When eating an elephant, start with a single bite

This is a guest post written by Nick Hulbert-Williams.

As an academic, part of my job involves me writing proposals to send off to various charities and funding bodies to get a grant for my next piece of research. By the very nature of the process, that proposal has to be an outstanding idea and is usually the result of months (sometimes years) of thinking and pilot work. They also take a very long time to prepare and write. And herein lies one of my own biggest barriers to productivity: I’m a great thinker, an ideas guy — I’ve got literally dozens of research ideas in a special folder on my Mac — but following through on them sometimes fills me with fear and loathing.

This week I found myself in this very situation once again. For two days I sat staring at my computer screen trying to start writing my next grant proposal, but nothing came.

There is a good science on procrastination and my parter, Lee recently wrote a great post on his own blog about it. So, to try to get myself going, I read some of these posts and articles.  Was this just another method of procrastinating from the real work I had to do? Perhaps, on some level.  But, more importantly, I recognise that to be better at what I do, and to become more efficient, it is better to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than waste my own time making them too. So, what did I learn, I hear you all ask?

Lots of articles tell us that procrastination comes from a fear of failure, but that just wasn’t the case: I genuinely believe in my work and think this idea is a good one, meeting my own work-related values and vision (even if no-one else does; that actually matters much less to me).

In his blog post, Lee talks about functional procrastination — putting off the valued task (my application) by achieving in other areas of work or life.  Partly applicable, but even when all of my emails were answered and my desk was nicely tidied and dusted (yes, seriously!) and there were no other things on my to-do list, still, I made little progress. The real reason, I’ve realised, is that the task was just too big. I just couldn’t work out where to take my first bite of the metaphorical elephant.

To borrow an old adage, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.  Once I realised this and broke the task down, rapid progress followed.  What is even more important, to me at least, is to recognise that all of the work-chunks needn’t be the same size.

Chunking work tasks in this way helps because when one is finished we get a sense of achievement and reward (perhaps even an actual, self-determined reward if that’s what we need to keep going) and that buzz and satisfaction motivates us onto the next task. But what I’ve learned relatively recently, is that task chunks that are more boring and less enjoyable need to be smaller.  In other words, I need more regular reward from these kind of activities than for some aspects that I enjoy more.  This has to be self-defined: some people will need to break tasks into more or fewer chunks, but either way it makes the work more manageable and you, as the worker, less prone to procrastination than had you started it off as one huge, unobtainable end-point.

(Image provided courtesy of Charles Peterson: https://www.flickr.com/photos/petechar/10326270934/in/photostream/)