Thinking Toys #12 — Granularizing

Sometimes we’ll have a big goal that we’re excited about but can’t seem to make progress on. It can be so big and important that we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Making a plan seems like the prudent first step — with a good plan success seems more likely. But even making this plan feels overwhelming and scary. It’s such a big undertaking and there is a lot of pressure to get it right because we care about the goal. As a result, we procrastinate and fail to make any progress at all. In this situation, it often makes sense to granularize. Don’t try to plan the whole thing. Take a best guess at a first milestone that we will need to hit and figure out how to get there. Break up that path into small steps and define a next action that you can take immediately. If it’s too big or uncertain to be something we can start immediately, break it up further. Once we have a doable next action, it’s often effortless to begin.

I’m interested in the study of developmental psychology. To better understand the field, I made a goal to review the academic literature. While excited about the project, I felt overwhelmed — the field is massive with dozens of seminal works. I wanted to do it right — to have a complete plan of attack. Unfortunately, I didn’t make much progress for a while. Upon noticing this pattern of procrastination, I tried to granularize. I picked a first milestone of reading a single popular work by someone that I was already familiar with. I found the book available online and started reading immediately. By making it OK to start somewhere imperfect, it enabled initial progress which led to eventual momentum.

For big projects and ambitious goals, it is tempting to think we need the perfect plan. It seems like we can make one if only we set aside the time and energy. Unfortunately, this planning process itself can turn into something scary and overwhelming. Rather than starting, you delay. If you notice this happening for a while, consider whether your desire to plan is useful. Almost always you can proceed productively with little to no plan. Try guessing at some initial steps that will move you in the general desired direction and focus on executing those. If you’re worried that the first milestone is a bad one, see if you can develop falsifiable tests. What would you need to see to know if you were on the wrong track? Finally, it’s important to conclude this process at a fine enough granularity. Have you generated a next action that you can take immediately? If not, it may continue to be difficult to start. Keep breaking up your steps into smaller and more granular actions.

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