Geetanjali Mukherjee

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What To Do When You Are Stuck On Your Project With A Looming Deadline

There’s a trick I have learnt when working on projects of varying sizes, that is so simple, I always feel ashamed to use it. And I keep forgetting about it, until I am halfway through planning and agonising over a project, petrified I will miss the deadline and kicking myself for not getting my act together earlier. This trick always works, and yet each time I have to remind myself of it.


What is the trick? Low-hanging fruit (LHF). Doing the easy stuff first.
Let me explain.


If you are one of those people who get assigned a task - a report, a presentation, planning for an event - and immediately start working on it, and get it done efficiently, without stress, ahead of time, well then I am not sure I like you very much (just kidding!), and you are definitely within the minority. Most of us, being human, get a project, feel slightly overwhelmed either by the fact that its new and outside our comfort zone, or that the deadline is an impossible one, or both. We then panic, get a cup of coffee, panic a bit more, and then set aside time for doing the work, and maybe if we are feeling optimistic, maybe even dash off a quick plan or outline or to-do list for what needs to be done. Then, either reverting to earlier-mentioned panic mode looking at what needs to be done, or feeling overly optimistic looking at your neatly written-out plan, you put off actually starting on the project.
Does this sound familiar?


Well this is definitely the process I go through for every project, even ones that I take on voluntarily. I then keep putting off working on it, until my stress level is through the roof, and then when I finally sit down to work, I find that some part of that wasn’t so bad. The easy parts. Not all of it, but some. And I ask myself - why didn’t I do this portion earlier? It would have reduced how much I needed to cram into a late night session, or complete between 5-6pm on Friday because its due at the end of the week, and I hadn’t gotten around to it earlier.
I am sure everyone has heard of the concept of low-hanging fruit - in fact, you’re probably telling yourself right now, duh. Heard that one before. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s not effective.


Case Study 1
I was going with a colleague to attend a seminar in Hong Kong, and I only found out two days before my trip that we were both supposed to present. My topic was one I had no experience or knowledge of, and understandably I was freaking out. Together with my boss, we came up with an outline for the presentation, and I was supposed to work on it that afternoon / evening, and send it to him for review. He would make any needed changes the next morning, hours before our flight.

I had an outline, but I was still panicky, as I had to do research and learn enough about a brand new topic to make a coherent presentation. I sat down on my desk and looked realistically at how much time I had, and knew that it would be a long night. I decided to tackle the outline in order from easy to hard, and not chronologically. For the slides I knew needed more research and thinking, I simply created placeholders.
Simply deciding to first create a structure (with placeholders), and tackling the easy slides first, gave me a burst of momentum that carried me through to the medium-level ones. Before I knew it, I was done with about 70% of the presentation. Granted the remaining 30% was difficult, and I needed some input from another colleague - and thus the last 2-3 slides took me almost as long as the first 10. But, because I had decided to jump past the tough stuff in the beginning, I was able to save myself at least an hour or so of fretting and procrastinating, which usually accompanies any difficult project. Well, depending on the length of the project, that could be several hours.

Result: I was done with the presentation ahead of the deadline, and I received effusive praise from my boss. I also positioned myself as an expert in an entirely new subject, which helped me with subsequent projects.
What made the difference: saving one or more hours diving straight in and completing the easy parts, saved me from staying up half the night, which would have ensured lower quality work and missing my deadline.


Case Study 2
In 2012, I worked on a research project that stretched to many months, in which my role expanded and shifted over time. Due to various factors, I was roped in at the last minute to write a report that would be part of the project, and given 3 weeks to do the research and write a draft, when the other reports for the project had been written over a period of many months. The overall project deadline was looming, and I had to do the research and write at least a first draft pretty quickly.

Although when I was first assigned the task I was optimistic, as I analysed truly how much there was to do, I reverted to my usual scenario of panic and procrastination.
Luckily, the report followed a standard format, and I had to plug in my work in a pre-existing outline. Again given the lack of time, I decided to apply the LHF strategy. The report required answering 11 questions, some of which were short, and some of which had multiple parts. Moreover, not all the information was readily available, and due to the time-crunch, I didn’t have the time to send enquiries for information.

I decided to go over the questions and mentally note which ones were the easiest to answer - i.e. with existing information, or which needed only short answers. I also noted which ones would be difficult due to complexity or lack of information, and decided to table those for now.
I made a simple table - listing the questions and my level of progress - partial, done, or not done. Using my LHF tactic, I managed to get a lot of partials and some dones within a few days. At each stage, I re-applied the tactic - as I was done with one section, I would ask myself, what’s the next easiest one? And work on that one.

Sure, ‘easy’ here is relative, since none of them were truly easy, but by giving myself permission to skip around and just add snippets here and there to the report, I ended up with a 60-page report. That turned out to be only a first draft, as I was given more time to add more information, but using the LHF tactic I accomplished far more than if I had plodded through one section at a time, getting increasingly frustrated with my lack of progress and wanting to give up.

As both these case studies reveal, the LHF tactic doesn’t reduce the workload or make it happen magically. But it does do a few crucial things:


1.     A place to start - since sometimes starting is the most difficult part, the part we put off, this is crucial. Telling yourself you will only write the title page and create placeholders for the other slides helps to start - and before you know it, you have finished writing half the presentation.

2.     Provides progress - even if all you have done is the easy stuff, by making significant progress, your stress level goes down just looking at how much you have done, and makes it that much easier to accomplish the rest.

3.     Changes your attitude - knowing that you only have to do the ‘easy stuff’, you can feel the tension dissipating, and can sit down at your desk without trepidation, maybe even feeling optimistic and looking forward to it.
I hope you can apply this strategy to all your tasks and projects, and let me know how it goes in the comments.
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