The Ultimate Guide to Breaking Down Big Assignments
I admit it. That essay I turned in the other day? I was up until one in the morning working on it. I had to find sources, write the paper in a specific format, make edits, and turn it in all in the space of a few hours. I would love to complain that it was all due in a night…but I can’t. You see, I had three weeks to do it.
There’s something about long-term assignments. The procrastination bug multiplies, you can get cold feet even in the middle of spring, and time magically disappears. Often your project’s completion comes down to the last minute. While that’s exciting for action movies and winning touchdowns, it’s not great for homework.
Luckily, I have discovered the secret to breaking down big assignments. It involves Edwin Locke’s Goal-setting theory, an investigation board full of notecards linked with colorful strings, and plenty of puzzle analogies. The last one is probably going to get old, but that’s what project management is: solving a puzzle. And just like with a jigsaw puzzle, you start by looking at the big picture.
Assess the Project
Dumping out the project, you realize it’s a thousand pieces instead of 100. No need to panic! Assignments always look scarier than they are. You’re looking too far ahead. Puzzles are put together piece by piece, and so are projects.
The best way to begin is by making the frame. Find where you want to start and where you want to end up. Know what you hope to achieve before you form a plan to get there. I also plan to begin the project right away and finish early. Setting yourself a heightened goal helps get you motivated and assures the project’s done on time.
You should address potential roadblocks right away. If you know your weaknesses, work out how to avoid them. For example, I deal with self-doubt. I dread working on a project to the point of, well, not working on it. One way I combat this is by not worrying about perfection. I focus on just getting it done, then refining things later. If your issue is procrastination, pick a comfortable workspace free of distractions. Both a puzzle-in-progress and a working student need a place to sit undisturbed.
Sort the Pieces
Here’s where we start breaking things up. I like to divide down my assignments three times: first into floors, then stairs, and finally (if necessary) into steps.
Floors are made up of the different phases or parts of a project. Depending on how long the assignment is, these are the weekly or monthly milestones. For example, the floors of an essay include the research phase, outline, rough draft, and so on. Prepping for a party might include sorting out the location, invites, snacks, and entertainment. If it takes longer than one sitting to complete, it’s a floor. They outline what needs to be carried out. Once you have these, you can break them down further.
I like to call the next section stairs since they help you reach each floor (or milestone). They go into the specifics of what needs to be done. For example, a floor is to work on the rough draft and a stair might be “write 300 words.” Unlike the floors of your project, stairs can be done in a single sitting. The most effective stairs take less than an hour to complete. Having a long to-do list of stairs sounds intimidating, but it has a surprising effect. Every time we complete a task, we receive a burst of dopamine (the happy chemical in our brain). If you keep the tasks short and simple, you will find yourself burning through them, motivated by the sense of accomplishment checking off each to-do box brings.
Sometimes stairs in a project need to be broken down even further. Steps are what build the stairs and are reserved for action sequences you’re not familiar with. For example, you don’t need to break “make a bologna sandwich” into steps, but you might with “make a crown roast of pork with mushroom dressing.”
Feel free to jump around while sorting out the pieces of your project. If the assignment doesn’t have clear milestones to use as floors, skip ahead and list out the stairs. Once you have them, you can divide these tasks into sections based on when you would like to have them done.
Pro Tip: make sure you’re writing this all down! Unlike a puzzle, there are no physical pieces to sort yet. DO NOT rely on your memory! Studies show that our working memory capacity sits at only around 3-5 items at a time. You do not want to get halfway through the puzzle and lose a piece!
Time is of the Essence
You have the project broken down into floors, stairs, and steps. Now they each need a timeframe. While you will have an overall project deadline preassigned, setting personal deadlines in between assures you make use of the full time you are given and stay on task.
Set each floor of the project to be completed by the end of each week or month (depending on how long you have to work on the project). After that, you can figure out how long you would like each task to take. Don’t think of these as expiration dates, though. If something takes longer than you anticipated, your whole project is not going to go sour. Having a timeline for your project simply ensures you stay on top of it rather than doing everything at the last minute.
This Isn’t Solitary
The worst part about long-term projects is that you can easily veer off track. Whether it is underestimating the timeframe, misunderstanding the assignment, or simply forgetting a step, you can really dig yourself into a hole. Without feedback for your work, impatience and fatigue are also bound to ensue.
Puzzles are simply best solved together. Whether it is enlisting the help of your professor or a friend, hearing another person’s point of view can be extremely helpful. Having others watch your progress also keeps you motivated and accountable for your work. Even if it isn’t a group project you’re working on, you can still get together with your fellow peers. Share your ideas! Offer to edit each other’s rough drafts! Who knows? Maybe your long-term project will bud lifelong friendships.
It wasn’t easy. A couple of pieces got flipped around. At one point the whole puzzle got sent flying and you had to start over, but you did it! Your puzzle went from several piles of pieces to a complete image. Not only is the final result remarkable, but you can appreciate it more, knowing how much work was put into it. The next time you’re assigned a huge project, remember there’s no need to panic. Pick it apart, piece by piece, and have fun putting it together. Reward yourself with each section that’s completed and enlisting the help of your friends! Before you know it, you’ll have the completed project to hang up on your wall of success.
Mild-mannered student by day, writer by night... but typically by day, I’m Bailey Werner, current junior and graphic design major at Fort Hays State University. With a passion for storytelling that stemmed from 3rd grade writing hour, I’ve been crafting worlds and characters as a hobby for over a decade. Now, as a part-time content creator for the school, I’m living out my dream of writing professionally. If I’m not in my room reading, gaming, or making art, you can find me at the lake. I strongly believe in the power of storytelling, and I’ll continue to use my writing skills after graduation, in my work as a graphic designer.