Vincent Zhang

Engineering, Design & Productivity

How to Get Started on Your Big Project

Close your eyes and think about that dream project you wanted to do. I’m sure you have a grand vision. Now open your eyes and scratch all that, because you haven’t started it yet.

Dream projects are by definition complicated and doing such projects is hard. The most common thing you’ll hear about this is the advice of “just do it”. In reality, this advice is as useful as “just don’t be poor” because it lacks practical detail.

A better advice to give than “just do it” is “just get started”. Science has proven that once you started putting down the first stroke on the canvas, you don’t usually stop there. Starting can lead to great things.

Science also tells us that starting is hard. Because to do that you need to overcome your inertia, the mental resistance. Human brain works in associations, which means when you hear about putting down a stroke, you are not just thinking about that stroke. you are thinking about the implication of a whole painting. Change is scary. Overwhelming is instant. So you tell yourself the easiest way not to fail is to never try starting.

The key to not get overwhelmed doing a big project is to start small. Of course, that brings other problems: as the task gets smaller, it feels less important, thus we tend to postpone it indefinitely or wander off.

How about a deadline?

This is where time boxing comes in. Time boxing is the act of starting small with a self imposed deadline.

The technique is simple and it works like this:

Let’s get back to your dream project. What can you achieve, if all you have is one week? One day? Or even one hour?

Ah, now you have to be selective about what you do. Really selective.

Time boxing is scientifically proven to be effective. The famous Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. Remember that time in college when you wrote a 20-page essay the day before due? Sounds like you know the technique already.

Advantages of time boxing include but are not limited to:

  • Time boxing’s self proposed deadline creates and a sense of urgency. Urgency is biologically proven to be a source of productivity boost. You are deliberately creating discomfort, which is a key element of getting better.
  • Time boxing also creates boundary. It forces you to dissect a big problem into small, concrete problems. This ability to divide and extract problems is one of the most important skills in engineering and many other careers. Time boxing your projects is a great way to deliberately practice that.
  • Time boxing forces you to make many small bets instead of a big bet, which is the key to big discoveries, according to research. It enables fast iteration, a great workspace invention of the 21st century. You should consider integrating a feedback loop, just like a good fast iteration method will; at the minimum, you could do retrospection.

In the long run, these meta skills you learn from time boxing will be beneficial to almost everything you do.

Notice that I’m sharing the “why” but not the “how” of time boxing. I believe the process varies from person to person as it’s project dependent. Want to learn more? LifeHack’s article on effective deadline tips is a good place to start.

If you want to work on big things, you seem to have to trick yourself into doing it… It’s not a sign of weakness to depend on such tricks. The very best work has been done this way.

Paul Graham, Good and Bad Procrastination

Just like any productivity method, a key about using time boxing effectively is to exercise it with restrain. You can not and should not time box everything, because if everything is an urgency, then nothing is. This is why “live everyday like the last day of your life” never works. This type of behavior ignores the natural flow of reality by being unnecessarily stressful and can lead to depression.

Remember, your brain needs slack to fuel its creativity. The good form of creativity comes in short sprints, not a marathon.

Feeling better about achieving your dream projects now? Great. Now go out there and start a timer, and let me know if it makes you feel better after the time’s up.

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