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How to tackle big project/assignment

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Here’s what happens with big, huge elephant projects:

We bite off more than we can chew and we get choked up.

We get lost, overwhelmed, frustrated and impatient. We want instant results, but we haven’t counted the investment or cost, and thus we lack the commitment necessary to finish right.

We’re unclear of the goal, or don’t know what results we’re working toward.

We run out of energy and time or mismanage both.

We get sidetracked and distracted, bogged down and lost in the details, minutiae as well.

We give up too soon or hang on too long.

And to sum it up: We fail. We don’t finish. The project flops. And everybody is disappointed.

Sound familiar?

On an almost weekly basis, I run into someone having the same elephant-eating problem I was once had …so I want to share how I tackle big, huge, insane projects and coach others to do the same.

Whether you’re tackling a project solo, or working on a team …doing something for yourself, or delivering it for someone else …you’re likely to be tackling the eating of an elephant.

 1. Chill out.

Take a deep breath and calm down.

At this point, you’re just stressing yourself out needlessly. Emotion and adrenaline typically make things worse. So simply taking a moment to get some composure is going to help a TON.

2. Step back and get some perspective.

Review and clarify the results you’re seeking.

Ask yourself:

  • What outcome / goal are you trying to achieve?
  • What does success look like?
  • What are the benefits?
  • If you’re delivering it for someone else – what are their expectations?

Oftentimes, simply knowing why you’re doing something helps tremendously.

3. Start breaking it into small pieces.

This is the awesome part because I see all the neat parts that I’ll get to do.

To help figure out how to dice up the elephant, ask yourself:

  • What’s really needed to accomplish this? People, tasks, timelines.
  • How can I chop it up into small digestible bites?
  • If  it’s still too mammoth and overwhelming, how can I chop it up further?
  • How long is each piece going to take?
  • What are the tasks I can do quickly?
  • What’s the most efficient way to tackle this? (Meaning which items should come first?)
  • If  you’re delivering it for someone else – what are their expectations? And how does it differ from your own?
  • Is it collaborative project? Which pieces will each person take on?
  • Do you need someone else’s help?
  • Which task(s) will make the most impact?

4. Now, review the investment and the journey. 

Which your smaller bites in mind, figure out how long the journey is really going to take … or how long you’ll be at the table eating your elephant meal. This means count the cost in terms of time, money, energy, momentum, etc.

5. Start eating the elephant. One bite at a time.

Oh, and be sure to chew your food with your mouth closed.

And with that … here is some general advice for managing big projects:

6. What if you’re overwhelmed by unknowns?

If you’ve asked yourself practical questions about how to break down your big project and you still aren’t sure how to make a plan, then you’re probably dealing with a big goal that has a lot of unknowns.

It can be hard to break something into steps when you don’t yet know what the whole “thing” is.

But just because you can’t predict the future doesn’t mean you can’t make progress. Here is how to still move forward on a goal, even when you don’t know exactly where you’ll end up or how you’ll make it to the finish line:

Give estimates with flexibility. If your project impacts other people or teams, those people will probably want to get estimates from you on when they can expect it to be done. This can be really hard to do, though, when you don’t yet know how long a project will take or what it will involve, but you don’t want to lie or give people an unrealistic deadline that you *hope* you’ll be able to achieve.

To combat this, give people as much information as you can and set deadlines where you’ll give them more information.

That way, instead of giving them a deadline that’s a complete guess, you can tell them, “Right now, I estimate this project will take about 4 weeks, but I will know more at the end of next week. I will give you an update then with a fuller plan and more concrete deadline.”

Then follow up once you have that information and a clearer picture of when you’ll be done.

Identify your unknowns. Okay, so it’s hard to know what you don’t know. But when you look at the project, you can probably find a few places where you can start planning. Where does your ability to plan stop? At that spot, that’s where your unknowns are creeping in.

To figure out what needs to happen in those unknown areas, start researching.

Has anyone on your team done something like this before? Can they tell you what they did? Can you find white papers or blog posts about other teams that have done this? Seeing other peoples’ experience can give you a clue into the unknowns.

Plan for the worst-case scenario, but don’t solve problems you don’t have yet. It’s scary to do something without knowing for sure it will work, and so often we pre-troubleshoot and think through all the possible ways something could go wrong. Which is a good thing; you want to research and plan to make sure you are making the best effort possible.

But this impulse to avoid failure can often keep us from making progress right now, because we are so worried about messing something up in the future.

If you have a task in front of you, do that task. Don’t put it off because you’re worried it might impact the outcome of some aspect of the project weeks away that you haven’t even started yet.

Instead, think through the worst-case scenarios, research the best options, and set expectations/milestones for how you’ll make sure a project is on track — but then move on. That way, you’re prepared with an outline of a plan for what you’ll do in the worst case, but you are able to spend your time right now focused on the work in front of you rather than worrying about the future.

Think about your time, not the work. We often think of big projects like puzzles; once we have all the pieces, then we can put them together and we are done. But when you’re working on a project where you don’t even know how many pieces the puzzle has, this way of thinking can hold you back.

Instead, think about your time. Look at the information you have in front of you, and think about where your hours this week are best spent. Instead of focusing on getting this or that puzzle piece done, think about progress. Where will you have the biggest impact? What is one thing you can do every day this week that will be meaningful?

Then at the end of each week, look back at what you accomplished, and use your new progress and information to formulate a plan for how you’ll spend time next week.

7. More Big, Huge, Ridiculous Project Tips:

  • Think of all the ways you’ll fail. Shocking advice, right? It’s good     advice, though. Know your big bottlenecks, challenges, and obstacles ahead of time. You WILL hit roadblocks, or fall into ravines, and if you don’t think about it ahead of time, you won’t know how to get around or across it.
  • Report in regularly. Rangers at big national parks typically ask hikers     and campers to report in as they make a big journey. Along the way,     measure and report your progress. See what’s working and what’s not, or celebrate small milestones along the way. Accountability is a very good thing, ESPECIALLY for big, huge projects. Accountability also helps us prevent blind spots.
  • Have deadlines and milestones. And then HIT them consistently, religiously. Don’t give yourself much slack if any. You’d be surprised how pushing just one deadline or milestone creates a snowball effect, turning into much bigger problems and delays for your project.
  • The final bites of the elephant are ALWAYS the hardest. When you’ve been eating the elephant for a long time, you will inevitably grow weary and burned out. But that’s when you need to push hardest … to finish the last 10% of the project and ship and deliver.

Source:  2

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