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How do you ‘break down’ a big project so you meet your goals?

I cannot believe, after all my to-do list and planning your time blog posts, I’ve never actually talked about how to break down a big project, set goals and then plan to meet them: an essential aspect of doing a PhD thesis. And a big reason for that is that the usual strategies don’t actually work for me, but I know they work for many other people and those other people’s strategies are well covered elsewhere on the internet.

In Your PhD Survival Guide, Liam and Peta took the lead in writing that section because that’s their speciality. But while we include a number of useful strategies (like the Pomodoro technique or a writing time budget) we decided we didn’t have room to go deep into how to make a plan like that. Partly that’s because Your PhD Survival Guide is for candidates who have already spent 2+ years doing a thesis, so they probably already have a strategy that kind of works for them; and partly because, when we teach this in a workshop, we know there is so much diversity in the ways that different people achieve the same outcome.

So, expecting that readers of this blog are as diverse as a typical workshop, here are some ways of starting to build your goal meeting strategy.

Identify your goals.

Everyone has to identify their goals first. What do you want to achieve, and how will you know if you have achieved it?

For example: do you want a draft that is ready to submit to your supervisor? What does you supervisor consider ‘ready’? Is that the same for both your supervisors? Be clear if you actually mean ‘8,000 highly polished words’ or ‘all the figures and tables done with bullet points about the planned text’, because aiming for one when your goal is the other is counter productive.

It is essential to aim for the right thing and know you have got there! (For more advice on this, see Survival Guide, Chapter 3)

After that, what you do next is going to depend on your preferred style of being productive. I’m going to give these styles names: ‘the pedometer/step counter’, ‘the steeplechaser’ and ‘the map-maker/Strava’. In my head, getting from one place to another feels like a physical walking or running journey (like climbing a mountain, or making a map, or going for a jog, or hiking through the woods), so we’re sticking to this extended metaphor universe. However, part of your process should be finding a metaphor that works for you.

The Step-Counter

The step-counter goal-setter likes to have clear, preferably quantifiable, goals, and the ability to track them. They will be aiming for a daily word count, or to ‘close their rings’ or ‘get in their steps’. They might use writing productivity tracking programs like ‘Pacemaker’, a count-down ticker, or the project word-count tool in Scrivener. Another of my co-authors, Inger, likes to run her whole life this way, using a program like Omni-Focus or bullet journalling.

This is probably where you use a strategy like a Gantt chart. Peta is the queen of Gantt charts, a strategy also recommended by Raul Pacheco-Vega on his blog with lots of links to resources and how to guides.

Pedometers find the clarity and granularity of setting and tracking goals to be helpful and motivating. If they list out every task, find a time for it in their diary and then tick it off, then that helps them feel in control and productive.

Because these strategies are often quite linear and documented, they are also often ‘legible’ to others. PhD supervisors and progress committees often ask for timelines, task lists and Gantt charts as a way to ‘see’ that you know how to make progress.

If being a pedometer-style project manager is helpful to you, then that’s brilliant. Use any of the many productivity strategies you read in books, get suggested in workshops or hear on podcasts: pick the ones you like the most, and head into the future.

I know how to make these kinds of planning documents, but they aren’t actually how I plan or track my work. I’m a ‘steeplechaser’.

The Steeplechaser

I find the minute detail and focus on counting distracting and stressful. I might use a strategy like that for a day or two, but longer term, I like to have a sense of the big goal, over there, and just head off trying to get there.

A steeplechase is a kind of cross-country race where you pick a visible landmark (like a tall church spire) and then there is no fixed route, you each get there in whatever way you think is the quickest. You can take roads, or go across fields, you might have to jump ditches or climb over fences. You are guessing and improvising a lot of the time, so you might find yourself up to your knees in mud by accident, and then get lucky with a sudden shortcut.

My whiteboard tracker, therefore, only lists the next big goal and its deadline. I will use my instincts, information in the moment, and an overall sense of where I need to be and by when, and just get there somehow, perhaps by a roundabout or unorthodox route, or perhaps by noticing that there’s a well signposted road that goes straight there. I might even take the bus.

A similar process in practice is the ‘minimum-viable action‘. In this strategy, just putting on your shoes and turning up the race is enough. Your planned goal is to arrive at the beginning. What happens after that is optional. Sometimes nothing much happens after you arrive. Sometimes you decide to take a few steps into the first field. And for some people, sometimes, it means they overcome that initial inertia and are steeplechasing their way towards their bigger goal without having planned to.

If you have a non-linear or neurodivergent route to meeting goals, this strategy might help you. Circular, stop-and-start, or seemingly distracted paths all eventually get you in the right direction. Ride the productivity flow when it comes, pick the flowers or wander along some intriguing byways when it doesn’t.

Keep the ribbons and medals of completed races somewhere you and your supervisors can see them. The process may look incoherent or disorganised, but you keep meeting your goals. Remind yourself and those who you work with of this regularly, so you don’t waste time feeling ashamed or guilty if you take a messy or unusual path. There is no approved route, and your route gets you there.

The Map-maker

Strava is an app used by runners and cyclists to record and share their route with others. (Yes, I am writing this while watching a blue dot on screen, representing my partner cycling down a creek in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.) If you want, you can use the app like a pedometer, to plan a route and check you are meeting your goals; or you can just turn it on and start moving. Over time, you can build up a sense of where you go and how fast you get there. It creates the map from the journey.

So is that really just a pedometer or a steeplechaser? I think rather it’s a blend of the two, or gives you the option to swap between them. But more importantly, this kind of planner is going to find reflective tools more useful: like the done-list, a monthly ‘done-diary‘, or research journal (see Survival Guide, pp. 52-54).

For some people, the best way to plan is to know where they have already been. Explicitly tracking what your typical habits and pacing and ways of getting things done are, can help you to recognise your progress, and feel secure and motivated to make progress again the next time you need to.

Rather than forecasting your progress and then ensuring that you meet the forecast, you can look back and see if you are on track by the progress you have already made.

You know you will get to your goals because you have already mapped similar terrain.

All three have benefits

With a project as long and complex as a PhD thesis, you will need more than one kind of tool. You may have a preference, but knowing how and when to swap styles can keep you going if your favourite isn’t so effective right now. You may need to use different strategies to accomodate team members or institutional guidelines.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I like to try new things out. Some of the strategies stick for a while, some I try and immediately hate, some become essential parts of my day-to-day writing life. You don’t have to go to the trouble of actually trying out the different strategies, just reading about someone else’s process can help you imagine which techniques will probably help you.

In the decade or more that I’ve been working with doctoral candidates I have seen thousands of ways to make it to the finish line. It doesn’t matter what your style, process or speed is, it only matters that you get there.

I don’t think that any particular strategy is more likely to produce productive writers. You can be a careful planner and never meet your goals, a steeplechaser who gets discouraged and gives up, a tracker who forgets you need to get out there and do stuff before there’s anything to look back on.

No strategy will ensure you write faster, or get things in on time. You can miss deadlines and forget tasks regardless of the project management style. You still need to do the work and keep on doing it. And sometimes life or your health or your head will get in the way, and you can’t do the work for a bit. In that case, a done-list or Gantt chart is less likely to be useful than your university health service or similar.

But feeling confident, motivated and happy are important too. A PhD is an unusual opportunity to work however suits your brain and life best. Don’t get hung up on what ‘other people’ think you ‘ought’ to do. If you complete a PhD, writing an original and well-researched thesis, then you get to be called ‘Dr’. And you’ll have earned it.

So set those goals, and then go after them!

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

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