Big projects

You can tell I’m thinking about this one a lot, both because I’m still not talking about Zotero, and because it’s been two weeks since my last post.

(On that note, I’m going to go for a post every other week here for a while, both because I’ve got some other projects I’m working on in bits, and because I have a shorter list of things to cover here easily.)

Research tools: an astronomical device opens up like a pocket watch with many tools

I think a lot about the interaction of productivity and research, and how we structure projects, especially big long-term ones that don’t have visible end points for ages.

I’m working on one of those at work (our catalogue upgrade). We’re nearly done with one stage of it (I have to write a lot of documentation next week!) But after we take it public, we’ll have other things to work on, which will take a year or more to finish.

And this new research project is another. I have ideas about how to go about it, but I also have a lot of ‘I can try that, and if it doesn’t work, here are five other ideas’. Because for it to work for me, I need to have something that’s sustainable in my current schedule. Being able to do something once isn’t the same as being able to do it across a lot of different kinds of content.

That’s very different compared to some of the other things I do, where I might spend an hour or two answering a reference question, but then I’m done and move onto something else. Or write a blog post, then I’m done with that one. Or even a longer writing project, because 60,000 words is a couple of months work for me, not years. (I’m pretty regularly averaging over 30K a month, right now. )

Breaking down a big project

The classic advice is, of course, that when you have a really big project, you break it down into smaller pieces that are more manageable.

This is not bad advice, but it presumes that you have the skills to break down a big thing into smaller things (not everyone does!) and it also assumes some degree of knowledge about what the pieces are (which may be utterly mysterious or overwhelming when you have a big idea.)

Sometimes I’ve gotten around the boulders in this one by focusing on what I need to do first, to get started. Often once I’ve done one or two things, how to break things down further gets more obvious.

For our big catalogue project, I broke it down into specific things we needed before we could launch it. As we worked through training in the new system, we have kept adding to the list (as we learn more about what’s possible.)

In this big research project, one step is clearly “Figure out some starting sources” whether that’s for modern material about plants or stones, or whether it’s about looking at historical sources. I’m working my way through looking at lists, bookmarking sources or information about sources, and generally gathering a dozen or so places to start.

Preparation time

One thing I think people don’t talk enough about is the time it takes for you to get set up to do a thing. Some kinds of work, you can just sit down and do them, without needing lots of references or things set up a certain way. Other tasks take time to set up.

Take the catalogue editing at work. Right now I’m doing transferring a set of informational notes. That requires a search of the existing cross-reference information, and a second window (in a second browser, so I don’t upset the first search) to add the revised items into. At work, I have a dual screen setup (so amazing for productivity!) and setting up all those searches does take a few minutes. So it’s not something I start if I only have five or ten minutes.

In my personal research projects, taking out the books, opening the files, and getting things set up can take me a few minutes (I don’t have a lot of book storage near my computer, or this might be easier.) So, figuring out when I have enough time to work on that (and put things away) sometimes means it’s not the right project for a particular bit of time.

Batching time

Some things work better when you get into a rhythm of doing them, and you can do a bunch of similar tasks in a row. For example, I find it easier to make graphics for blog posts several at a time, if I know what I want. I already have the application open, I can duplicate things quickly, and save them. It’s much faster than doing that several different times.

I can do the same thing with some kinds of writing. Some things flow naturally from one to the other. When I was job hunting, writing cover letters for similar kinds of jobs were often much easier to batch. I was thinking about highlighting similar skills or answering specific questions common to one kind of library job and less relevant to others. (For example, skills working with the public are different than technical skills.)

The question of energy and focus

One of the biggest things for me is that I can handle different kinds of projects at different times. I have a horrible time doing in depth editing of writing after work (when I’ve already had a full day) so I need to make sure to block off time for that on weekends (or vacations). On the other hand, if I start early enough in the evening, I can easily put out 1500 or 2000 words between getting home from work and bedtime. Often, I can manage to do that and also do another task that takes some focus, but not a lot, like getting my next newsletter set up, or notes out from the most recent witchy class, or whatever else I’m working on.

I don’t quite know where that’s going to be for the big new project yet. My guess is that I’ll break it down so that some parts (looking at sources and setting up notes) will be a thing I do after work, but that I’ll need more focus for other parts of the writing, the synthesis.

Time for things to cook

I’m a big believer in there being time for things to cook or gel in my head. That means I often start thinking about a thing days or even weeks before I do substantial work on it. (This is working really well with my current fiction project, where I’m thinking ahead to the next piece while writing the current one. Then I finish the current one, do a quick outline for the next one, and think ahead to the one after that.) It means that a lot of my writing time is just about getting words down, which is often much faster with all that preparation.

None of these ideas is novel or unique, but I hope laying out some examples gives some ideas on how to apply a different approach to a big project you may be a bit stuck on.