It’s good to have goals, targets and deadlines; these can help to give structure to our working life and provide motivation and direction. But if we’re not careful, they can easily become overwhelming and counterproductive. That’s why we need to break them down, like so…

Think Small

Large, long-term or complex tasks are dangerous and should never be jotted down on your to-do list as one action. They can seem overwhelming and it can be hard to assess accurately how long targets and deadlinesthey will take. Beware any task that begins with ‘complete’. ‘Evaluate’ is another dangerous action word too; evaluation is never a one-step process! You need to gather data, make comparisons, consider context… the list goes on. Evaluation is a project, not a task.

That’s why it’s vital to break down our more complex or long-term goals into smaller tasks that will need completing on the way. To do this:

  • Have an overall long-term objective and deadline in mind (I’m a writer, so for me it might be ‘complete a historical novella for submission to XYZ publishers by 20th December *insert year here*
  • Spend time thinking about the steps needed to complete it. Again, using my hypothetical novella, ‘My Way or The Highway’, as an example (you can have that for free, but I wouldn’t recommend you use it!), I might break down that objective into these smaller steps:
    • Research highway robberies
    • Research everyday life, language and main events in 1700s to make novella authentic and avoid anachronisms
    • Write character profiles
    • Write plot outline
    • Experiment with different points of view to decide if first or third person works best
    • Write chapter plan
    • Write scene plan
    • Write chapters 1-5
    • Review chapters 1-5
    • Write chapters 5-10
    • Review chapters 1-10
    • Edit novella
    • Send to editor and/or proofreader
    • Do my own final edit and proofread
    • Read publisher’s submission guidelines
    • Write covering letter and synopsis
    • Submit novella manuscript

Think Specific

Now I have a set of far smaller steps that gives me a clearer idea of what’s involved and makes my goal seem far more achievable. Each step starts with an action verb, so I know what I actually need to do. So far, so good. But some of these tasks need to be more specific, and I haven’t set deadlines for each step. I need to think about the detail of what each step requires – even ‘research’ is quite vague; what facts am I really looking for? – and assess, as realistically as possible, how long it will take.
So now my task list may look more like this:

  • Research highway robberies: make notes in Scrivener, deadline 18th July
  • Why did they occur?
  • Who were the perpetrators and victims?
  • What usually happened during a highway robbery?
  • Could any real life robberies or highwaymen provide inspiration or plot points?
    • Research everyday life, language and main events in 1700s to make novella authentic and avoid anachronisms: make notes in Scrivener, deadline 28th July
      • Meals – typical food and eating times
      • Law enforcement

… And so on, until…

  • Edit novella: in MS Word, tracking changes, deadline 15th October
    • tighten phrasing
    • check for tautologies and repetition
    • check for anachronisms, discrepancies and continuity errors
    • add motifs

When you break down a large project into small, specific steps, it can also help to pinpoint those stages you may have forgotten. If this was my first novella, perhaps I would need to stop before my next small step to research editors and proofreaders; who comes highly recommended, and how much do they charge? This extra step may take some time.

  • Read publisher’s submission guidelines: note the length of the synopsis required, submission process, desired manuscript format and if they require the complete manuscript or a sample (how long?) Deadline 1st December
  • Write covering letter and synopsis, deadline 8th December
  • Submit novella manuscript, deadline 10th December

No, that final deadline isn’t a mistake. What would be a mistake would be making the deadline for completion of the final task the same as that of my absolutely final, everything-has-to-be-completed-and-submitted-or-else date. Although it’s important to be aware of this date when making plans, particularly if, for instance, that’s when my favourite publisher’s submission window closes, it’s not the date I should aim for. Why? Because Things Go Wrong.

Always build some redundancy into your projects and set your interim and final deadlines with a view to finishing early – before the completed work is required. That way, you’ve made time for those curveballs that work and life in general so dearly love to throw at you.