The top item on my to-do list stayed the same throughout my doctoral research: “Write dissertation.” While this reflected the big picture goal, it was difficult to figure out what “Write dissertation” looked like (and what I could actually cross off a list) day-to-day. You might have similar scribbles somewhere—“Write article” or “Start paper”—speaking to projects which require both sustained planning and daily work to develop. If you’re struggling to break down vague goals into manageable, actionable components, consider trying out one or more of the following strategies.

On the sustained planning side:

  • Personal Q&A. Generate some project planning questions and write down your answers to establish a personal baseline. What must you know or do to accomplish one particular task? What needs to happen first? What tasks depend on the outcomes of others? Divide every “to-do”  into the smallest components you can imagine. Ask yourself questions like you would if you were helping a friend. 
  • Friendly accountability. Talk with a friend or advisor about concretizing your goals, and outline a path for a week or month to see what smaller tasks could fit together well. 
  • Mind map. These diagrams help organize information hierarchically and highlight relationships among different parts of a whole. If you like to think visually, you can map with everything from apps (e.g., MindNode, in free and paid versions) to whiteboards.

On the daily work side:

  • Pomodoro technique. Get a feel for optimal units of time and which tasks suit certain increments. Choose a task, set a 25-minute timer (a “pomodoro”), and work on that task until time’s up. Find your own rhythm of length and quantity for pomodoros and breaks.
  • Reflect and record. Experiment with mindfully reflecting on and recording what you worked on at the end of a day. This can be as simple as a doc or spreadsheet to log notes like “I read the intro to this book,” “I wrote a page on X and deleted a paragraph,” “I looked over old notes on Y,” “tomorrow I want to think about Z.” Even clarifying where you started or stopped will help you quickly pick up on previous trains of thought.

And finally, one possibility for when you have no idea where to start: Just start somewhere, even mid-sentence. Free-write a paragraph of whatever’s on your mind for the project and see what makes sense from there. For example, you may find that you’re trying to convey something, but you’re missing information about a particular area of scholarship and would benefit from further literature review. Or perhaps you have much to say about one idea, but to do so clearly, you need to contextualize it in a specific way or explain an adjacent concept first. As you play around with these possibilities for breaking down a project, you’ll begin to define its bounds in terms of time, resources, and scope. Keep exploring what works best for you. 

Notes from a Writer's Desk: Breaking Down a Project

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