A Method for Completing Challenging Tasks

When I was writing my dissertation, I got stuck on certain chapters and sections. This threw off all my well-intentioned writing plans. The reason I was stuck is the part of the reason many people struggle to complete challenging tasks on their to-do lists. In this post, I will walk you through a method for tackling those tasks along with my experiences.

The Basics

A to-do list is probably the most basic organizational technique out there. The simplest version requires you to write out a list of things you need to do. Personally, I like to-do lists for 3 reasons:

  1. I like to have a list of what I need to do
  2. It eases my mind to dump all my to-do’s out of my head and write them down
  3. It feels AWESOME to check off things

The Problem

When I came up against my most taxing dissertation chapters and sections, both my to-do list and I got stuck.

Why?

My initial to-do lists informed me what I needed to do, but not how to do them.

Yes, I know I need to write my literature review on Late Bronze Age soft-stone, but how?

Yes, I must write a discussion section on what my archaeobotanical material means, but how?

Yes, I have to conduct my GIS analysis, but how?

The ‘how‘ of it all quickly turned out to be the root of my frustrations.

I felt like an imposter.

I was in the writing stage. I was supposed to have completed all my analyses and have all the answers. My task was supposed to be simply writing everything down. The issue was that I didn’t have the answers.

I didn’t know what constituted Late Bronze Age soft-stone in southeastern Arabia.

I didn’t know what the results of my archaeobotanical study meant.

I didn’t know what types of GIS analysis to conduct on my material.

I slowly found the answers. In doing so, I figured out a methodical way to tackle challenging tasks.

The Method

Challenging tasks are not easily actionable.

If my task is to pick up toilet paper, I probably know the following:

  • Where to buy toilet paper
  • How long it will take me to get there and buy it
  • When I have time to do the task
  • If I have the money to complete the task

Even if I don’t have all the answers (e.g., what brand of toilet paper to buy), I know I can resolve it easily when I am doing the task. If the actionable aspects of any task become increasingly uncertain or complex (e.g., no store to buy toilet paper close by or no money to buy toilet paper), it moves towards the realm of a challenging task.

The key is to reframe uncertain and complex aspects of challenging tasks into actionable items. 

But how?

If your task is challenging because aspects of it are uncertain, then establish what you do and do not know.

If your task is challenging because aspects of it are complex, then break down all the variables and moving parts.

But then, how do you turn this into actionable items?

I recently found Charles Duhigg’s SMART acronym. SMART stands for Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timeline. He has a short Youtube video and infographic on the concept. While I did not use SMART when I wrote my dissertation, it succinctly represents the things that I learned about tackling challenging tasks.

A core concept underlying SMART, and something I realized as I was writing, was the difference between goals and actionable items (Duhigg frames this as stretch vs. SMART goals). When I started viewing my challenging tasks as goals, they felt less overwhelming. Why? I view achieving goals as a process. This allows room for dealing with uncertainty and complexity in my mind.

I then had to turn my goal into actionable items. This required reframing the uncertain and complex aspects of my goal. This is where the SMART acronym can be really helpful.

An Example

The first chapter that I really struggled with was my literature review. I had to engage with a lot of unfamiliar material and my productivity waned as I approached challenging tasks.

As an example, let’s walk through one of my initial challenging to-do’s using SMART: Write dissertation section on Late Bronze Age soft-stone.

My primary issue was my uncertainty surrounding the topic. This resulted in struggling to come up with actionable items. In order to reframe my task, I first needed to figure out what I did and did not know.

I did know the Late Bronze Age was once part of the preceding Wadi Suq period. I also knew this created uncertainty for me because I did not know the true home of certain soft-stone findings.

I then reframed what I did and did not know into 2 specific sub-goals:

  1. Locate previous research discussing the difference between Late Bronze Age and Wadi Suq
  2. Determine if current period distinctions can be applied to previously analyzed material

In terms of achieving my first sub-goal, I made it measurable by outlining the following:

  • Spend 1 hour of dedicated research locating scholarship discussing the two periods
  • Contact 3 scholars familiar with soft-stone and ask them about further sources for the issue
  • Allocate 30 minutes to read and summarize the difference between the Late Bronze Age and Wadi Suq for each individual source

My measures were achievable and realistic because I knew how to complete my measures. I knew how to locate sources and summarize them and I also had contacts who knew about Arabian soft-stone that I could reach out to. I could then create a timeline based on my measures.

Concluding Thoughts

Traditional to-do lists are not bad (I love them!), but they have their limits. When you face a challenging task, you have to break down how to complete it, which is often intrinsic with easier tasks. Simply detailing what is the challenging task does not inform you how to complete it.

For me, the crucial step in approaching challenging tasks is reframing. Often, you will find that you need sub-goals as stepping stones for challenging tasks. As you reframe goals and sub-goals, the SMART acronym can be a useful tool. It’s a good reminder of what constitutes effective actionable items.

I think incorporating a measurable action involving reaching out to a friend or colleague can really help with academic writing. It can be useful to talk things out with a friend in a similar field, even if they are not an expert on your topic. If you do have access to an expert, posing a clear and focused question can help you get a response that will move your work along.

Figuring out how to complete challenging tasks is hard. The method that I outlined might not make a task easier, but it will help you make the task actionable. By constantly breaking down and reframing tasks to answer the question ‘how?‘, you will move you towards action. Consistent action helps create habits. You will be able to get unstuck and get continue to get things done.

How do you approach challenging tasks? Is there anything you read here that you might try out? Let me know in the comments below!

*Special thanks to Brooke Norton and Ioana A. Dumitru for offering feedback on this post.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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