Anyone who has known me for a relatively long time knows that I do not have a great track record when it comes to finishing work on time. However, recently for the first time I submitted most of my assignments on time. One of the strategies that helped me do this was to break up the task into small segments.
Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work talks about the lack of clarity in knowledge work as one of the main reasons for our lack of productivity. If you talk to craftsmen such as mechanics or carpenters for example, they know exactly what they have to do. And they usually have a better estimate of the time they would require to do a particular work. This is because their work is very concrete and clear. Knowledge work on the other hand often tends to be hazy.
Assignments especially involve finding out about the topic, figuring out what to write, figuring out how to write, and so on. This can often lead (as it does with me) to a lot of rabbit-hole adventures. For example, if the assignment to be done is an essay about the solar system, one might immediately open the wikipedia page on the solar system (let’s admit it, we all use wikipedia). However, within no time, there are 15 different tabs open and you’re reading about the latest development when it comes to the debate on Pluto being a planet or not.
So how did I deal with this? Here are my two tips for what helped me stick to the schedule.
Breaking up the task into small tasks
I planned a separate rabbit-hole time. During this time, I collected all the material I could on the topic. I didn’t do anything else that day. The next day, I went through collected material and narrowed down on 3 or 4 articles I wanted to read for the assignment. The third day, I started reading those materials. The fourth day, I made the first draft of the article. Breaking down the task this way prevented me from wasting too much time going down rabbit-holes.
Tell myself I’m aiming for mediocrity
After a few rounds of editing on subsequent days, I just submitted the document. I knew that perfectionism could prevent me from making the submission on time and keep making just that one final edit. So I told myself, Aim for mediocrity. It is usually this need for being perfect, or the fear of missing out (FOMO) that one final bit of information that leads me down rabbit holes. Most of the time, that last piece of information may not even be all that important. So, having this mindset-shift helped a lot!