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10 Ways to Get a Big Project Done

Behavioral science techniques that improve your chances of getting the job done.

Key points

  • Many people struggle to finish big projects. According to a 2020 survey, almost half of teleworkers had trouble getting motivated.
  • Tips for accomplishing daunting tasks include making a plan at the start, splitting a large effort into smaller pieces, and building a routine.
  • Other strategies include celebrating small wins, rewarding oneself, sharing progress, and shifting to other activities when feeling stuck.

Have you ever been faced with a big project and struggled to get it done? If you’re human, you probably have. Take New Year’s resolutions, for example. Many of us make them, but very few of us will actually keep them. And being stuck at home during the pandemic hasn’t necessarily been helpful in fueling our drive to get things done. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey on teleworkers, for instance, found that almost half of them felt that it was difficult to get motivated.

It's tough to accomplish tasks and some of us may even feel paralyzed when it comes to tackling a big project. Recognizing the need to get it done, having the time and opportunity for it, and possessing the requisite skills to do the work is crucial, but it’s often not enough.

Tips for Tackling Big Projects

Whether it’s a work assignment, a big term paper, or an important home improvement project, here are 10 tips informed by behavioral science you can use to nudge yourself along and over the finish line.

1. Make a plan‌. When it comes to tackling big projects, the most fundamental action you should take right away is to make a plan. Being clear about objectives and getting organized is the first step on the path to success. Your plan should be as specific as possible by answering how you will approach and complete the project, when you will do it, and where it’s to be done.

2. Commit to it. As you make your plan, you also set a goal. This is a way for you to inherently commit to finishing a project. If the project is part of your job, you’ll probably also be held accountable for it by others. If it’s something you do for yourself, letting other people know about your goal should help you take your commitment more seriously.

3. Split it up. Were you one of those students who managed to write a term paper in a marathon session the day before it was due? I wasn’t, and I suspect most people work better under a bit less pressure and with more manageable workloads. In fact, splitting up a large effort into smaller pieces is one of the best (and obvious) things you can do to make it less overwhelming and more likely to get done—properly. Achieving smaller goals or milestones that come with those sessions will help you stay motivated.

4. Make it a habit. Big projects that require multiple work sessions give you an opportunity to build a routine. If you haven’t done this already at the planning stage, try to set aside particular days, times and locations to do the work—say Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in your garage. If you also use support mechanisms like reminders and checklists, it will become easier to build a habit and make your efforts as automatic as possible.

5. Start in your head. Even with the best planning and routines in place, there may be times when the thought of continuing your project fills you with dread and you’re tempted to procrastinate. One way in which I sometimes try to overcome this in my own work is to start a task in my head first. Past research has identified mental simulation as an effective technique to enhance goal-directed effort and performance. Simulation helps you wear down your own resistance to engaging in a task and prepares you for the work ahead.

6. Make it easy. Many projects involve smaller tasks with varying levels of difficulty and people sometimes end a work session just as (or because) they are faced with a challenging task ahead. That’s the opposite of what you should do. When you close a work session, try to set up the next one in a way that will let you start with a less demanding task. This will allow you to ease yourself back into the project rather than deter yourself from it. (And if you finish a session with a more difficult task, you may end it with a greater sense of accomplishment.)

7. Be positive. It’s sometimes easier said than done, but being in a good mood is great fuel for productivity, and being productive can in turn reinforce a positive mindset. Don’t make your happiness depend on the completion of the entire project. Instead, celebrate small wins, such as exceeding your own productivity target for the day, to stay engaged.

8. Reward yourself. When you celebrate small wins or milestones you may decide to give yourself rewards, which provide a positive reinforcement for your efforts. But you can also tie rewards to your work more directly. This is referred to as temptation bundling, as gratifying "want" experiences with immediate rewards are combined with "should" behaviors. For example, while I find it difficult to work with music playing in the background, I sometimes allow myself to indulge in this distraction during tasks for which I have particularly low motivation.

9. Share your progress. Just as letting others know about your plans and goals can reinforce your commitment, sharing your progress can help you on your path to achieving them. You may even get a pat on the back.

10. Get it done by not doing it. It doesn’t matter whether your big effort is physical or mental, it’s common to get tired or stuck once in a while. When that happens, consider a complete change of activity, as recommended by some writers as a means to overcome writer’s block. Go for a walk. Play an instrument. Read a book. This should not only recharge your batteries, but may also inspire you if you’re low on creative or intellectual resources.

The next time you’re faced with a big project and would like to increase your chances to get it done, try applying some of the techniques on this list—or just use them as food for thought as you prepare for the work ahead. They can’t provide a recipe for success, but they may help you think about factors that have contributed to your ability to get things done in the past and steps you could take to help yourself in the future.

More from Alain Samson Ph.D.
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