Move Mountains, One Rock at a Time

Ever had this great big idea, but didn’t know how to start? How about something that seemed so huge that you can’t seem to get any traction towards your goal? This happens all the time, you don’t have to panic. What I’m going to tell you is a tried and true approach, I first heard formalized in the U.S. Army and I’ve used it successfully ever since. It’s kept me going through assignments, research projects, a thesis, and even commercial projects.

Monolithic problems are like blocks of granite. They’re huge, foreboding, and if you hit them the wrong way, they’ll crumble. The first thing to know when approaching a block of granite, is that you want to have an idea of where you want to end up, even if you have no real idea how to get there (yet). Now it’s not so open ended, you know where you want to go, so we have an end point. The next step is to start chiseling off pieces of your problem. After you’ve knocked off a few smaller pieces the it’s time to reexamine your end goals and perhaps add a few more intermediate steps.

What you don’t want to do is look at the big picture everyday. You’ll be overwhelmed. You want to focus on sculpting the piece of the problem in front of you and only stand up when you are ready to move to the next one, or if you decide that this portion has taken way to much time. Wait, what, we haven’t talked about time yet have we. So some projects actually have deadlines attached. How do we get an open ended, monolithic project finished roughly on schedule? You can learn to do this to. Lets take our rather opaque granite example and make it a bit more concrete with some more definite concepts.

Spend only so much time planning, usually I try to stay with 20–30% planning, the rest doing. The first problem with huge tasks is debating internally how to solve it. Write down your end state, when you have to be there, and where you are now. Now start “back-planning” from your end state with sub-tasks that will get you there, starting at your end state. If there’s any confusion, this should be the task immediately before you arrive at your goal. The further out these tasks are, the more abstract they can be. Now you should have something that looks like a time-line with a start, finish and lots of abstract blocks in between.

If this is a timed task (time is money) then we should divide up our time with estimates for each of those abstract sub-blocks. Don’t beat yourself up too much if the times aren’t quite perfect or based in any reality currently known to you, they’re adjustable. Now go back to the start. What’s the first abstract task you put down? Come up with at least three ways of completing that task. Why three? This problem is your enemy, you’re going to attack it, and hopefully, defeat it. As such, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Let us be realistic for a second, you will FAIL. Probably several times, you have to keep going. If you’re doing research, you might have to adjust your next abstract goal, depending on how the first block turns out. The really depressing thing, you might have to cross out all the intervening blocks, as you learn that you’ll have to rethink your path to the end goal. Just remember, there’s often a way to get what you want done, it might just look totally different from the idea you originally visualized.

So there you have it, that’s my methodology for getting stuff done. To summarize:

  • Only spend so much time planning, a mediocre plan executed well is far better than a perfect plan with no time for execution.
  • Back-plan. Start with an ending, then figure out how you’re going to get there. For research, this might be more abstract than a product, but the methodology works…I used it to graduate (twice) so I can confirm this.
  • Come up with lots of plans to start off, that way you have a fall-back when your first plan fails.
  • DON’T GET DISCOURAGED! You will fail eventually, you have to get back up and attack your problem from a different angle. Ask others for help, new perspectives can find solutions where you could not. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s a strength.
  • Spread the word, mentor others. I include this one, because I’ve seen so many people fail because they walk up to a seemingly impossible task, only to run away.
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