Are you struggling with taking big school projects and breaking them down? Click here for an explanation of how to make big tasks manageable!

Out of Your Head and Onto the Page: A Planning System That Works, Part 2

The first blog in this series talked about how to get all of the random things you need to deal with out of your head and onto paper, where you can see them and deal with them. In this blog, we’ll talk about the second of the four big steps you need to take to make your time and your tasks visible: how to make big tasks manageable.

You’ve made a to-do list, so ou have an initial list of tasks. Some of them are tasks you can do in one step. Let’s call these short-term tasks.

But some of the things on your list are bigger projects that will require you to complete several – or even a ton – of short-term tasks. How do you figure out what the tasks are, when all you have is a big project staring you in the face? Here’s how.

Make Big Tasks Manageable

Tasks come in three types – long-term, intermediate, and short-term.

Long-term tasks take at least two weeks to complete. For example, each of your classes may have several projects due over the course of your term. Long-term tasks can’t be done in less than two weeks. and they will require several steps to get them done correctly.

Intermediate tasks are like a theme, or a guideline, for a single week of work on a project. They are one piece of the long-term task, and they take one week to complete.

Finally, short-term tasks take no more than two hours to complete. They are single steps that take you toward your goal – and they are the only ones that should go into a planner.

Backwards-Forwards Planning

To break down a long-term task into short-term, doable tasks, you need to backwards-forwards plan. This means starting at the goal – the end point – and working backwards to identify the intermediate tasks, then working forward through each intermediate task to identify the small tasks it’s made up of.

Let’s say you have to write an argumentative essay about whether oil companies should be allowed to lay pipelines across indigenous lands in order to drill. You’ll need to do some research, write at least one rough draft, and give yourself enough time to rewrite and polish up the draft to make it presentable. We made the to-do list on September 15, and that means October 5 (the due date for this project) is three weeks away. Now, let’s break the long-term goal into intermediate tasks.

What do you do the week before you turn in a paper? Hopefully, you’ll be rewriting the rough draft so it’s not a rough draft anymore. That means that logically, you’ll be writing the original rough draft the week before that, right? And finally, in order to do that, you need to get research sources, read through them, and make notes, so you can write the draft in the first place.

Therefore, here’s your three intermediate tasks for this project:

Week 3 (September 29 to October 4): Rewrite rough draft of English paper; polish draft in last 2 days

Week 2 (September 22 to September 28): Write rough draft of English paper

Week 1 (September 15 to September 21): Do research for English paper (get sources, make notes)

Now, break up each of these intermediate tasks into short-term tasks (two-hour blocks).

Rewrite your list to put the intermediate tasks in calendar order (week 1 through 3, instead of 3 through 1). Then break up each week’s intermediate task into two-hour tasks.

Week 1’s task is “do research for English paper,” and it might look like this when you write it down.

• Sunday of Week 1: Create argument for paper and identify three main themes.

• Monday of Week 1: Go to library and talk to librarian. Find at least three sources for each main theme.

• Tuesday of Week 1: Go through sources for the first main theme, and make notes of important quotes you can use.

• Wednesday of Week 1: Go through sources for the second main theme, and make notes of important quotes you can use.

• Thursday of Week 1: Go through sources for the third main theme, and make notes of important quotes you can use.

• Friday of Week 1: Make notes on possible introductions and conclusions.

• Saturday of Week 1:  Free day (give your brain a break).

Week 2, which is “write rough draft for English paper,” might look like this:

• Sunday of Week 2: Read through notes on first theme’s sources. Freewrite for two hours on these ideas (make sure to mark quotes somehow so you can cite them).

• Monday of Week 2: Read through notes on second theme’s sources. Freewrite as on Sunday, in a separate file.

• Tuesday of Week 2: Read through notes on third theme’s sources. Freewrite as on Sunday, in a third file.

• Wednesday of Week 2: Write conclusion, in a fourth file.

• Thursday of Week 2: Write introduction in a fifth file.

• Friday of Week 2: Combine all writing into one messy first draft.

• Saturday of Week 2: Free day (give your brain a break).

Finally, Week 3 (“rewrite and polish English paper”) might look like this:

• Sunday of Week 3: Outline messy first draft, marking each paragraph’s main idea. Note paragraphs that have more than one main idea, or paragraphs that might be duplicates of other paragraphs.

• Monday of Week 3: Organize first draft by themes, so that the paper flows from the first theme to the second to the third. Delete, prune, and rearrange to make the paper tidier and create rough second draft.

• Tuesday of Week 3: Proofread for spelling, grammar, and other problems. Remove flowery language and $12 words. Make sure citations are correct and in place. Write and double-check works cited page.

• Wednesday of Week 3: Ask a friend to proofread your cleaned-up second draft and find what you missed. Do not look at the paper at all until Thursday (to give your eyes a rest so they’ll be fresh for a final polish and proofing on Thursday morning).

• Thursday of Week 3: Polish paper and fix problems found by your friend. Fix the last little bits that might need polishing.

• Friday of Week 3: Turn paper in on time.

Now, all the tasks in your list are short-term tasks, which means it’s time to move to the next step: prioritizing. We’ll get to how to do that in the next blog in this series.

Meantime, tell me what you think! You can email me or leave a comment below – and I look forward to hearing from you!

Posted in Best Practices, Planning, Time Management and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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