Making Big Projects Seem Small

I have something of a reputation as a procrastinator. Ill deserved, mind you, but present nonetheless.

As an illustration… I have been working on my thesis since 2004. At least, I have been enrolled in a doctoral program in which the production of a thesis figures strongly as a required deliverable. While there were moves towards progressing towards this goal – obligatory coursework, the development of a proposal, and plausible reading ’towards my literature review’ – it would be fair to say that, since 2009, there has been no other barrier to my completion than writing the damned thing.

Well, that is not strictly true, as there have been some profound and difficult life events along the way, but it is a sufficiently true statement to be getting on with for now.

I now am faced with a looming, firm and progressively nearer deadline that means action is a necessity. And I am also blessed with the time and stated desire to work towards completion. While I would like to not have the pressure of the deadline, I will live with it and respect it as best I can.

The curious thing, however, is that it is not the thing that is motivating me right now. Nor was the absence of looming time pressure the cause of my procrastination. It was the mammoth and uncertain nature of the work itself.

One of my perennial challenges with actual research is you have to situate yourself ’in the literature’. Meaning that you have to be firmly in command of everything that has been done in your field, and your contribution needs to be significant and unique – meaning different but still relevant – to what has come before. This is a lot of work, involving a great deal of reading and a lot of uncertainty. And while I have known in general terms the topic of my thesis, the specifics of what it will be and how I will do it hinge on what comes out.

It is only in the last month that I have truly embraced revisiting this, diving into the literature. I have done lots of preparation, to be clear, culminating in a mammoth number of research papers to review and make sense of – about 2000, at current count. But it is the making sense of things that is hard.

This week, however, I have found myself fortunate enough to experience a number of useful breakthroughs. I found the paper that provides the perfect link to what I am going to do and lays out a strategy of how I can get there. I figured out the structure of my first few chapters in sufficient detail to tackle them. And I incised the reading and sense making (at least for the first chapter) that lets me start writing.

The true excitement in all of this is that I now have a vision of the end point, and enough of a structure to be able to concretely guide me moving forward. I know what the finished result will look like (in general terms) and I have a level of confidence – finally – that I can successfully get this done.

This is not terribly different from any mammoth, frightening, uncertain task. But it provides some insight, at least for me, of what it takes to move forward. Motivation for me comes from having confidence that I can be successful, and enough sense of what I need to be doing next to be getting on with. It doesn’t require a clear, step-by-step path. I still have lots of unknowns and uncertainties. There will be roadblocks and crises. But the essence of what must be done is now sufficiently understood.  In the words of Lao Tzu, ”The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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