Of all my wide range of clients–those looking for a resume quick check, young college grads transitioning to their first job, people in long mid-career transitions, academics trying to finish up a dissertation or get started on publishing projects–there is one thing they all have in common: the struggle to break down monumental tasks into smaller, discrete, and do-able tasks.
It is difficult precisely because you are facing monumental tasks:
“I have to find my career.”
“After 15+ years, I have to find a new job.”
“I have to publish a steady stream of 1-3 articles per year.”
With those end goals in mind, you sit down to work on your one-page resume or your article intro and your mind is flooded with thoughts of how you’ll find the right job ads, the confusing submission process, the scary interviews, the major life changes…
You try to start at A and you’re immediately distracted by Z. That one-page resume or 2-pagraph intro starts to seem insurmountable because you’re thinking too far ahead: “What will my new employer find out from my former employer?” “How will I have 9 published articles 5 years from now when I don’t have anything published yet?” “What will something new & different from the only professional work I’ve ever known me like? Scary!!” All of this makes you forget that you need to break things down into steps B through Y.
B through Y is what I spend a lot of my time on.
It’s okay to daydream about the end goal (always try to keep those positive–envisioning successful outcomes and how good it will feel to secure interviews or see your articles in print), but not when you’re sitting down to work on step 1.
Breaking the monumental task down into steps is key. First, make a list of clear, do-able tasks, then perhaps make a separate list for each item on the first list, and finally get started.
It might work something like this:
A goal date is always a good place to start–if you want to finish your task by September 1st, work backwards from that date to break the monumental task down into its component parts. Then prepare a discrete item-by-item list of each component part.
While you’re working, focus just on the specific task item you’re working on. For example, if it the monumental task is applying for a job by September 1st, that involves at least the following component parts:
- writing or updating your resume,
- drafting a cover letter,
- finding job ads that are a good fit for you,
- customizing your resume & cover letter to each ad, and
- navigating the submission process.
The item-by-item list for the first component part (writing or updating resume) might look like this:
- build the sections,
- choose headings for each section,
- list the items for each section,
- fill in the descriptive details for each item,
- edit for typos, spelling, grammar, repetition.
Don’t worry about customization yet. Don’t worry about which ads you respond to using this resume (yet!)
If it’s an academic article, your component parts might be:
- identify the journal(s) you will submit to,
- read the information for authors,
- read a sample article or two from the journal(s),
- identify a positive model for you from what’s already been published by others,
- make an outline based on the work that’s already been published in the journal.
Each section of that outline will have to be broken down into discrete tasks. Maybe you have to develop a literature review that involves reading articles, selecting quotes, paraphrasing entire articles, typing up the bibliographic entries, etc. For another section of the outline you might have to gather your data, design a coding scheme, code, analyze, organize your write-up by categories that emerge from analysis, choose quotes, etc.
The discrete tasks get the ball rolling in a way that allows you to move forward instead of getting stuck because your mind wants to jump to the conclusion of the monumental task without contemplating the many, many intermediate steps.
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in career transitions and academic writing projects. For one-on-one support to break down your monumental tasks and then execute the plan, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org