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If I can make a checklist of chores to do or features to add to my projects, I usually get them done. On the other hand, there are tasks with some vagueness, such as "review X" or "improve the design of Y", where it's not clear to me when I'm done or if I'm moving in a sensible direction at all. These render me useless. I can't get myself to start on them for fear of getting stuck indefinitely.

My current debacle is with writing a paper. It's made worse by a little bit of stress as well as my being uncomfortable with text itself. Though occasionally I have similar problems with things I actually like working on.

So the question is, how do I create motivation without clear feedback, or how do I introduce feedback where I can sense none? Do I just write a task "stare at the problem for 30 min, hoping for clarity to come"?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think you're actually closer to the mark than you think with "stare at the problem for 30 min, hoping for clarity to come", although what I recommend is more focused and deliberate than that.

Qualitative and subjective work is, by nature, hard to definitely be done, because it's not a question of getting the answer correct. With a paper you write, the facts about the topic can be correct or incorrect, but phrasing, diction, pacing, etc are all subjective, which means - as you've discovered - there's no easy way to break it into chunks based on level of completeness.

What I do, in this situation, is set aside a fixed amount of time to concentrate on a specific thing, based on how hard I want to focus on it.


  • Spend 15 minutes skimming for grammar mistakes
  • Spend 30 minutes reviewing phrasing for clarity
  • Spend 20 minutes making wording more concise

After I've spent N minutes on a given task, I may feel really satisfied with the improvements I've made, or I may feel like I have much more I'd like to do. Depending on that feeling, I can either allocate more time to the improvements, or decide that I am done. Treat it like an iterative process, continue time boxing your efforts on improvements, and do iterations until you are satisfied.

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Your overall problem is described by David Allen in "Getting Things Done" as the widget cranking problem. If your job is to crank widgets, you know what "done" looks like. The pile of uncranked widgets gets cranked and moved to the done pile. The issue is that your projects are more ambiguous than that. So what you need to do is resolve the ambiguity by decomposing the problem until you have widgets that can be cranked.

In the example of writing a paper, you might break that down into steps like

  • draft conclusion
  • draft supporting arguments
  • draft figures
  • draft introduction
  • revise figures


If you need to do research before writing, add those tasks to your plan. Then only put the next step to be done on your task list.

Each step, a "Next Action" in GTD terminology, needs to result in a concrete deliverable. "Figure out what bits to simplify" is not a good next action, "Draft list of sections to simplify" could be. "Check the content is easy to understand" is not a good next action, "Revise to achieve a score of less than X in text complexity metric tool Y" could be. If your "tasks" aren't defined to result in a deliverable, you're not thinking clearly enough yet about what you really need to do.

That's a very quick introduction to how GTD (Getting Things Done) can help you manage your ambiguous work. There are a ton of additional resources on this site and elsewhere on the web:

Bonus suggestion: never put "write thing" on a task list. Always have "draft thing" and "edit (or revise) thing" instead. You'll find much less resistance to the task.

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I should clarify, that "draft X" or "read up on Y" are the clear tasks which I'm largely done with. The unclear tasks could be "check that the content is easy to understand" or "figure out what bits should be rigorously defined and what bits should be simplified". Even these formulations take me a while to write down, and I'm not sure they are better than "make it less bad". Should I consider them as complete tasks, or split them more, or do the splitting in some entirely different way? – Karolis Juodelė Jun 14 '14 at 22:02
I've edited my answer to include links, as I said I would, and to address the comment above. – Dennis S. Jun 16 '14 at 15:52
Thanks for updating. You got my interest with "text complexity metric". By (un)clarity I largely meant abuses of notation or questionable ordering of ideas, but if there is a tool to point out my convoluted grammar, that would be great. Although I'm not an English speaker... How good are those things? – Karolis Juodelė Jun 16 '14 at 16:31
This is wandering off topic - we'd prefer to have questions and answers, not discussions. If you want to ask another question about readability metrics please do. Briefly, the standard for years has been the Flesch Reading Ease Metric, which is built in to Microsoft Word. There are other metrics that are generally accepted and useful in different areas, a search for "readability metric" should find them. There are also tools that evaluate grammar. – Dennis S. Jun 16 '14 at 16:42
The best way to determine if something is readable and understandable is to get someone to read and understand it. If nobody else is available, you'll have to do it yourself. So the specific tasks might be, (1) attempt to find reader or (2) read through work and identify problems. There is no magic formula for judging clarity, but with experience you'll learn about the general principles. – Kramii Jun 17 '14 at 11:04

If you're having trouble with motivation due to goal vagueness, consider breaking up your tasks in subtasks with goals that satisfy the S.M.A.R.T criteria. These are goals that are specific and measurable, leaving you in no doubt whether you've accomplished a goal or not.

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You are implying that all tasks can be broken like that and thus all vagueness can be eliminated. I'm not sure that's true for a creative endeavor of any kind. – Karolis Juodelė Jun 16 '14 at 14:12
@KarolisJuodelė: No, obviously not if your task is artistic by nature, for instance paint a modern masterpiece. But if required, it can be done for smaller engineering tasks, such as those planned for a Scrum sprint. – Gruber Jun 17 '14 at 7:55
Any creative endeavor ultimately breaks down to specific physical actions. "Put pen to paper", "Call theater for audition appointment", "Play instrument", "Write code" The question is, are you prepared to do those physical actions? Do you have pen and paper in hand? Do you have the theater contact info? Have you got a playable instrument? Is your computer equipped with a software development environment? Have you written down things to accomplish when doing any of these? – Manuel Hernandez Jun 17 '14 at 17:00

When you have only a vague notion of what you want to accomplish, it's helpful to stand back and visualize. You need to clarify exactly what it is you want to accomplish.

Clarify what you want to accomplish

When visualizing ask yourself these questions.

  • Where are you?
  • Who are you with?
  • What are you looking at?
  • How far off in the future are you thinking about?
  • Why do other people like it?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • This will be done when what is true?

Once you have visualized it, you should have a better notion of what your goal is. Now the question is how do you get there from here? What is the sensible direction?

There are a lot of ways you can find out.

Get feedback from others

Ask people around you. They will give you some feedback to start. Share what you want to accomplish and chances are very good that they will have some ideas about it that you have not thought about. Take advantage of the fact that everyone sees things differently. The more people you ask the better. Take good notes and listen carefully when they tell you. Be sure to ask questions about what they are telling you.

Find out how its been done before

Look to history. History will show you your initial motivation and feedback. Whatever it is you are doing, others have probably tried it before. Find out who those people are and get to know them. How did they accomplish what they did, why did they try in the first place? How did they fail at first? What are the caveats and shortcomings you need to be aware of. (This is where your improvements will propel you forward) Look for patterns of behavior you can use.

I do want to say that you want to do this as fast as you can. Don't get bogged down in research. Once you have gathered up ideas about how to accomplish your goal you can begin organizing these ideas and get some notion of what you need to do and in what order.

Be BOLD and do it

Now is the time to perform. Now is the time to be bold. About that fear of getting stuck indefinitely? LOSE IT. You have to embrace failure. Look to sports as a model. In football/soccer every kick is an attempt to score a goal. Most miss, but someone eventually kicks the ball and scores. Thomas Edison tried many times to invent the light bulb and failed until finally he succeeded.

If you try nothing you accomplish exactly that, nothing. If you try and fail you have discovered something new about what you can do differently. In time you will discover how you can do it and even better, how to do it well.

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