By this point in the year, I am preparing to defend my thesis, and I’m feeling pretty good about my chances. It is amazing to think that I have worked on anything for this long, and I hope that everyone takes the opportunity in life to start and finish a project of this magnitude, although not necessarily for academic credit. Writing a cookbook, rebuilding a vintage car, constructing a greenhouse, or producing your own indie film, these are all noble goals worthy of our highest levels of attention. Short tasks are easy; we can prioritize minutes and perhaps hours, but how do you maintain that same drive and focus when the confines of your endeavor drag on for weeks and months? These three quick tips will hopefully give you the inspiration and tools you need to tackle your own large project.
The Worthiness Test (The Planning Phase)
If you are anything like me, you learn from doing. Not from being talked at, or theorizing, but from actually digging in, taking things apart to put them back together as something new, something you own. The art of doing is typically absent from most 21st century institutions of learning, but it remains that for many this is the easiest and most effective way to gain skills.
Before engaging in any large project, it is helpful to ask several questions before proceeding with any research or implementation. This is perhaps the most important stage of project development, and I cannot stress that enough. A brilliant idea and poor implementation can be excused occasionally, but not often is the reverse true: bad ideas are just that no matter how you dress them up. Some initial research may be necessary to determine feasibility or originality, but in this stage of the process we are concerned primarily with the raw idea of the project itself. Consider the following points before proceeding:
Will the Result Be Worth Your Effort?
There are millions of topics and millions of possible applications for our knowledge, but that does not mean that all of them are good fits for our skills. You must be passionate about your work, otherwise you risk breaking down in the doldrums of the project’s timeline. We can all listen to a single song for a lap around the track, or perhaps a mile, but could you run a marathon to this music without ripping your headphones out? Picking something you love is the easiest way to ensure that you will have an investment in seeing it through to the end.
Can You See Down Rabbit Holes?
Rabbit holes or the occasional tangent are possibly the most detrimental threat to the success of any well planned project if followed blindly, but do not mistake their existence for a negative sign. Although you want to avoid following rabbit holes as much as possible after the initial planning phase, you should nonetheless see them, and the more the better. The existence of these rabbit holes is promising since it means that you have already found places on which to build your project further, in either future revisions or different projects. We are looking for offshoots, other ways to quickly leverage our knowledge and experience from the first successful project into an equally or more successful second project. Always be thinking about the big picture, and if you look around and see no rabbit holes, no future applications or ways to build on your idea, then chances are that it may not be worth pursuing in the first place.
What Do You Stand to Gain?
This may seem like a selfish question, but the answer need not be considered so because gain can be measured in different ways for different people. For the business minded, gain equals money, and lots of it. For scholars and researchers, this may mean credibility or increased research skills, but for the pure hobbyist, gain could mean little more than a good time.
Think seriously about why you are choosing to complete the project you have planned, and understand explicitly what skills you will gain from doing it. For example, when planning my thesis project, I knew that in some capacity I wanted to increase my knowledge of Antebellum American Literature to increase my functionality as a teacher and researcher, but I was also deeply interested in developing coding skills for web development. Beyond this was my innate desire to start something bigger than myself that would help students and teachers. As a result, I developed a project that would allow me to work towards achieving all three of these things. In essence, I measured my own personal gains in the following ways: increased content knowledge, improved technical skills, and a product that is open to the public with the sole intent of doing more good than I could do alone.
These equations will be different for different people, but be honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the experience and make sure to develop a project that will address these specific desires.
Celebrate Small Successes (The Implementation Phase)
Most people tend to celebrate the completion of a project in its entirety, when in fact we should be celebrating small victories along the way. Not that one final, beat all celebration isn’t in order after all is said and done, but to maintain the proper motivation and a focused attitude it is also necessary to celebrate the completion of smaller parts of a complex whole. Admittedly, this requires that the project be broken down into a system of smaller parts, which it of course should be—project managers know that all large projects are just a series of smaller, yet equally integral, projects. Before starting your work, break down the whole into pieces, and allow yourself to celebrate crossing each one of the list.
This is important for morale, but just as important for overall workflow. Nothing will slow a project down more than a bogged down section or chapter. I had my own moments like this when annotating Henry David Thoreau’s “Economy” from Walden, at a whopping 70+ pages, but sometimes there is nothing to do but to lock and load and celebrate when the dust settles.
By focusing on the small completions we are able to avoid the larger uncompleted project staring back at us at every turn. I faced this dilemma in writing my undergraduate thesis in 2010-2011. While the first chapter came easily, the next two were not so automatic, but much of it had to do with the fact that I focused on the writing process as a holistic phase instead of a process of segmented actions. There is too much to think about when conceptualizing an entire manuscript to write portions of it effectively. Start with your topic or idea for a chapter and complete that one section before moving on to the next.
Revision Should Start from Day 1 (Reflection and Revision Phase)
I tend to take a fairly literal interpretation of the word revision, as a re-seeing of things. This should not be a stage that you move to after the implementation phase, or an activity synonymous with fixing comma splices and formatting errors. Revision and reflection should be an integral part of implementation. Invariably we will all start projects with certain assumptions that will ultimately be disproved, and we must react to these instances or risk irrelevance. It is important to recognize that these moments of revision are inevitable, and we should embrace them as a way of making our work better. As I said before, doing becomes a way of knowing and learning, which entails also reacting to scenarios and situations that take us beyond our current systems of knowledge.
Completing large projects can be one of the most singularly rewarding experiences an individual can undertake. However, you must know that the road will not always be easy, especially if the road you’re on has had few previous travelers. Large projects can be a lonely and isolating experience if you allow them to be, as your friends and colleagues will quickly tire of hearing you discuss the same topic ad nauseum for months on end. To combat this, reach out to others who have been where you are now. They will surely understand and provide you guidance along the way. I hope that these tips will encourage you to pick a project and begin doing, using these helpful tips as a guide.