Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to tackle a large task

Writing a doctoral dissertation is a large task, but not the only large task to face during the PhD. A few examples include:
- writing an article,
- preparing a research report,
- the literature review itself,
- developing a method,
- ...

One way to get started is to take a blank page of paper, stare at it, and then get started hoping you'll end up with your required result. This used to be my approach, but I've gradually moved to a more structured approach. Here's a description of my typical workflow.

1. Break it down

Every large task consists of a series of smaller and more tangible tasks.
In a first brainstorm session, I always sketch the roadmap which I plan to follow for completion of the task ahead. Sometimes I make a mindmap, sometimes I sketch the smaller tasks. Once I have an idea of what needs to be done, I write a list of the steps I plan to go through from start to end.

2. Estimate the time needed

It's easier to estimate how much time a smaller task needs than to estimate to time needed for the entire task. This helps to plan the time needed for completion and to add these required blocks of time to your planning.

For example, it's easy to estimate that you need:
- 2 hours to read a paper,
- 15 minutes to archive it and add it to your references managing system, and
- 45 minutes to type out the important information into the literature review.
If you have a certain amount of papers which need to be read for a background study, you can guess how long it takes to process the papers. Continuing with this example, you could estimate that after processing the papers, you need 1 day to proofread and mark up your notes with important information and 2 days to rewrite the document.

3. Sharpen your pencil

I like having all the necessary tools and documents within my reach before I get started. Having to go after a missing document can really disturb my train of thought, so I like to have all my armor ready and shining before I enter the battlefield.

4. Keep track of your questions and assumptions

I recently started using a few extra sheets/documents while working on a larger task. In one document, I jot down all questions I need to ask my supervisor for verification. In another document, I list all the assumptions I have made. This makes it easier to talk through a large task with others (for example, my advisor).

5. Document the process

I keep all my draft document with their date in the title and I keep notes and to do lists in binders. It's like keeping a research journal or a lab book, but then for a different task. The longer I'm in doctoral school, the more it appears to me of the utmost importance to document all the steps I make.

This method might seem more time consuming than simply getting started and work towards the end, but I've noticed that a little extra effort at the start brings me faster and more reliably to the finish.


  1. Great article again, mine is fairly similar to your approach with a couple of additions:

    1. I never read aimlessly. Every journal article or code of practice I need is stored and saved as a PDF in endnote, highlighted and bookmarked. Key quotes specific to an author I highlight with purple, everything else with yellow to stop me highlighting. I then recover all the purple highlighted text when I need to summarise the findings of the article.

    Some people think I'm a bit overboard with the organisation, but it really helps me to make sure I make the most of my reading.

    2. I use a diary program to add little thoughts here and there, with regards to coursework and projects, which can then be searched if I cant quite remember an idea.

    3. I constantly save versions of drafts even if they're uncompleted, 1.0, 2.0 etc, which helps to remind that you've done a lot of work. My general work style when it comes to reports is to treat a word document rather as a canvas than a document, copy and pasting little paragraphs here and there. However I do try to only keep to a couple of sections a day to make sure I stay focused.

    Great article again!


  2. Also, a clean desk and room (cant work with a messy desk! I lose things too much otherwise, plenty of coffee, an occasional joint if I'm doing conceptual design or anything qualitative, otherwise just plenty of coffee for number work and spreadsheets!

  3. I typed another comment but it got deleted, so in summary

    1. Clean room and desk!
    2. Never reading for fun, making sure I highlight everything in endnote and save to PDF and always summarise.
    3. Likewise I always break everything down into sections; my reports are often more of a canvas if anything, with copied bits of eurocodes, journals, but with all the references tied to them so I know their citations.

    Great article again!

  4. I agree with the clean desk and room - otherwise I start mixing sheets of paper and spend too much time looking for stuff.

    Totally agree with your points 2 and 3 as well - I have quite a number of "in progress" documents which contain references, figures, copied pieces of text and the like.

    Thanks for your input!

  5. Also have lots of caffine on hand! I have found it so much easier to work on chapters now that I have written a detailed introduction chapter. I tend to get get 'lost' in the research process, & the intro chapter reminds me what I should be doing ... And definately agree with breaking them down.

    Kelly @
    Elegantly Academic

  6. Also just wanted to say filing system too! Whether electronic or personal; although I had a hard time deciding whether to range it by geotechnics, hydraulics, structures, bridges, or by Eurocodes. Choice, one of the reasons I went into civil engineering in the first place! :)

  7. Yes, caffeine and chocolate - they always give me that "extra kick" in the afternoon :)

    Pete, which filing system do you use now? I have all the hard copies of papers alphabetically ordered (I can search by keyword in Endnote and then go to the right binder and pull out the paper I need), but on my computer I tend to split up my work in "writing", "spreadsheets", drawings", "literature". I've always used a similar system, but now that I'm working on a report I have a file for it in "spreadsheets" (with my calculations), in "writings" (with the report itself) and then smaller bits and pieces in umpty other folders...

  8. Pete, found your comment which had gone lost-: it apparently got automatically filed as spam (and I have no idea why)

  9. I'm in the midst of writing a conference paper at the moment and absolutely agree with your five points above. I especially like to map ideas and modify my maps as I go -- there's something about this process that stops me from getting lost in the words.

    (my blog about most other things than my PhD)

  10. Great post and really interesting discussion in the comments. I wish I could be as organised as Pete! I'm getting there though, and I fully endorse the downloading all the pdf's before you start and only reading articles that are going to be directly useful to your project. However, I do think it's important to plan some time when you can lose yourself in the literature and see what you find - you never know and it is important to be well read. However you need to plan to do this so you don't waste time when you have a project deadline looming!

    Right, I'm off to tidy my desk!

  11. I agree, Ben, I always have a pile of articles just to broaden my background knowledge which I try to read at odd moments in the plane, on the beach, in a coffee place...