You Need to Scale Up Your Research Project Timeline

If you know how quickly different research projects have gone in the past and the scope of your upcoming project, you have some of the key information you need to estimate how long you’ll need to complete that next project.1

That said, you’ll probably underestimate how long your next project will take if you don’t scale that estimate up. This tendency results from

  1. inaccuracies in small samples,
  2. differences between projects, and
  3. the planning fallacy.

1. Inaccuracies in Small Samples

Especially when you’ve just begun tracking how long your projects take, the information you gather won’t be very helpful.

That’s because you’ll have such a small sample. And the smaller the sample is, the more wildly it’s likely to diverge from representing what’s “normal” for you.2

That said, you won’t ever collect a meaningful amount of information about yourself and your research habits if you never start by having a small amount. So, the fact that you have have a small amount of information isn’t a knock against your having it. It just represents a reason to scale your estimates up even more at the beginning.

2. Differences between Projects

Your current understanding of your “typical” or “average” output might be based on a body of work with a different difficulty level than you’re about to tackle.3 If that previous work was easier, your next project will probably go slower by comparison, and vice versa.

Because projects differ from each other, you can also focus on previous projects that are more similar to the one you’re about to start. By excluding projects that are less similar, you can get a better sense of how long you’ve previously spent on the kind of work you’re about to undertake.

3. The Planning Fallacy

Third, people—including you and me—often have a “tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.” This error in judgment is called “the planning fallacy.”4

So, your estimate of how long a project will take is likely to be overly optimistic. That’s especially likely when you have to communicate that estimate to someone else because then social pressure enters to encourage a more optimistic estimate.5

To account for the planning fallacy, you can be mindful of when you feel social pressure urging you to set a timeline that’s too optimistic for reality.

Scale Up Your Timeline

These challenges that help us underestimate how long projects will actually take need to be borne in mind. They shouldn’t be minimized. But they can be mitigated with strategies like I’ve mentioned above.

In addition, consider scaling up your initial estimate. Projects almost always take longer than you think they will at the start. So, you can get a closer estimate by allowing yourself some extra leeway for when “life happens” or a project moves more slowly other reasons.

The question then becomes: How much should you scale up your initial estimate? Greg McKeown suggests multiplying your original estimate by 1.5 times.6

That’s a good starting point, but the larger, newer, and more complex your project is, the more opportunities there will be for delays to add up. Anecdotally, I often find a multiple of 2 times is closer to the mark by the time the dust completely settles on a project.

Conclusion

Over the course of a research project, any number of things can conspire together to make that project take longer.

The unexpected will happen. You just can’t know in advance what it will look like.

But you can do your best to reckon with small samples, differences between projects, and the planning fallacy. And you can scale up your estimate of how long a project will take to complete.

With these adjustments, your estimate still won’t be perfect. But it’ll be a lot more likely to be a lot closer. And it’ll give you a much better basis for planning how you’ll bring your project to completion.


  1. Header image provided by Illiya Vjestica

  2. Daniel Kahneman discusses this principle as the “law of small numbers” in Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). 

  3. On not noticing these kinds of differences, see Kahneman, Thinking

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 182; italics original. 

  5. McKeown, Essentialism, 182–83. 

  6. McKeown, Essentialism, 183. 

How Long Will Your Research Project Really Take?

If you had no constraints on your research, how long the project will take to complete might not be that important a question.1

As soon as you have to complete a research project under specific constraints, answering the question of how long the project will take becomes more pressing.

One constraint might be the opportunity cost of what you’re not doing while you complete your project. Another might be the deadline you have for the project set by your professor, a contract, or a process like tenure review.

As constraints accumulate, it becomes increasingly helpful to have a sense of how long your project is going to take. That way, you can plan the time you need as you work to complete your project on time.

Memories of the past are imperfect. Forecasts for the future are more so. But there are 3 principles that can help you grapple with how long your project is likely to take so that you can plan accordingly.

These principles are to

  1. Track your progress,
  2. Set your scope, and
  3. Scale your timeline.

The first two I’ll discuss here. The last one has several sub-parts. So, I’ll go into detail on that next week.

1. Track Your Progress

If you’ve been around financial people, you’ve probably heard a disclaimer like “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But of course, past performance is a key ingredient in the process of forecasting future results.

You might have a sense of some unusual bumps in the road that lie ahead. But if you don’t know how you’ve done in the past, you won’t have any basis from which to adjust your future expectations up or down.

You can avoid this situation by tracking your progress as you work through a project. It doesn’t need to be complicated. You could just keep a simple log of how long you spent working and how many words or pages you wrote.

As you gather a larger amount of information about your own writing process, you’ll get a better sense of where your typical baseline is for how quickly you move through different kinds of projects.

2. Set Your Scope

When your project is done, how long should it be? How many words or pages should it have?

Without a definite scope, you can’t say when your project might be done. It might just continue growing in size as you continue spending more time on it.

Having a clear end goal is one of the constraints that’s helpful in giving you a sense of how long your project might take. The fuzzier your idea of your final project’s scope, the harder it will be to estimate how long it will take.

Conclusion

If you know your typical output and how long your final project needs to be, some simple division should tell you how long your project will take, right?

Not quite, you still need to scale your timeline up because it’s probably underestimating how long your project will take.


  1. Header image provided by Illiya Vjestica

How to Make Your Goals Even More Actionable

Good goal statements are already actionable.1 They’re specific enough to focus on things that you can actually accomplish, even if those things themselves contribute to something bigger.

For instance, you can’t do “being in shape.” But you can “bike 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.” And over time, that practice can lead to “being in shape.”

But even when it comes to accomplishing an actionable goal, the goal itself is almost never directly done.

This might seem odd, but it derives from the essential nature of goals as projects.

Goals and Actions

Maybe not all projects are goals. But pretty well all goals are, by definition, projects. That is, they are results that require more than one action to complete.2

So, accomplishing even an actionable goal is never the direct result of simply taking the action that the goal describes. What this means is that “you can’t do a project … [y]ou can only do an action related to it.”3

The project, or goal, itself is too large and complex for you to accomplish in a single action. That’s true even if the project itself is actionable, meaning that it has a well-defined action in view.

To say this, though, isn’t simply to make a nice semantic distinction. It has an important function in making your goals doable even when they’re realistically risky or big, hairy, and audacious.4

Next Actions

What you can only ever do is a “next action.”5 This next action should always be small enough to be something you can easily do and large enough to move you toward completing a larger goal or project.6

So, for instance, accomplishing a goal to successfully complete your textual criticism seminar becomes a series of next actions like:

  • Obtain the syllabus.
  • Read the syllabus.
  • Obtain all the required resources.
  • Put all assignment due dates in my task manager (or on your calendar or both).
  • Etc.

These are the things that then you can make the time to do and that will move you forward to your ultimate goal of successfully completing the seminar.

Conclusion

As you have a larger and more complex goal (or set of goals),

  • The more helpful you’ll find it to be clear about the very next action(s) you need to take to accomplish that goal. Without that next action, the goal just sits there, staring you in the face as an impenetrable block. But also,
  • The less you need to be able to identify all of the next actions you’ll need to do to complete it. As you work on that goal, circumstances might require you to change how you go about it anyway.

The main thing to have in front of you is the very next action you need to take to accomplish a given goal.

Once you’ve finished that, the very next action after it should pretty readily present itself until, one small step at a time, you arrive at your destination.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. I’ve adapted this definition from David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015), 41. 

  3. Allen, Getting Things Done, 21. 

  4. For more on this terminology, see Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper Business, 1994), 91–114. 

  5. On the concept of “next actions,” see especially Allen, Getting Things Done, 253–65. 

  6. On the smallness of next actions, see especially Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018); Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019). 

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish in 2021?

What do you really want to accomplish this year?1

Without clear intentions, you’re liable to get to the end of it having done plenty of things except give enough attention to what you’d otherwise select as most important.

To avoid that, it’s important to take some time to identify what you want to work toward achieving.

How you do that will likely look a bit different from how someone else does it. But if you’re looking for a place to start, I’d like to suggest 5 steps to get you going:2

  1. Reflect on your experience.
  2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.
  3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.
  4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.
  5. Each week, ask what you can do to move toward one or more of your goals.

1. Reflect on your experience.

Before you start making plans for the year, it might be helpful for you to reflect on what you’ve learned from the last year.

At least for me, when I do this, I inevitably pull out some things that help me plan better for the future.

You’ll have your own lessons that you’ve learned, but let me share an example of my own to help get your wheels turning.

I’ve sometimes found myself with one or more goals that’s too large to accomplish in any one time period. (I structure my year into quarters. Semesters work great too, but more on that below.)

That meant those larger—but possibly more important—items could get lost in the shuffle. So, in response, I’ve tried to be more mindful about chunking down larger projects into smaller units that can fit into single quarters.

This naturally means a larger project will have more discrete goals that lead up to its completion. But that’s part of the point. Larger projects are larger and will take more to complete.

So, having any given quarterly goal will be pretty achievable within that quarter has been helpful.

It gives me a better sense of just how committed the year and its quarters already are. It also helps me see better throughout the year how I’m progressing on larger-scale projects.

This is true whether that larger project is professional or personal. For instance, if I have a goal to take a certain number of days out of the office with my family by the end of the year, it does some good just to plop that goal down into the fourth quarter.

But if that goal is going to require meaningful chunks of time in other quarters too, what’s still more helpful is again to segment that larger goal down into those major per-quarter chunks.

2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.

You’ll certainly accomplish many more things this year than you can count. But what are the most important things for you to accomplish?

2.1. Make a list.

Make a list of what you think of. Be sure to think both personally and professionally.

It can be easy to think about professional goals and ignore personal ones. But biblical scholarship isn’t about being an academic automaton.

So, it’s important to have a mix of both personal and professional goals that you’re working toward.

Do you want to write an article? Spend more time focused on your family? Take a class? (As a hint, if you’re a student taking a class, completing that class successfully should be one of your goals. 🙂 )

It might take a few minutes for you to get going. But once you do, your list is liable to grow pretty quickly.

Keep brainstorming until you have at least 10 items on your list.

2.2. Subdivide your list.

Once you get to this point, carefully review your list. As you do so, you’re asking one question: What item(s) on your list needs to be subdivided?

Don’t worry about making any of these subdivisions too detailed. All you’re trying to get a handle on are the major component pieces of any larger goals you’re considering putting on your plate.

As an example, you might have on your list “Write my dissertation.” That’s not something you’re going to finish all at one go. Nor is it something you’re going to be able to do all in one quarter or semester.

You’ll want to subdivide this project, and as you do, you’ll start to see your list better reflect the complexity of what writing your dissertation requires.

You might subdivide this project into

  • completing your prospectus,
  • completing each of the individual chapters, and finally
  • editing, proofreading, and submitting your project.

So, for instance, if you have five chapters, “Write my dissertation” immediately becomes seven discrete activities (one for each of the chapters, one for the prospectus, and one for final editing).

2.3. Focus your list.

Now, out of your subdivided list, you only get to pick 12 items at most to really work on. If you only have 10–12 items, that’s great.

What do you do if you find yourself with more than 12 items in your brainstormed list (like I have)?

It’s tempting to think you can do it all or fit everything in that you want in the scope of a year. But that’s rarely realistic, and if it is, that probably means your goals weren’t really stretching you to begin with.

The beauty of limiting yourself to no more than 12 major objectives over the coming 12 months is that it helps you feel at this planning stage the strain that these goals will put on your time, attention, and resources as the year moves along.

Anything that goes on this list ultimately means something else can’t be on it. So, to come down to your most important objectives for the coming year, you might need to reflect, write down, scratch out, reorder, and otherwise hash and rehash your list over a few days until you’re satisfied with it.

That’s okay. And whatever doesn’t make the cut for this year you can definitely save as ideas for another time.

The important thing is make space to think and intentionally commit to what will be most important to you this year.

3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.

Once you have your main yearly objectives, take a few minutes to turn them into SMARTER goals that are

Doing so will help you crystalize for yourself exactly what you’re committing to accomplishing by when.

Specific

“Write an article” or “spend more time with my family” are too general. Aiming at them is much like trying to hit anywhere in a target rather than in the bullseye.

“Write an article about the land promise to Abraham” or “Be home by 5:30, and give my full attention to my family the rest of each weekday” are much more specific targets to try to hit.

Measurable

“Make progress on my dissertation” doesn’t cut it because “progress” is very vague.

What counts? In principle, one additional character in your dissertation file could count as “progress,” but at that rate, your project will likely outlive you and still not be finished.

“Draft my first dissertation chapter” is much better.

Actionable

To “be less distracted while reading” is a great idea, but what do you need to do in order to be this way?

Do you need to “Use Freedom to block online distractions during scheduled reading time”? That you can do as you cultivate the habit of deep work.

By clarifying exactly what action you need to take to achieve a given outcome, you’re that much more likely to make good forward progress in that area.

Realistically Risky

A good goal should be doable but stretch you. For instance, you might have been comfortably writing academic papers at 200 words per hour.

But how would things be different if you tried to stretch that to 300 words per hour? What kind of time would that free up? What steps would you need to take to get that much more focused during your writing time?

Time-keyed

By when do you want to have this goal complete? Or how often do you want to do it?

For example, do you want to “Spend two hours a day, five days a week writing my dissertation”? Or do you want to “Finish drafting my last dissertation chapter by 30 June”?

If you’re using a “due by” time key, you’ll naturally match that time key to the part of the year to which you assign that goal.

Exciting

Whether a goal is exciting can be related to how much it stretches you, or it might be something you just simply enjoy doing. So, this criterion has more to do with the topic of the goal than with how you frame it.

If you look over your goals list and you find something that makes you yawn, ask yourself why. As you do, consider removing it to concentrate on something more important. Or if it’s something you need to keep, try reframing it in a way that piques your interest.

Relevant

If you’re working full time in a non-faculty post outside Europe, have an active family life, and have ongoing commitments in your community, it still might be a lot of fun to “Spend the semester at INTF.”

But it might not be realistic to pull up stakes and start actively moving on this goal in your current circumstances. At the very least, you’d back off this goal to something more preparatory like “Plan a semester abroad at INTF.”

4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.

Academic life typically revolves around quarters or semesters. And that natural structure is something to consider when you think about how to segment your year—whether into 3 or 4 major parts.

Either should work. I’ve found the slightly shorter and more regular quarters to be more helpful.

But they do sometimes overlap in odd ways with academic semesters. So, choose whatever approach seems most natural and least likely to create friction for you.

In either case, the point is to avoid letting goals slide in either planning or execution. The more of your important objectives get lumped into the very end of the year, the more likely they’ll be still incomplete at the start of next year.

Instead, from your list of no more than 12 SMARTER goals for the year, assign

  • No more than 4 to each semester (fall, spring, summer) or
  • No more than 3 to each quarter.3

Just like limiting yourself to 12 annual goals, limiting yourself to 3 per quarter or 4 per semester helps you feel the constraints of that time in your planning process.

Reckoning with those constraints ahead of time can be key to helping you avoid larger-scale scheduling crises.

5. Each week, ask what you can do to move toward one or more of your goals.

If you only have 12–16 weeks to complete 3–4 major goals, you need to be intentional about what you do each week.

So, however works for you, schedule time each week to review your goals for that quarter or semester.

Then, ask yourself: “What do I need to do this week toward completing the goals I’ve set?”

You might not be able to work on everything for that quarter or semester in a given week. That’s fine.

The point is to make regular progress, even if its on a small handful of meaningful tasks. Overtime, those small handfuls add up to much larger results.

If you want some ideas about how to structure your time, and your goals in it, see my free guide, How to Budget Your Time: A Guide for Regular, Irregular, and Mixed Schedules.

Conclusion

By the time December rolls around, the year will be too far spent to change much of what it involves. So, don’t wait.

Instead, “begin with the end in mind” of what you’d like to have done this year once it is at an end.4

Then, you’ll be ready to start taking deliberate, well-defined steps toward that end.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. In this post, I’m much indebted to the advice in Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018). I’ve found this guidance hugely helpful for myself. And I’ve tried to supplement and apply it here in a way that addresses some of the specifics of life in biblical studies. 

  3. A possible exception is if you’re running a habit goal throughout the year like “Bike for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.” In that case, you might need to have that habit goal in each quarter or semester. And you can decide whether the time commitment for that goal is small enough for it not to occupy one of these 3 quarterly or 4 semesterly slots. 

  4. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 102–53. 

Happy New Year 2021!

I hope you enjoyed some enriching time around the Christmas holiday.1

Maybe you focused simply in being with those who matter most to you. Maybe you spent extra time on a hobby you don’t normally get to do or any number of other recreative activities.

At the end of the year, it’s somewhat more common for the generally frenetic pace of life to slow, however modestly. And that slight ebb can provide valuable space to pause and reflect.

Looking Back

This past year has held some unique challenges, to say the least. And as it winds to a close, there’s an opportune time look back over the year.

Freedom for your focus and imagination to wander can be an important aid in fostering creativity and insight.2

So, while you’re unplugged from your regular routine, you may well be able to reflect more profitably and with more perspective on that routine.

You can take stock of what worked, what didn’t, what went well, and what you’d like to do better moving forward.

You can think about the unexpected that really could have been anticipated. And you can consider the buffers you had (or didn’t have) to cushion the impact of the unexpected that couldn’t be anticipated.3

As you do so, be sure to reflect on your life both personally and professionally. You are, after all, a whole person. And it’s no good letting the wheels fall off either side of the cart. You want them both working together in the days, months, and year ahead.

I’ve recently done this kind of yearly review myself, and it’s always a helpful experience.

Looking Ahead

As your mind moves forward to next year, as it naturally will, start thinking about what you want to accomplish in the year ahead.

As you do, I’d encourage you not to do too much with these thoughts just yet. This is especially true for the time you’ve planned (and maybe committed to others) in which to step back from your regular professional activities.

Instead, take full advantage of any space the end of the year provides to be, do, and think in other ways than you’re able to in the week-to-week routine in the rest of the year.

Definitely do capture these thoughts someplace where you can come back to them. That way, they won’t get lost or forgotten (which they’re pretty liable to do otherwise). You’ll also free mental space that will otherwise be taken up, even if subconsciously.4

Conclusion

As you’re thinking along these lines, you might think of something you’d like to see me post here in this coming year. If so, certainly let me know.

I’ll be going through that feedback early in January and repeatedly throughout the year to ensure I’m giving you the best help I can in honing your craft as a biblical scholar.

Meanwhile, I wish you all the best for a wonderful New Year’s.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. Chris Bailey, Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction (New York: Viking, 2018), 133–58. 

  3. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 175–84. 

  4. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin, 2003), 23–26. 

How Do You Need Help in 2021?

Unquestionably, this year has been one for the history books.1

Demands on you changed multiple times. Consequently, you had to do more than the usual amount of pivoting to keep the wheels turning.

Along the way, it’s been wonderful to hear from several of you how you’ve found the content here helpful. I’m grateful that’s been the case.

As we anticipate turning the corner to next year, I’d like to make sure I’m continuing to release content that’s useful to you.

In that context, would you mind taking few moments to complete the survey below? It’s very brief—only four questions.

None of the questions is required. So feel free to skip any questions you don’t want to respond to.

But the more information you provide, the more information I’ll have to help inform the content I release next year. And that will help ensure it’s as helpful as possible to you with the challenges you’re facing and the goals you’re moving toward.

Submissions are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself in one of the free-form fields. I’m just interested to learn more about how I can shape content to be even more helpful to you moving forward.

Thanks in advance so much for participating, and keep honing your craft.


  1. Header image provided by Glenn Carstens-Peters