Emily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.

Three different people, completely unbeknownst to one another, wisely pointed me toward the same book back when I first started graduate school: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). And with very good reason. As the title suggests, it’s a handbook for breaking down enormous tasks into smaller, more manageable ones.  Lamott relays an anecdote about her brother that probably resonates with any graduate student:

. . . thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ (18-19).

Grad school is, after all, essentially a series of enormous tasks. The largest of these is, of course, the dissertation, but that’s just one among many. To earn the coveted letters after your name, you also have to juggle teaching, course design, the marathon that is coursework, comprehensive exams, the dissertation prospectus, conference papers, seminar papers, journal articles, and so on. And the secret to conquering any behemoth task isn’t really a secret at all: break it into smaller ones. Take that daunting project that seems so gargantuan that it might feel almost impossible, look it square in the face, take a deep breath, and then divide it into manageable component tasks (the operative word here is “manageable,” remember). Set yourself a deadline for each one and stick to it. That’s it. Bird by bird.

Common sense, right? Sure. But if you’re anything like me, actually implementing this strategy in daily practice can be a struggle. A few additional tips are in order:

1. Decide what “manageable” means for you. There’s no point in developing an elaborate game plan for conquering a large goal if you are just setting unrealistic expectations for yourself. I actually had to revert from using Google Calendar to my trusty old Moleskine planner, because I found that having endless space to type translated into me cramming too many tasks into each day, and then feeling crummy when I fell behind. But when I use my regular planner, I don’t run into this problem, and I actually stand a fair shot at accomplishing all of my designated steps each day (dissect one book for comps, read one article for the prospectus, write one page for the seminar paper, etc.).

2. Stop worrying so much about the future. One of the reasons I like systematically breaking down big projects into small steps is that it reassures me that I have sufficient time for everything. I don’t have to worry about finishing my reading list in time for an exam because my game plan has a built-in space for each book. I don’t have to worry about meeting the conference proposal deadline because I have plotted to have enough time to write the draft and edit it. When I can trust that I have a comprehensive plan, I find that I don’t waste as much time or energy fretting about how much I have left to do. This makes it easier for me to concentrate on the task at hand, instead of getting distracted by all of the work still left to be done.

3. Use the right tools. There are plenty of apps out there to help you translate long-term goals into short-term tactics. I am a devout Scrivener enthusiast, for tackling large writing projects section by section (starting at $35, for Mac OS X and Windows). I also love Things for task management (starting at $9.99, for Mac OS X and Apple iOS), because it helps me to design large projects with built-in deadlines, but you could also try Procraster, which offers similar features for less money ($2.99, for Apple iOS). OmniFocus is also popular, but is also pretty spendy (beginning at $19.99, for Mac OS X and Apple iOS). Wunderlist is another popular option, available in both free and pro versions ($4.99/month, for Mac OS X, Windows, Apple iOS, Android, and the web), which allows you to break projects into subtasks. I like using a combination of Things and my old-fashioned planner.

Sure, there are still plenty of times that I stare at my to-do list, my email inbox, or my abysmal rough draft and feel an awful lot like the little boy writing the bird report in Lamott’s story. But my strategy of breaking apart big tasks helps me to snap out of it and keep plugging away, paper by paper, page by page, bird by bird.

How do you break apart big tasks? Share your tips and tools in the comments section below, or on Twitter using #ghtasktips.

[Image by Flickr user john.schultz used under creative commons licensing.]

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