is intimidating. It can incite you to put off the work,
fearing that the current moment is not quite “right” for starting
something so scary, so momentous. The key, therefore, is to reduce the
significance. That is why the first step of the three is to extract some
reasonable task that will simply move you closer to the full project goal.
“Reasonable,” in this instance, means that you have what you need to get
started, and the whole task shouldn’t take more than 1 to 4 weeks to

For example, “publish an article in the New Yorker” is not a reasonable
first task toward a goal of “publish my first book.” You (probably) do not
already have everything you need to get started on such a task; e.g.,
being a well-established non-fiction writer, connected in New York
literati circles. On the other hand, “publish an op-ed in my college
paper,” or “join a campus magazine staff,” are both eminently reasonable
ways to get started. In fact, these were the first two tasks I tackled on
the long road toward publishing my first book.

Once you’ve chosen your reasonable first task, you need to figure out how
to implement it. The key lesson here: you’re willpower sucks. A big
mistake made by many momentarily-inspired people is to think that their
excitement for the project, mixed with their solid work ethic, is enough
to keep them plugging along toward completion. This almost never occurs.
We are not wired to be persistent. Your willpower will desert you. This
why — as you’ve come to expect here on Study Hacks — the secret lies in
having a plan. Figure out when and where you’re going to work on your task
and what you are going to accomplish. Try to find a place and time you can
hit consistently – something you can transform into a habit before your
excitement for the project wanes.

For example, when writing my first book, I wrote one hour, every morning,
at the desk in my dorm room. I took out the same notes, made the same cup
of coffee, and arranged my desk in the same way each time. I had to make
it a habit, because there was no way my motivation would hold up
consistently, day by day, over months. But once this became ingrained, it
was just something I did. Accomplished work accumulated. I didn’t fret
about it. I didn’t gnash my teeth or procrastinate. It became a hum in the
background noise of my life, and, eventually, it got done.

If you are not able to accomplish this second step then you probably have
more basic needs to attend to. Perhaps you’re not really sold on the
importance of the project you are pursuing and your mind is seeking
excuses to abort. More likely, your daily schedule is too chaotic for you
insert the type of regularity demanded by a habit-based plan. In this
case, you need to execute some remedial changes; e.g., regularize your
weekday sleep, upgrade your nutrition, build a daily schedule, use a
capture system, and time block instead of making to-do lists. (Topics that
will be covered in later posts…)

Assuming your habit-based schedule is in place, you will, soon enough,
accomplish that first task. At this point, it’s time to repeat. You are
now closer to completing your project than before. Survey your options and
come up with a new reasonable task that will bring you even closer to your
goal. Once your new task has been selected, come up with a new habit-based plan, and get back to work. Your path toward project completion will proceed along these lines. One small task, efficiently executed, at a time, until, eventually, you get within striking distance of your goal, and make that final sprint.

This doesn’t sound glamorous. In fact, this approach stands in
contradiction to the fevered-genius image of accomplishment that the media
so often associates with big achievements. But more often than not, this
is how it really gets done. The big “doers” in life tend to be those who
are consistently working, piece by piece, on at least one or two big
projects at any one time. They get it done. Not in a week of
caffeine-fueled frenzy, but in a half-year of small, frequent steps

Once you integrate this style of work into your daily schedule, you’ll be
surprised by the size of the endeavors that begin to enter into the realm
of possibility for you to tackle. From term papers to life-changing
quests, the skill of completing large projects is crucial. Today is as
good as any to start working on it.

4 thoughts on “Three steps for completing large projects”

  1. Thanks for this very wise advice Cal! It reminds me of BJ Fogg who says that simplicity drives behavior. We are limited by our energy levels so we have to focus on starting with tiny habits.

  2. I’m very interested in what to do when my free time is large: If I have a large project, and 8 open “work hours” a day, then it seems natural to try to set up a habit of “work on Project at x location, 8 hours a day until complete.” However, this seems to be far too open, and I’m not sure of the possible ways to think about it.

    Some ideas:
    – can the project be broken down into different sections? Then you could create small habits for each portion of the project. Say you are building a website. You could work on content one hour a day, front end in the morning, and back end in the afternoon.
    – set up deep work periods, and lists of things that would fit into these slots.

    I’m hesitant about these, anyone else have other thoughts?


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