I’m in the middle of a big project at work and am feeling unmotivated about my progress to date. I’ve been working on it for months now, and still feel like I have a long way to go. I start each day determined to work on a part of the project and even break that work into sub-tasks in Todoist.
But I end the work day not feeling like I’m getting any closer to finishing. Is there a better way to break up my work so it feels like I’m actually moving towards the end?
Working on a project with no end in sight is like being in the midst of a race without knowing where the finish line is. Your legs are tired and you’re out of breath, but you don’t know if or when relief will come.
We’ve felt this pain at Doist while working on our own long-haul projects. We work in one-month cycles, combining several together for bigger, more ambitious projects. The first cycle feels fresh and exciting as we brainstorm and explore new possibilities. But by the end of the third cycle, most team members feel tired, weary, and ready to move on. Needless to say, the pain you’re feeling is the natural manifestation of working on a long slog project, not a personal failing.
Picking off small tasks feels futile when we’re unsure how much progress we’re actually making. Is it 1 of 10 tasks, 100 tasks, 1,000 tasks? We often give advice on getting started, preaching the power of splitting tasks into sub-tasks and how minuscule action can lead to momentum. But how do you build the resilience to forge ahead on a tiny piece when it’s just part of a potentially infinite pie?
Here’s an idea that might help: follow the principles of mise-en-place.
I first came across the definition of “mise-en-place”, originating in the culinary world and translated to mean “put in place”, in Dan Charnas’ book Work Clean: What Great Chefs Can Teach Us About Organization:
“The preparation and assessment of ingredients, pans, utensils, and plates, or serving pieces needed for a particular dish or service period.”
If this seems entirely unrelated to the concept of project management and moving work forward, stay with me. In the high-stakes environment of a restaurant kitchen, seconds matter. Running around to find the right ingredient or instrument is the difference between a meal that leaves patrons salivating and one that ends up too burnt to serve.
Early in their careers, chefs and cooks alike are trained in the art of mise-en-place, including having every single item they’ll need for preparing a meal in front of them before they even turn the water to a boil. They know what ingredients need to be added first and which utensil to grab at the right time. In a state of flow, they always know what step they’re working on in the sequence. They’re never confused about what comes next.
We can learn a lot from our culinary friends. We can make projects feel less piece-meal and more like a recipe where we move through the work, one step at a time, starting with the end in sight.
If you’re familiar with the agile approach to project management, this advice might seem counterintuitive. With agile, work is completed iteratively, adjusting as you move forward and gather more information. This allows for more flexibility when dealing with unknowns. But without milestones and markers in place charting progress, this method can make projects feel never-ending.
Sequencing and steps can provide much-needed psychological satisfaction that can help us carry through during prolonged projects. Treat your current project more like cooking by gathering up everything you need upfront, defining the steps for the entire process, and moving through step one to ten, not step one of unknown.
Unfortunately, at the start of a big project, it can be hard to use our best judgement on splitting up the work into distinct phases. Often you don’t have all the information you need to formulate the steps of the recipe. Here’s how to get the necessary information to break down a big project:
- Call on colleagues: If you have coworkers or peers who have worked on a similar project, ask for their advice. How did they manage the day-to-day of a larger project and meet the milestones that matter? Use their past expertise to guide what you work on. Don’t be afraid to ask to see their old project plans.
- Go back to previous projects: Sometimes we need to revisit the past before forging forward. If you have a successful project or two under your belt, go back to what you did the last time. How did you break up the project to make progress and eventually hit “done”?
- Ask your manager: If you’re feeling stuck, ask above you. Express to your boss that you would appreciate their advice on defining what comes next. While you might fear being seen as incompetent for asking, that’s what your boss is there for. If they look down on you, it’s less about you and more about them. Besides, it’s better to get the question out of the way instead of dawdling at your desk and missing deadlines.
- Look to templates: Sometimes the “recipe” already exists. If you’re working on a project, chances are someone has worked on something similar before and may have steps or advice you can follow. We have Todoist templates for work projects like accounting tasks and client management.
Projects get finished one task at a time, but it’s important to see the destination ahead. Get as much information you can about a project and split it up into actionable phases that feel manageable but sizable, with initial and final milestones along the way. Chances are that as you work on your daily tasks, you’re making more progress than you think (remember, our brains are wired to focus on what we haven’t done, not what we have). You just need to set up a system that better recognizes those steps as part of the larger project.
Best of luck,