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Bite-sized chunks

When I was writing my PhD, I frequently became overwhelmed by the task. One hundred thousand words of thesis just seemed unachievable. Several years of researching the same thing. How was I ever going to sustain the mammoth effort it would take to get it done?

In these moments, when I confronted the enormity of the task ahead of me, I often found my progress halted. I would spend days, sometimes weeks, staring at the computer screen (or the ceiling, if I'm honest, because I would lie on the floor for hours at a time, contemplating the misery of my existence). I'd get more and more stressed, and more and more frozen and unable to work. The longer I didn't get any work done, the more stressed I'd become, and the more stressed I became, the harder it was to work.

Every single time, the way out of this vicious cycle turned out to be the same thing. I just had to break off a manageable chunk, and start.

It sounds obvious, in hindsight, but when you're dealing with a big task it's very easy to find yourself focusing on how bit it is, rather than what you need to do next. Focusing on the whole in these situations generally doesn't enable you to make progress though, because any progress you make towards an overwhelming task is still going to leave you with the rest of an overwhelming task.

When we switch our perspective to look at the large task as a collection of smaller tasks we can gradually work our way through, things change. Now, we just have to do thing #1, and then we have something to tick off our list and the associated sense of achievement. Rather than, "I need to write this huge overwhelming thing that looks impossible," we're saying, "I need to organise my resources into folders so that I can find everything when I start writing". Depending on how many resources we're working with (and how much of a mess they're in!) this is something we might be able to tick off in a few hours or a few days.

For those of us who love a good to do list, this approach is the ACTUAL BEST. That to do list can be long and detailed and full of small, achievable tasks we can tick off over the course of the day. We can plan better too - it's much easier to look at these detailed items and see what you can achieve in a day or a week than it is to look at a one hundred thousand word document and think, "I've got eighteen months left to write that one hundred thousand words". It's only a matter of perspective, sure, but it might just be the difference between progress and lying miserably on your living room floor, crying to the ceiling rose.

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