HOW TO TACKLE BIG PROJECTS IN 7 STEPS
Got a big project that has been sitting on your action plan for months or even years? Do you keep looking at that plan feeling guilty that you haven't started but not sure how to kick off? Are you waiting for the 'extra time' fairies to bless you with the hours to complete said projects? If this is sounding familiar I get it and I got you!
I have been tackling a big project of my own and thought while I was deep in the midst of it I would share how to get big projects done. The re-write of Create Your First Online Course has been in the works for longer than I care to remember. I was getting very frustrated with my lack of progress so I put my big-girl-business-coach pants on and followed the process I teach clients.
Let's get into it!
7 Steps to Breakdown Your Project
Brain dump everything that needs to be done
When your energy is high and your mood is poppin' it feels good to dive into a big project. If you're anything like me you know the feeling of investing a large chunk of a day into a big picture item on your annual plan. At the end of the day, you revel in your new found productivity and focus, giving yourself high fives as you shut down your computer. Now, the problem with this, if you had no plan, is the piece of the overall project puzzle doesn't really fit anyway and it's impossible to know what's next.
The first step in project breakdown is to take everything in your head and put it on paper. Not only does this clear space in your mind attic it allows you to edit out the non-essentials and see exactly what needs to be done in its entirety.
Create a map of tasks
Once you have dumped your brain content on to paper create a map of tasks that need to be done. Is there an easy way to break your project into steps or chunks?
If you were building a house you would break it down into planning, construction, interior fit out and finally interior design. Each of those steps would then be broken down further into jobs that needed to be done at each stage. Say you were planning a huge fancy dinner, you would break it down into menu planning, grocery shopping, preparation, cooking and .... eating! Once again, each of those steps could then be broken down further.
Before I wrote one bit of content for Create Your First Online Course I took my chaotic brain-dump and turned it into a map of tasks. Each task then has relevance to the overall project and as I work through them I can better estimate the amount of time the project will take.
Break each task down into less than one-hour tasks
If you are time poor or just poorly focused like moi' looking at that big old map of stuff to do is going to feel like a tsunami of work coming your way. The analogy of "how do you eat an elephant?" fits perfectly here. Do you live under a rock in the desert and don't know? Let me share the answer; one very small bite at a time, my friend.
What works best for my prone-to-chronic-day-dreams brain is a list of tasks that will take an hour or less to complete. It's not possible with every task, some tasks like writing slides can take 2 to 3 times longer but 70% fit into an hour or less. It is super easy to start and finish a task in a day while still doing all the other business stuff if that task will only take an hour. Half finished tasks get messy and remembering where you were at or what route you were taking can be befuddling unless you have a spanking good memory. Often we spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of any unfinished task trying to remember what the heck we were doing last time. What a waste of productivity right?
Thinking "but I don't have a spare hour a day!" well, think again! The reason you haven't tackled your big project is likely a perceived lack of time. Studies (and me forcing many, many clients to track their time each day) has proven that in an 8 hour day the average worker is productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes. You might be poo-pooing the research but in my experience those results are accurate.
I will talk more about making the time in a moment, but first...
Go public with your plans
There is nothing like a bit of public accountability to shame you into action. I noticed the other day that I had created my Asana project and task list for the re-write back in May 2017. It sat for over a year before I ticked off one task and I only got started because I publicly declared I was going to open for enrolment at the end of August. People are emailing me asking when they can join and now I feel obliged to meet the deadline. If I am honest I can't see me finishing everything by the date I promised but it will be 85% done which is 100% better than not started!
Going public to friends, family, customers or a bunch of strangers on the internet can help you feel like there is someone to be accountable too. There are plenty of business groups around where you might even find yourself an accountability buddy. If you're in Members Club or Create Your First Online Course don't forget to post your goals there, we will keep you on track!
Schedule a morning Power Hour
My client roster has been full for 10 months. My diary has been totally booked and other important stuff (like marketing!) has been ditched in favour of the money making stuff (this is a terrible strategy, by the way). I have been reaching financial goals too so not getting the re-write done has delivered no immediate pain but has taken me back a few steps.
The course is evergreen and automated so I can invest my time in the group answering questions and offering advice and other than a webinar a few times a year there isn't a lot of "show up" type work involved. Missing out on this automated income has meant adding more one on one clients which is totally against my overall business growth plan.
Funny how little things like not finding an hour a day to work on a project can have huge long-term effects.
It is a dripping tap, right? You don't deal with the slow small drops because they don't feel like a huge issue but collectively those drips could fill a swimming pool. Maybe you don't get to the small tasks that make up a project because you're only losing a few sales a month but what is it really costing you?
I knew I had to make the time (I hate saying "find" the time because it isn't lost, it is misspent) but I also had a full diary. Here is what I know for sure about productivity in business: We fill the time we have with the tasks we have, or as Parkinson's Law states a little more eloquently than me; "work expands to fill the time available for its completion". Often we will also prioritise urgent over important, so answering those emails and posting on social media becomes a priority over working on big-picture ideas that could change your business long term.
My new favourite productivity hack to overcome the sticky pickle of urgent vs important is to utilise the first hour of every day for my course re-write. I am even doing this on weekends at the moment because ticking it off the list early in the morning takes it off my mind for the rest of the day.
I do NOTHING else beforehand. I don't check email, don't pick my phone up, and I don't open social media. Nothing is more important than the one hour I invest in this project. If I have a super busy day ahead I get my hour done and then move onto other things. When I don't have much in the diary I can easily turn that one hour into 5 super focused and productive hours and still fit in emails and social media and Dr Phil.
The point here is I have added the work to my day and my day expands to accommodate it. An hour a day might not seem like a lot but let me break it down for you; even if you only use workdays that is 5 hours per week or 21.6 hours per month. Over 12 months it is a whopping 260 hours! Imagine what you could achieve in that amount of time.
So now do you still think you don't have time?
*UPDATE* I have increased to 2 hours and it's freaking amazing!
Sweet Aunt Fanny, this re-write has felt like a marathon. The one thing that has kept me going is seeing a visual representation of my progress. I use Asana to plan and track my project and all the tasks involved. I log in every morning at the start of my hour (now increased to 2!) to choose my tasks and make sure I have updated completed tasks.
It's so important to track your progress, especially when you're working alone and there is no one to talk to or keep you accountable. The simple act of ticking tasks off a list can be hugely motivating, add in some colour coding and flying unicorns (Asana has automated unicorns that leap across the screen when you tick off a task) and you will be finalising your big project in no time.
If, for any reason, you need to bench your project for a few weeks or months your list will be your saviour upon your return. I have a terrible memory which means without my tasks list I can easily do the same thing a couple of times without realising. Asana is my memory prompt!
Every Monday morning I reinforce my weekly goals. I haven't set deadlines which I will talk about later but I do write a list of what I want to achieve in the week on my trusty whiteboard (the one I didn't scribble all over with permanent marker).
Once again seeing progress is key! In the afternoon I physically cross items off the list. It feels good and it keeps me focused on the important and not distracted by the urgent. I also suffer terribly from shiny object syndrome; I am easily sidetracked by other big ideas! If it's not on the whiteboard it isn't getting done. I make no room for any flights of fancy.
I know not everyone has space for a big whiteboard so you can do this by grabbing a diary, notepad or journal. Just make sure you keep it open and visible as a constant and sometimes annoying reminder of what you're supposed to be working on.
So now you have the steps let me share my best tips for completing large projects.
Tips for Getting Big Projects Done
Write your processes down
Don't constantly try to reinvent the wheel. Write down your process and stick to it! I am in a flow now that works. As much as I would have loved to batch up all content writing, all video recording and all editing its not how my brain (or energy) works. I did, however, figure out the next best option that works for me and I stick to it even when my birdbrain says "jump around and do random stuff in random order, Melanie!"
Outsource repetitive tasks
In any big project, there will be the stuff only you can do and then everything else that you might think only you can do. Be honest and ditch everything that is repetitive and/or doesn't require your genius. It might cost you some coins but if your project has the capacity to generate revenue the faster you reach completion the better!
I wasted so many hours creating the perfect slide background. No one cares. Slide backgrounds don't sell courses. It was poorly allocated time and I will confess that it was prior to mapping the full project out. When I finally got my butt moving and recorded content I noticed there was a heap of grammatical errors in my video (spelling and grammar do not sit in my area of genius!). I almost scrapped the first three videos because I wanted them to be perfect.
Sure, there will be a small percentage of grammar police that will be annoyed by my written faux pas' but the vast majority won't care or won't notice because the content is that good (I kid you not!). I'll go back and tweak once the project is complete, I am not going to waste time aiming for perfection now.
Ban new ideas
When you're working on a big project you're often "in the zone" of mind-blowing ideas and Sheldon Cooper-like genius! New ideas will come flooding in thick and fast. Don't touch them. They're nothing more than a dirty little distraction from your goals.
Stick those new ideas into a folder (I use Evernote) and re-visit them later. Don't try to convince yourself that they're essential to your success if they're not. If you do add in every great lightbulb moment your project will become a bloated fat mess fast.
Create flexible deadlines
Earlier I mentioned that I didn't set deadlines for my tasks. I don't recommend that for everyone because I know many people need guidelines to stay focused. I, on the other hand, like to break rules. You may have also picked up that I do not like deadlines at all. It takes me back to University days where I left everything to the last minute then made myself sick trying to write a paper on Polymerase Chain Reaction, the amplification of single-strand DNA hours before it was due. Gut churning stuff.
When I start a project I tend to gain momentum fast, unfinished projects cause me anxiety so timelines aren't necessary. I use flexible deadlines instead. They're designed to help me judge how long tasks are taking and better plan the rest of the project. They're flexible to account for client work fluctuations and allow me to take a break if I am not in the zone of producing my best stuff.
When your long-term vision is solid plan deadlines are not nearly as important as the end goal!
So now on to the tools I use for getting sh** done. These are my all time faves, you might find something else you like but these guys work for me.
Tools to Manage Projects
Our number one go to for all things planning tasks, managing tasks and keeping on track.
There is a free version, so you can trial it too!
I use the free version not only for my everyday task planning but for breaking down big projects into action plans. As I mentioned I rarely use the deadline function but I know plenty of people love it.
Check out Asana here
I keep all my important links and interesting content from other people in Evernote. I never need to go hunting if I am trying to remember where I saw a great blog or listened to a fantastic podcast. It's all saved and tagged in one place. The minute you have to go on the hunt for something you run the risk of breaking your productivity flow and wasting time. Having a safe place for your reference stuff will increase your productivity.
Check out Evernote here
I have a $25 White Board on my office wall that I write my goals on each week. It's broken down into 'This Week' and 'Next Week' so I can see not just the immediate priorities but the workload for the following week too.
For anyone who has followed me for more than a hot minute, you won't be surprised to see a kitchen timer on the list. Having a timer that isn't on my phone and therefore can't suck me into a deep black hole of Pinterest and poodle videos is essential for getting work done quickly.
I set the timer for one hour and I go for it. It is surprising how fast time flies when you're focused.
I mentioned earlier that outsourcing the repetitious tasks in your project can really help lift the load. I love Upwork because I can find someone within minutes of posting and there is no long-term commitment. There is always a Virtual Assistant perfectly matched to the task you need ready to help with your project. Finding people you like and trust can take some time but once you have them if you treat them well they become an integral part of your team.
Check out Upwork here
Google Chrome extension for recording and sharing screencasts
I record all repetitious tasks in my project so I can hand a "how to" video to my Virtual Assistants. It saves so much time and ensures they have a detailed roadmap of what I want to be done. There is very little room for misinterpretation or confusion and I feel like we connect better when they can see my face and hear my voice. This can be done super fast and for free using the Google Chrome extension called Loom.
I also use Loom to remind myself of where I am at with different tasks if I don't have time to complete them. I give myself a run down then add the Loom video link to the task in Asana.
Check out Loom here
There you have it! A complete guide to breaking down tasks and getting them done. This will be my third big project for the year and it feels pretty dang amazing to be smashing goals and ticking major business goals off my annual plan. I hope it helps you do the same!
Can you please tell me when you will have the 2023 version available? I loved the 2021 colours – pretty please 🙂
Hi Christine, it should be available around mid- November. The colours will match our new branding (so updated from the 2021) but you can go wild and change them up anyway you like!