One of the most important skills for getting things done is actually being able to Understand what needs to be done. If we are unable to understand this, all later stages of prioritizing, organizing, asking for help, and ultimately, getting things done, cannot take place. And yet, this is generally taken for granted.
Whenever there is a new task, new project, new assignment there are a series of steps that need to happen to actually achieve the goal, and get it done. The step zero is actually not the focus of this blog. Step zero is being there, showing up, taking the challenge. If you are not there to start with, that new project will end up in someone else’s hands.
Once the new project, assignment, or task has been received, our ability to perform the next step may heavily influence the success of whatever we are aiming to accomplish: understanding what needs to be done. When we are inexperienced, we rely on other people to help us defining what needs to be done and what are the next steps. Being able to perform this step alone, independently, is what opens the door for running your own projects, your own research, and eventually being able to manage yourself and others.
What needs to be done?
Understanding this implies understanding what is your goal, what are you meant to accomplish, what is expected from you. Without a clear goal or objective, we cannot even get started. The goal, even sometimes blurry, needs to be there.
Once the goal is defined, we know where to go, we know what is expected, where we should be and also more importantly, when. Do we have a week? a month? a year? is this a lifetime project?
When the what (and why) and when is defined, it’s time to make a plan. The first step to making that plan is understanding what needs to be done. This is, in sum, a series of high level steps that need to happen to accomplish the goal. For example, if our goal is to be able to write a blog on a new malware, then the high level steps could be:
- Reading about this new malware
- Defining what information is missing on this malware that our blog should cover
- Create the structure and goal of the blog
- Write the blog and publish it
These are high level steps, a general breakdown of tasks. This is the first step that tell us that in general we will be reading (what’s been done so far or investigating a new malware), planing what to write (thinking what we want to say), and ultimately writing (achieving the goal).
This is what understanding what needs to be done is all about. Is the first step to accomplish the goal. If we understand the high level stages or tasks, we can ask for help, we can estimate times, we can re-think deadlines. If we are unable to break the problem down in these big chunks then all the successive steps will struggle.
As I mentioned before, when we are inexperienced other people guide us on what needs to be done, planning, prioritizing, and executing. When we grow we start doing this alone. This step ultimately will render us capable of managing ourselves and others. But as with any other skill, being able to do this well requires some effort.
- The first step to get better at this is to actually recognizing this as your first step (remember there’s a step zero: understanding your goal and why you will be doing that task, project, assignment).
- Once you recognize this as your first step, is important to practice. Next time you have a new assignment, project, task, pay attention to how this is done. Whether you are doing it or your mentor/boss/teacher/parent is guiding you on it, pay attention on how is done.
- Finally, start practicing, start doing this step yourself, alone. Next task, try to plan it alone and ask your superior to review your break down of tasks. It takes a lot of thinking and hard work to do it alone for the first time, but it’s a skill that gets better with practice. Get feedback, improve, repeat.
Prioritize, Plan, Execute
Once you understand what needs to happen to achieve your goal, you can repeat the process adding more detail, granularity, to the tasks. The next step is prioritizing, determining what is more important, what comes first, what can wait. Once the priorities have been defined, making a plan is what follows: you know your deadline, you know the tasks, you can make a rough estimate of when to do what. Finally, you can execute: you know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it (if you don’t know how to do it, you can ask for help or investigate; this should be part of your plan).
One very important step on managing better yourself, your tasks, or others, is to understand what needs to be done in order to accomplish a specific goal. This is a skill that you can improve. To improve there is only one way: to practice. Start by paying attention to how others do this, try to identify when this step takes place in your next project. Continue trying to do it yourself and asking for feedback. Every time it will be better and easier.