6 rules that’ll help you tackle any overwhelming project

What do applying to grad school, renovating your basement, and training for a marathon all have in common?

You end up using more expletives than The Wolf of Wall Street if you don’t attack them all the right way.

Overwhelming tasks breed procrastination.  That feeling of “oh my lanta, I can’t handle that right now… I’ll just wait until tomorrow.” Until tomorrow becomes next Tuesday and next Tuesday becomes next October and before you know it it’s been a decade and you still haven’t planted that fig-and-other-small-fruits garden.

I like overwhelming projects; once you have a method of dealing with them, it becomes a game of how quickly you can implement the rules to conquer the task.  Kind of like fast chess, but the pawns are replaced by college days clutter or intimidating, summertime power bills.  Here are the rules I use to ensure project checkmate:

1. Be flexible with what “success” is: Pretend you’re applying to law school, and you have your eye on Yale Law.  If you define your range of success so narrowly that there’s only a small chance you won’t feel like a failure in the end, like defining success as only an acceptance to Yale’s Law Class of 2020, you need to adjust how you see success.  Of course, success is subjective—I might see something as a success that you don’t, or the reverse.  That being said, when you define just one outcome as a success, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.  You could see that offer from Berkeley as just a consolation prize, meanwhile either school sets you up for a career brighter than a neon store light.

2. Give it double time:  I heard this from a student in the grade above me back in high school.  Have a plan about how long something’s going to take, like for example, an essay, double the time, and then assume that’s how long it’ll take to write it.  Sometimes, we’re overly optimistic; that means we don’t always take into account the setbacks and slow downs that keep us at our target time.  When you’re completing a task, expect to run into every one of those little obstacles: your pencil broke, you can’t find the charger to your dead computer, your motherboard caught fire, etc.  This also allows you to relax by taking some of the time pressure off, which, in itself, might help you finish the job more quickly.  Think about Murphy’s Law, people: if something can go wrong, it will.

3. Use a bell curve work method:  In school, I learned about bell curves only in the context of a teacher’s grading scale (aka “you’ll probably get a C in this class”).  But really, bell curves are much more helpful than just for telling you you’re average in a class, and one of the ways I use them is to describe working patterns.

The horizontal axis represents time, and the vertical axis represents task difficulty.  At first, I always start with a simple task to warm up to working.  Once I’ve completed a few easy tasks, my confidence in my productivity and work output is boosted, and I’m ready to take on more difficult tasks.  Once I’ve finished all of those, I try to give myself something as mindless and effortless as possible to complete—which acts as a cool down.  Most of the sports I’ve played also use this model, because all it’s really saying is that you start low, build up to a peak (whatever that represents in context), and gradually fall back down to where you started.

4. Make that to-do list:  In my experience, it isn’t the best option to try and remember every detail in your head.  You aren’t a robot, so you’ll probably forget things now and then.  When you write what you need to accomplish down, you’re taking the pressure off your memory and putting it onto a page.  Writing a list can also help you to organize the necessary, smaller tasks in your mind, and it allows you to visualize the project more clearly.  When you’re thinking more deeply about the project, too, you could also think of more

5. Delegate the work to the experts:  It’s okay if you’re not a superstar at everything.  Say you’re renovating a house, and need the exterior painted.  If you’re not skilled at painting, there’s a chance you’ll mess it up with a subsequent chance that you’ll need to hire someone to fix what you did in the beginning.  This costs you time and money you could’ve saved if you’d just delegated out the work at the start.  Knowing what you’re skilled at is just as important as knowing what you’re not.

6. Use the finger food method:  Cupcakes, chips and salsa, or those little meat skewers; people enjoy finger foods, and I think it’s partly because they’re in such small portions. For example, in comparison to the whole sheet cake, cupcakes are easy to manage and can fit more easily into a diet.  Stick with me, I know it sounds like I’m drifting.  Now, let’s pretend the total amount of time you have per day is like your daily calorie budget.  You can’t eat a whole sheet cake on this diet, but a cupcake or two would fit nicely into the allowance.  This is the same as budgeting time: smaller time commitments are easier to manage than larger, overwhelming ones.  Cutting the sheet cake (that is your time) into little pieces makes you feel less overwhelmed and intimidated by the task, and you can then conquer each of them individually.



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