In my last post, I promised – just in time for the New Year – to describe my fail-safe method for tackling overwhelmingly large projects. Please, please don’t waste this method on cleaning out a closet or writing an abstract. That would be like using a flamethrower to light a holiday candle. Rather, consider it when you find that simply thinking about starting some vast project induces a debilitating headache.
While the method can work for major life projects (such as dealing with those two dozen boxes you’ve moved, unopened, to your last three residences), I find that it works best with huge writing tasks. I last used it with my wife, Katie, who was trying to finish a revision of her memoir Mother Daughter Me (which will be published by Random House in July 2013). We were in London last year on sabbatical and Katie really wanted to slay the beast before we left, which gave her about 3 weeks. After receiving a boatload of suggested changes from her editor, she was staring at a lengthy to-do list whose contents ranged from tightening one sentence to rewriting several multi-page sections. She was overwhelmed.
Yet 21 days later (16 actually, so effective was the method), the draft was finished. Abraham Verghese, the physician-author and a friend, happened to be visiting us at the time and was awed by what he saw. Abraham encouraged me to develop an app for the method, and if I was more entrepreneurial I would. But I’m not, so here it is.
Although I invented this method long before the concept of “gamification” became trendy, it follows those same principles: it breaks down a seemingly overwhelming task into manageable chunks, and turns the completion of the chunks into something of a game. It also offers the erstwhile procrastinator a choice of how much to bite off each day, which, for reasons understood only by behavioral economists, feels liberating and stirs one to action. Finally, when used in the service of writing, it takes advantage of the age-old adage to write something every day, even when the act feels like opening a vein.
I’ve always enjoyed the game of chess, and my method is drawn from a central fact of the game: each piece has a different value. These values explain why, for example, one should be giddy about exchanging a bishop for a rook. For our purposes here, the relevant point values of the pieces are:
Queen: 9 points
Rook: 5 points
Bishop: 3 points
Pawn: 1 point
Katie had 74 tasks on her list – a near-paralyzing number – and a self-imposed deadline of 3 weeks.
To begin, I had her chronicle these tasks, one to a line (things like, “Find a quote to begin Chapter 5” or “Rewrite the restaurant scene”).
Next, I had her assign a point value to each task. If a task seemed like a no-brainer, something she could whip off in an hour or so, she deemed it a pawn and gave it a score of 1. At the other extreme were a few rewrites of entire chapters or sections; these would take at least a couple of days each and a huge amount of cognitive and emotional energy. She called these tasks queens and they received values of 9. The other tasks were intermediate: bishops were worth 3 points, and rooks, slightly more daunting, were 5 points.
We mapped this out on an Excel spreadsheet. The first column was the task, the next was its point value (1, 3, 5, or 9). We then summed up all the points: the 74 tasks added up to 250 points (17 pawns, 38 bishops, 13 rooks, and 6 queens). Next we divided the total points by 21 days, which yielded an average of 11.9 points per day. In other words, for Katie to complete the entire project in 3 weeks would require that she earn about a dozen points each day.
We then built a second spreadsheet. Its left-most column listed each of the next 21 days. The next column was for the points completed on that day (filled in at the end of that day’s work), the next for the points remaining (calculated by subtracting that day’s completed points from the previous day’s remaining points: 250, 245, 218…), and the next for the days remaining until scheduled completion (20, 19, 18…). A final column was called “New Point Target” – it derived by dividing the value in the “points remaining” column by the value in the “days left” column.
The beauty of all of this was that Katie now realized that she could get her daily points (I know, it sounds like Weight Watchers) via a number of different pathways. A solid 12-point day could involve knocking off a queen and three pawns, or a rook, two bishops and a pawn, or a rook and 7 pawns. She chose her activities by her energy level and the amount of time she had available that day.
The method also allowed her to see the impact of her daily work, including the fact that a below-target day wasn’t fatal. For example, on her first day, she only knocked off 5 points, which was a bummer. But the spreadsheet was a surprisingly gentle taskmaster, calculating that all this did was raise her required daily output for the next 20 days from 11.9 to 12.3. And the next day, she went on a tear and accumulated 27 points. This lowered her daily target from 12.3 to 11.5 for the remaining 19 days. Seeing all these options was astonishingly empowering; it also effectively extinguished the tendency to procrastinate.The method made clear that if Katie tackled a big task one day and got ahead of the game, she could either enjoy a light day or two or – if she kept up the torrid pace – finish the entire project early. For example, she could see that after a few strong days, she could be done with the project in 17 days rather than 21 (while continuing to average 12 points per day), or she could lower her daily point expectation to, let’s say, 10 points per day and still finish on schedule.
When the tasks were done, ahead of schedule, all we had left to do was celebrate, and marvel at how easily humans can be helped to perform beyond our own expectations. Sometimes, all it takes is organizing the work differently – particularly dividing a daunting task into many bite-sized ones, and figuring out a way to generate a little dopamine squirt after each little victory.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to tackle a big, hairy project that you’ve been kicking down the road, think about giving this a try. It really works.
Happy New Year to you and yours!