Manage complex tasks
Get organised to get it done
Approaching a complex task such as a research project assessment or a thesis at honours or postgraduate level will require you to be highly organised and self-directed. You must plan and manage large blocks of unstructured time, work independently to meet distant deadlines, and juggle short and long-term commitments. Although liberating, this autonomy can also pose significant challenges.
Some ways to help you to plan, prioritise, stay on track and meet your deadline include:
- breaking down the task
- tracking your progress
- managing competing commitments.
Break down the task
The first step in managing complex tasks is to break the main, big task down into smaller ones. You can then approach one task at a time and stay on track.
For research projects that are part of your unit assessment, you can start with checking the assessment instructions and marking rubric, so that you understand the assessment requirements.
For an honours or postgraduate thesis, you may need to work independently and in collaboration with your supervisor/s to determine your topic and scope for your project. Check your thesis submission deadline. Although it may seem like a long time away, you will need to manage your time effectively to get through each stage of your research project.
The question to ask at this stage is: what are the different steps I need to take in order to get the main task done?
The examples below demonstrate how a complex task can be broken down into smaller tasks.
Sylvia must submit a literature review based on a particular case study.
Stage one - Task preparation
Before Sylvia can start writing, she must:
- carefully read and understand the instructions, rubric, template, and the assigned case study
- construct an answerable research question based on that case study.
Stage two - Research and analysis
Next, she must:
- conduct searches in multiple databases to find the most relevant scholarly literature for her synthesis (including documenting her search strategy)
- evaluate the literature she found to better understand her topic and narrow the focus of her review to her central research question
- refine her research question and search strategy, and conduct additional searches (if necessary)
- select the most relevant articles and evidence to include
- read each article in detail and make notes that will help her answer her research question and present her findings
- create an outline of her main findings, and the order in which she will present them in writing.
Stage three - Writing and editing
Now, she is ready to:
- write her introduction, including a clear statement about the focus of her review (her research question)
- begin drafting and organising the body paragraphs to present her findings.
- ensure she is citing and referencing as she writes
- write her conclusion and complete a first draft
- check her draft against the marking rubric to ensure she has not overlooked something
- re-read the entire draft and edit/revise as needed to produce a second or final draft
- proofread the final draft for spelling and grammar errors
- submit the final product!
Lee must write an honours thesis as part of his study in the Pharmaceutical Sciences. The paper will report the findings of a laboratory research project he completed under supervision. This is a complex task that requires substantial planning and organisation.
Lee should first outline a detailed plan and timeline for completing the thesis. This should include specific goals, tasks and estimated dates to be completed over time. The example below shows how an honours student may divide up their main thesis task into three stages: task preparation, research and analysis, and writing the first draft.
Each stage of the process could be added to a Gantt chart (see below) to track progress.
Stage one - Task preparation
Before Lee can start writing, he must:
- reread his research proposal to determine what, if anything, has changed since the project began, and ask the following questions:
- Did his central research question, or aims/objectives change over the course of the project? If so, he may need to explain how and why
- Were the aims and objectives of the study achieved? If not, why not?
- Do the results of the experiment allow him to offer at least a partial answer to his central research question? If not, why not?
- Did the study confirm or contradict his original hypothesis?
- ensure the results of his project are clearly organised and accessible
- carefully read all requirements, guidelines, rubrics, and templates provided by his faculty to help him organise and present his thesis
- review all of this with his supervisor before he starts writing.
Stage Two - Research and Analysis
Next, he must:
- conduct a thorough search of the relevant scientific literature to find the most relevant scholarly material to include in the literature review portion of his thesis
- set aside time to critically read and evaluate the most relevant articles or studies, and make notes that will help him present and position the results of his study relative to this body of work
- He should consider using a synthesis matrix to help him organise and evaluate his findings, and assist him in properly citing and referencing the material
- create an outline of the main findings, and the order in which he will present them in writing.
Stage Three - Writing the First Draft
Now, Lee is ready to begin the writing process.
- Review the IMRaD structure of scientific writing to ensure he understands how scientific writing is typically organised.
- Introduction (including the literature review)
- Results and
- Write each major section as a series of drafts:
- Draft 1: Put the facts together
- Draft 2: Revise for coherence and flow of information
- Draft 3: Enhance for readability
- Draft 4: Edit and proofread
- There is no fixed order for writing the various sections. However, there are some important considerations Lee should consider.
- factor in time for feedback. For example, his supervisor will need time to read drafts of chapters and provide feedback. Lee should identify another task to do during this time i.e. further reading, making sure his references are in order
- anticipate delays i.e. in gathering data, extra work commitments, illness
- be flexible when necessary. It’s important to keep returning to the list of different tasks and the timeline, to see whether certain tasks might need more time, and whether or not he is able to stay on track. If he is falling behind, he should allocate additional time to get specific tasks done
- do one task at a time. The suggestions to 1) break down the task and 2) track your progress are designed to help students realistically finish a complex task on time. Lee should resist jumping ahead or delaying certain tasks until later, but rather should just focus on one step at a time - that way, each task will get done and on time!