When you have a big project to do, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Big projects can be really challenging because, for one thing, big projects have a lot of parts. When there’s a lot to do, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s important to do first or how to break each part into steps you can actually achieve each day. Sometimes it’s hard to even want to start, even when you know you have to.
Akrasia is the experience of realizing that you should do something, but then not doing it. It is what holds so many of us back from making timely progress on big projects.
We look at huge assignments and get overwhelmed. We don’t know where to start, or how to set deadlines, or what the right tool is for the job. So we put it off, until some outside thing (like a manager asking “Hey, that thing will be ready by Monday, right?”) forces us to take action. Once we’re under pressure, we figure it out and get it done.
But sometimes, the block isn’t just internal. We often get held up on big projects because they tend to have a ton of unknowns that make it challenging to know even what you need to do or where you’ll end up when you’re done. This kind of block doesn’t come from feeling overwhelmed or not wanting to get started. It comes from the sheer volume of things you don’t know.
So how can you figure out where to start and what to do, when you don’t even know where you’re going?
How to break a big project into small steps
First things first: stop feeling overwhelmed.
Okay, that’s easier said than done. But in almost every case, you will eventually be able to solve the problem and achieve your goal. Think about it: how many times at work have you 100% failed, or not even been able to get started on something? Probably not that often, if ever.
You almost always have the capability to get your big project done.
And the sooner you can realize that for every big project you tackle, the faster you will be able to approach situations with a clear head and a smart strategy.
One of the best ways to break down a big project is to ask yourself questions:
- What’s the first thing you would google to tackle this problem? Thinking in terms of searching forces you to start thinking on a small scale, and once you start doing that, it gets easier to outline steps.
- Has anyone else done something like this before? In tackling our Kickstarter, we studied tons of successful campaigns other people had done. Not only did it give us good ideas by hearing their stories, but it also helped reinforce the idea that this was possible and we could do it too.
- If I only had 10 minutes to make progress on this every day this week, what would I do? Too often we get overwhelmed thinking about the parts of a project that will take days or weeks, which keeps us from doing anything today. To combat this, think really small. You don’t have to get every step done all at once. Think about how you can make meaningful progress on the big steps, even without completing them or investing hours at a time.
- What are the unknowns here? What do I need to do to nail them down? When you identify what’s holding you back from seeing a full plan for this project, that can help clarify next steps of what you need to research, who you need to talk to, etc. This step can also help you clarify what you already know and already have the ability to make progress on.
When you ask yourself questions like these, you force yourself to bring the project into reality. The more you hone in on the project on a small scale, the more practical your approach can be, which means you can actually take action.
Focus on chipping away at goals, rather than completing steps. If your goal is to make progress, you’ll feel much less overwhelmed and more empowered than if your goal is simply to complete this huge thing.
Every project is just a series of small steps. The more you can force yourself to see those small steps, the more progress you’ll make every single day and the less overwhelming the project will be.
What if you’re overwhelmed by unknowns?
If you’ve asked yourself practical questions about how to break down your big project and you still aren’t sure how to make a plan, then you’re probably dealing with a big goal that has a lot of unknowns.
It can be hard to break something into steps when you don’t yet know what the whole “thing” is.
But just because you can’t predict the future doesn’t mean you can’t make progress. Here is how to still move forward on a goal, even when you don’t know exactly where you’ll end up or how you’ll make it to the finish line:
Give estimates with flexibility. If your project impacts other people or teams, those people will probably want to get estimates from you on when they can expect it to be done. This can be really hard to do, though, when you don’t yet know how long a project will take or what it will involve, but you don’t want to lie or give people an unrealistic deadline that you *hope* you’ll be able to achieve.
To combat this, give people as much information as you can and set deadlines where you’ll give them more information.
That way, instead of giving them a deadline that’s a complete guess, you can tell them, “Right now, I estimate this project will take about 4 weeks, but I will know more at the end of next week. I will give you an update then with a fuller plan and more concrete deadline.”
Then follow up once you have that information and a more clear picture of when you’ll be done.
Identify your unknowns. Okay, so it’s hard to know what you don’t know. But when you look at the project, you can probably find a few places where you can start planning. Where does your ability to plan stop? At that spot, that’s where your unknowns are creeping in.
To figure out what needs to happen in those unknown areas, start researching.
Has anyone on your team done something like this before? Can they tell you what they did? Can you find whitepapers or blog posts about other teams that have done this? Seeing other peoples’ experience can give you a clue into the unknowns.
Plan for the worst-case scenario, but don’t solve problems you don’t have yet. It’s scary to do something without knowing for sure it will work, and so often we pre-troubleshoot and think through all the possible ways something could go wrong. Which is a good thing; you want to research and plan to make sure you are making the best effort possible.
But this impulse to avoid failure can often keep us from making progress right now, because we are so worried about messing something up in the future.
If you have a task in front of you, do that task. Don’t put it off because you’re worried it might impact the outcome of some aspect of the project weeks away that you haven’t even started yet.
Instead, think through the worst-case scenarios, research the best options, and set expectations/milestones for how you’ll make sure a project is on track — but then move on. That way, you’re prepared with an outline of a plan for what you’ll do in the worst case, but you are able to spend your time right now focused on the work in front of you rather than worrying about the future.
Think about your time, not the work. We often think of big projects like puzzles; once we have all the pieces, then we can put them together and we are done. But when you’re working on a project where you don’t even know how many pieces the puzzle has, this way of thinking can hold you back.
Instead, think about your time. Look at the information you have in front of you, and think about where your hours this week are best spent. Instead of focusing on getting this or that puzzle piece done, think about progress. Where will you have the biggest impact? What is one thing you can do every day this week that will be meaningful?
Then at the end of each week, look back at what you accomplished, and use your new progress and information to formulate a plan for how you’ll spend time next week.
Big projects are hard, but the results can be amazing. Instead of putting off hard things until the last minute, change the way you think about them and approach them.
How do you tackle huge assignments? Let us know in the comments!