How To Break Down Big Projects

30 September 2010, by A. Cedilla

There are two steps to breaking down big projects. Just like in the most basic math, or beginning chemistry, the way to solve complicated equations — which big projects basically are — is by first reducing complex tasks to their most basic elements. The second step is to finish each stage before going onto the next, keeping on until the project is finished.

Break the big project into little projects. That’s how you tackle a big project: You break it down to its simplest elements, and you solve each combination of elements until you’re done.

Many times it’s not the project that seems big, but it’s you that feels small in comparison. The psychological barriers to attempting to tackle a big project is the distance between experience and expectations. In between this distance lies anticipation and fear.


Problem: High expectations coupled with little experience leads to disappointment.
Statement: “Your bark is bigger than your bite.”
Solution: Get experience while dealing with the project. Ask for help. Look for experienced mentors to guide you. Do your own research on similar topics/projects and see what worked, and how it worked, and the why of it working as it did.

Everyone starts out as a beginner, how else would your mentors have gotten their experience? Analyze what you dug up and see how it applies to you and your situation.

The Chinese have a saying that applies to study and work. “Walk on both feet.” You learn, and apply what you learn. You don’t just rest on theory and assume that everything’s all good. That’s walking hobbled.

Walking with both feet, your previous high expectations based on theoretical knowledge and lack of experience get adjusted to more realistic levels. You begin to develop an internal gauge, an eye for things, based on your growing exposure.

Just as master automotive mechanics can develop an ear for problems, so sharp they can diagnose by the problem-sound alone, the more experience you get and grok, the more developed your “ear” gets. (Of course, you can also call it having “an eye for details, a gut feeling, a nose for sniffing out problems,” or just “being ‘handsy’ with stuff.”)

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty when you’re learning on-the-go like this, that’s part of the process. Just take things one bite at a time.


Problem: High expectations coupled with little experience leading to fear.
Statement: “You think you’ll never make it.”
Solution: Fear is negative anticipation. Just as you looking forward to Christmas gifts is positive anticipation, negative anticipation is you being nervous, looking away from an event, and subsequently being pre-emptively evasive of something that has only taken place in your imagination, and is unlikely to happen.

Your fear is based on nothing solid. You have no first-hand data, no appreciable experience, and it’s that lack that lead you to think, “Oh no. It’s too much. I can’t. I’d never…” and you haven’t even gotten there yet.

You let your imagination shoot you in the foot when you haven’t even gotten a fair assessment of the situation.

Like getting rid of childhood boogeymen hiding in the closet, deal with your fear by applying the light of knowledge. Don’t let your emotions override your reason, that’s like letting the horses drive the carriage.

Keep a cool head. You are in charge of yourself, including your emotions, expectations and actions, so you have the power and the responsibility to make things happen instead of just hoping they’ll never happen.


What makes projects big?
National Geographic and the Discovery Channel often have these special series’ which focus on “mega-projects.” Some episodes focus on the scale of things: gargantuan trucks, moving entire houses, or building giant airplanes or mega-dams. Some episodes focus on magnitude (for purposes of exposition, we’ll go with the following definition: “The absolute or relative size, extent or importance of something.”) like designing mega-cities meant to withstand the test of time, energy demands, population growth, climate-change and technological developments in the future.

What’s so great about watching these specials is that they can give you a very real appreciation and understanding of the scope, cooperation, experience and work that goes into such amazing projects.

Everyone involved works as a team, each group knowing their job and completing it, with all the groups working to complete the project in stages. From design to construction, the process is broken into distinct pieces that come together to make a bigger whole.

Across the board, commonalities pop up in all these programs: An over-all master design is broken into stages, from inception to completion. The design is broken down even more, into goals per stage, each goal given a time-line and deadline per stage, and responsibility assigned to various people per stage. (You aren’t tackling a big project literally all by yourself, are you? Reach out; you don’t have to go it alone.)

Things grow bigger relative to or in comparison with your experience. If you’re unfamiliar or uneasy with a big project, it will loom in your consciousness as big as a mountain. You procrastinate, unwilling to deal with the enormous (pun intended) job, and so nothing happens.
Here’s a friendly hint: Jump! Using Momentum To Deal With Procrastination

Challenges of big projects boil down to perception. The problems you see are as big as you make them. If you’re overwhelmed, break them down and arrange the important components so:

– you know where these components are,or supposed to be at each stage of the process.
– you know what they’re for, and how much you have of an item or resource.
– you know who’s responsible for what part or stage, and how effectively and efficiently it’s used.
– you have an approximation of what is needed in terms of time required (per stage) and actions needed.

Another hint: capture all the fears, issues and bugaboos bugging you with pen and paper. Make a mind map. Once you name your demons, you’ll be more able to deal with them.


Other tips:

  • Keeping things like data, contacts and meetings in one place — known as centralization — is key. Centralization works around keeping what you need in one place so you know how things are progressing, you can share updates and information with the people involved in the project, and they have a base camp to get in touch with and return to, so to speak. A centralized HQ helps makes decisions form and go faster. Your physical HQ can be where you do the bulk of your work. Your virtual HQ can be established with one of the many available on-line project management services available.
  • Hold yourself accountable for what you commit to and what you accomplish each day. Let people know what you’ve accomplished. A little friendly competition can boost the collective effort of the team, and letting people know what you commit yourself to finishing next can be a boost for you to stay the course too.

Helpful Wikipedia links: A list of project management software and another list for time-tracking software.

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