I’ve been an engineer for 6 years now. You might assume that being organized comes naturally. You’d be wrong.
I got into engineering because I love math and science. Math is like a way to see the world in a different lens, like being able to see more wavelengths, or having a new way to describe what you see, and find connections between seemingly disparate things.
In engineering, the math and analysis fit into a larger picture with many moving parts: teams working on different aspects of different modules, many stages of design and testing and manufacturing, and schedules to get through each phase, and funding that’s available for each phase. Those are factors that decide what math problems you get to work on and when, based on what is needed to get the project to the next phase.
All of that context dissolves when I get in front of the math problem. Then it’s just me, a page full of symbols, and the colors and geometrical shapes and curves in my mind.
I can’t ‘math’ my plans
Superficially, planning looks a bit like math and science. It’s a bit like modeling the process of making something, similar to how a scientist might model a chemical reaction or a geologic process. That similarity is what tripped me up.
Predicting what I’ll do tomorrow is not at all like a geologic process. It depends on more factors than can be modeled, including my energy state, whims, what other people I meet, the state of the economy and news, etc.
If one were to even try to model that (which I never would; the mere thought chills the blood), it would require massive amounts of information I don’t have. I’d have to know the state of every neuron and blood cell in my own body, and in every other person’s who might be on my team, every variable that governs the economy and what tasks my company assigns me, and so on.
Even if one could collect all that information, it wouldn’t be enough. The system that governs your work life is what we’d call ‘chaotic’, meaning that its outcomes depend on the slightest change in one of those variables. Commonly known as the butterfly effect.
Anyway, that is an aside to say planning is not at all like modeling, but I wanted it to be. I would never guess or rely only on intuition when answering an engineering problem (though intuition plays a huge role), but that is all you can do when planning. You can collect data on how long things usually take, and try to be a bit more rigorous in predicting what might happen, but deep down, I knew my projections were based on guesswork, hope, and good-enough reasoning. And I hated it. It felt like lying.
Novel projects are great for planning practice
Novelists have it right. There are lots of resources on how to plan writing a book, but the essence of it is to divide the project into ‘drafts’ (first draft, second draft), estimate the length of your book, and then schedule out writing sessions over a few months with a word count target.
This process defines the basic unit of progress as ‘words’ and the only goal is to produce them, or revise sections of them. The ultimate goals of defining the story, solving plot problems, improving the prose, etc. are not official goals – they are too hard to quantify and too mysterious to plan. But the task of showing up and writing every day is enough to achieve all of them.
When I wrote the first draft of my novel, I made a spreadsheet word count tracker (which you can download here if you’d like to try it). I needed to customize it because I was writing in multiple documents for separate story threads, and needed to add all the word counts together. A pretty graph ticked up every day as I added words, and was motivation enough to keep going when the story seemed full of problems. Best of all, I had a sense of how much there was left to do in this draft – the number of words left to get to my target.
Now, just writing that number of words doesn’t make a draft complete. I considered the draft complete when I got to the end of the story since I already had an end in mind. But the word count correlates to that, since I had rough milestones in the story that were expected to occur at specific percentages of the book, so I could tell if I was running short or long depending on where the milestones hit. I ended up with a shorter draft than planned, but that doesn’t matter since the word count was just a metric for tracking. The story came, which is what really matters.
For subsequent drafts, I’ve been adapting the process even further. There isn’t as clear a metric of progress as there was in a first draft (discovery draft), since I jumped wildly from world-building, plotting, drafting, researching, and every other process.
(You may have heard of ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ – Ellen expands this categorization to better capture the variety and specificity of writing styles. Methodological pantsers use a lot of systems and methodology, but we jump around from one to another as inspiration dictates.)
As a methodological pantser, I tend to switch between processes as needed. For each process, I figured out a unit of progress, like:
- Number of entries added to my worldbuilding wiki.
- Number of research materials read.
- Number of words of brainstorming or tone experiments.
Those were the equivalent of my pretty word count graphs that told me how far I’d come. At the basic level, the planning unit was the same – writing sessions. The plan was simple. Sit down for ~20 minutes some 8 times a week. Each time, log the units of progress. Occasionally project forward to see how many more pages or references or chapters there are to go. The end.
Now I approach engineering (and all projects) like writing
The science and math and design of an engineering project tell me what is needed to be done. Write this piece of code, solve that equation, order such-and-such tool. The writing-inspired planning process tells me how to do it. Figure out the unit of progress (which is usually the number of discrete tasks left to get to the result) – schedule out some sessions, work on the next task for 20 minutes or so, and log how far there is left to go.
This is a squishy, unpredictable, human process in the midst of a bunch of predictable and precise physical and mathematical processes. It always was, but at least now I’m letting it be true to its (my) squishy, unpredictable nature. Progress in a project is something you can only describe. You can’t model or predict it, and I don’t try to. Improving my ability to understand what I’m doing and how far I am from my goal has made a huge difference, not least because I can ‘feel’ the progress even when I’m stuck and the symbols blur together on the screen.
Engineering and science were always a creative endeavor of inquiry, and approaching them like a novelist is the best way to embrace that.