For most people, the best part of taking on a big project is the end. It feels great to look back and see all you accomplished. But the beginning has a different emotional impact, and many feel overwhelmed or intimidated. They don't know where to start. Others procrastinate until deadlines become imminent.
To solve this big project dilemma, I consulted Harvard Business School senior lecturer and Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Pozen, who last fall authored a book called Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. The good people at Harvard Publishing asked him to write it because they were impressed at how much Pozen gets done compared to others they know. Here are five tips inspired by Pozen's book and my interview with him, which should help you attack big projects with confidence.
1. Identify Your Block
Are you a habitual procrastinator? Is fear a factor? The next time you find yourself stalling at the beginning of a project, have a conversation on the subject. Go out with a friend who knows you and can truthfully help you see unproductive patterns. Perhaps discuss it with your colleagues, boss, or therapist (if you have one) and address the core issues that are keeping you from stepping up to the plate. Is it your work environment, or are you truly overloaded, or do you have the wrong support team? Once you identify the obstacles, you can work to create effective remedies.
2. Start at the End
This is a big point in Pozen's book. People spend a ton of wasted time and effort doing research and writing what ends up being cast aside because it's later determined to be off track for the project. Pozen insists you don't need to start with a wide scope and then narrow. Do some preliminary research and sketch out your tentative conclusions. Then use those as a general guide for how the project will be completed. You should always keep an open mind and adjust as you go, but this way you won't waste valuable time on a wild goose chase.
3. Decide What's Good Enough
Pozen suggests that perfectionism is an enemy of productivity. Focusing on getting every detail right will create unnecessary work and frustration. Every project has its tolerance levels for error. You don't have to do shoddy work, just establish the quality level required and hit the appropriate mark. Not every project requires A+++ work. If a B is expected then hit the B (or B+ for you overachievers). If you find yourself with additional time and resources, you can always go back and improve the results, but only expend energy if the benefits outweigh the effort.
4. Leverage Peer Pressure
So often people will step up and do things for others they won't do for themselves. For many the emotional pain of letting someone else down is far greater than being hard on themselves. Delegate part of the project to other people. Get them involved so your own sense of obligation helps you meet deadlines and do higher quality work. Of course, having additional resources can also add to the efficiency and fun, creating greater incentive for engaging with the project. But ultimately involving people you care about will give you greater motivation and accountability to drive you from start to finish.
5. Create Reward-Based Motivation
Many would like to think that a job well done is motivation enough. Not true for lots of people. In fact for some the only motivation for finally starting a project is a looming deadline with negative consequences for failing to meet it. Stop using a stick and move to the carrot. Create a habit of rewarding yourself for milestones in projects of any size. Get that much needed massage AFTER you get 25 percent of a project started. Have you been jonesin' for a new putter or that adorable pair of Louboutins? What better excuse to get them than as a celebration for taking action on that gigantic project you've been delaying? Maybe the results will even lead to bonus income and help pay for the reward.
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