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How to avoid falling behind on massive projects

If you often find yourself having to push back deadlines, or work a string of late nights to get it done, here’s what to do instead.

How to avoid falling behind on massive projects
[Source photo: InnaVlasova/iStock]
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When you’re working on a big project, it’s easy to get behind. With the best of intentions, you set a deadline for completing your work, only to find that you can’t keep to the schedule. Either you end up having to push back the completion date or finishing it in a mad rush of caffeine-fueled late nights.

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There are three primary reasons why you have trouble getting these projects finished on time—and each one has some specific solutions.

Who knew this report could be so complicated?

One of the biggest sources of delay in projects is that you start out a project by thinking primarily about the big picture. When writing a report, you focus on the document that must be written. When preparing a presentation for a client, you might think about the slide deck.

What you often miss is the amount of additional work that goes into each step of that process. Writing a report might involve gathering data from several sources, putting it into a spreadsheet, and doing an analysis—all to write a single paragraph. You may also need to ensure that the report is formatted and that you obtain any images you need for it. These additional steps only become obvious when you start digging into the details of the project.

As you develop your timeline for a project, it’s important to turn the general statement of what you’re trying to accomplish into a detailed list of the specific tasks that need to be completed before it is done. Once you have that list, you can do a better job of estimating the amount of time each step will require so that your overall timeline will reflect a reasonable estimate of what is required for the final product.

Even after you have that schedule, you should still leave a little extra time in it to account for things you may have missed or estimates of completion times that are too rosy.

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The journey of a thousand miles

A second problem is that it can be daunting to get started on a significant project. Many people I know want to write books. The difficulty they have is that a book is a large document. Not only that, but before you start writing, that book has infinite possibility. The entire project can seem impossible both because of the scope and because it will invariably fail to meet your expectations in some way.

To overcome these obstacles, you must first focus not on the magnitude of what you’re trying to accomplish, but just on the first task in front of you. Make that task manageable. Don’t sit down to write a book. Sit down to write a paragraph (or a sentence). Often, when I am at the front end of a new book project, I start by writing several short articles on the topic that the book will eventually be about. Each of those articles can serve as a starting point for a section of that book project.

It’s also crucial to accept that you are probably not going to do an ideal job on anything you work on. It’s crucial to strive for excellence. But, it is also important to keep in mind the old adage, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Ultimately, the best project is a completed project—even if it has some flaws.

But, there’s still plenty of time

Even if you do everything suggested so far, you may still have trouble engaging with a big project. The final deadline is likely to be a long way off, and so working on the project may not have the level of urgency needed for the project to take precedence over other things you could be doing.

If you’re the kind of person who needs a push, then you need to find a way to get energized to work on early parts of the project, even when you know that there is a lot of time until the final product has to be completed.

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One thing you should do is set specific deadlines for components of the project and focus on those interim deadlines rather than on the final deadline. That way, you are focused on deadlines in the nearer term rather than on something far off. That strategy works for many people, though some will feel like they are just playing a trick on themselves and won’t be motivated by what they consider to be a “fake” deadline.

In that case, you need to break out the heavy artillery. Bring in a colleague to help hold you accountable. One way to do that is just to report your progress to your colleague and have them review your progress. If that isn’t enough force to get you to engage, consider using a commitment contract. The idea behind a commitment contract is that you enter into an actual binding contract with someone that you will complete what you say you will complete or else you pay them some money. The contract is even more effective if you ask that person to donate the money they get to a cause you hate.

The ultimate aim is to make slow and steady progress on significant projects, rather than feeling like you have to do a rushed job late in the game.