This is part of my series on Mental Models about Productivity

Beginning a project at work often feels overwhelming. There is a multitude of specifications to keep track of. But most of all, I worry about the requirements that I haven’t been told about. (These always exist!) And voice in my head inevitably whines, Where do we even start?

I know from experience that this is a dangerous time: what I need is forward progress on the project, which builds a feeling of momentum. And momentum prevents marbles from pouring into my anxiety jar.

But how do I make progress and build momentum?

After years of watching folks in my field (i.e., software development) successfully manage projects, I have the answer: ask lots of questions upfront. But not just any questions. Ask questions that correspond to journalists’ Who, What, When, Where, Why, & How.

So, without further ado, here is my list of questions I ask whenever I start a new project:

  • What exactly am I delivering?
  • Who wants it? Why do they want? How will it make their life better? What happens if this is never completed?
  • Who are the relevant stakeholders? What does each of them want? How often do they expect updates?
  • When exactly does it need to be delivered? Is this possible? Is this negotiable?
  • Where exactly will it be delivered? What are the affected locations? These can be physical, like the “inbox tray” on my boss’s desk; it can be an electronic location, like an email inbox, FTP server, or deployed to a production server.
  • Who will work on this with me?
  • What does success look like for this project? What does failure look like? How will I know when I’m materially done?
  • How can I break this project into smaller, achievable milestones?

(Sidenote: If you enjoy this process of crafting questions, check out the Zachman framework)

Armed with my list of questions, I always start a project by interviewing my boss, with my legal pad and a G2 pen in hand. (I’m old-school!) I walk through each question and write down answers. Often, my boss refers me to others for specific answers and arranges introductions as needed. I then chase down those people and keep going until I have my answers. This entire process may take five minutes for small tasks or days for large projects.

What makes this so hard is my fear of appearing dumb. Taz (I named my ego ‘Taz’) babbles in my head: You should already know this. Everyone thinks you’re probably an idiot. Don’t open your mouth and confirm their suspicions!

I silence Taz by reminding him that no one has all the details of at the beginning of a project. No one. I also remind myself that quickly figuring out relevant details prevents marbles from spilling into my anxiety jar.

So, try it out: next time you feel stuck on a new project and aren’t sure where to start, run through the list of questions. It’ll help get you going and ease your anxiety.

Be well, my friend.