Wednesday, November 29, 2006


People who think about hacking their lives and their work often speak of "granularity." It's a curious word. The online Oxford English Dictionary offers only “granular condition or quality” as a definition. A more helpful definition comes from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications: "The extent to which a larger entity is subdivided. For example, a yard broken into inches has finer granularity than a yard broken into feet." To think of tasks and challenges in terms of granularity is to think in terms of breaking them down into smaller and more manageable parts.

Granularity is a tremendously useful strategy for students. The typical spiral-bound student-planner doesn't encourage it; that tool is often little more than a place to store due dates: "research paper due." But no one can just write a research paper. That paper can only be the result of numerous small-scale tasks. It's not surprising that students who think of "write research paper" as one monolithic task are likely to put it off far longer than they ought to. Instead of "write research paper," one could think of these tasks: go to library to look up sources; organize them by call number; read first three sources and take notes; get article from JSTOR; read remaining three sources and take notes; organize notes on computer; check bibliography format; ask professor about endnote form; make rough outline; and so on. Each of these "granular" tasks is far more do-able than "write research paper." Thinking of work in terms of granularity can be one way to overcome the overwhelming dread of getting started. And keeping track of such tasks on paper and crossing them off one by one gives the satisfaction of making progress and getting closer to done.

A student might also apply the strategy of granularity to the work of writing itself. Instead of writing a draft and "looking it over," it's much smarter to break down the work of writing and editing by thinking about one thing at a time. Developing a strong thesis statement: that's one task. Working out a sequence of paragraphs to develop that thesis: another task. Figuring out how to make a transition from one paragraph to another: another task. If you tend to have patterns of errors in your writing, look for each kind of error, one at a time. Noun-pronoun agreement? Read a draft once through looking only for that. Comma splices? Read once through with your eyes on the commas. It might seem that approaching the work of writing and editing in terms of smaller, separate tasks is unnecessarily cumbersome, but breaking things down will likely make it far easier to work more effectively and come out with a stronger piece of writing. No writer can think about everything at once.

Granularity is also a useful strategy for making even a daunting reading project do-able. If you have eighty pages to read, finish twenty and take a short break; then repeat. If you're reading James Joyce or Marcel Proust, a handful of pages might be all that you can manage at one sitting, and sometimes you'll chart your progress by the sentence. But those sentences and pages add up. I just finished Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), averaging twenty pages a day over five months and two days of reading (total: 3,102 pages).

Try thinking of your next major (or even minor) assignment in terms of granularity. You might find that getting started and making progress come far more easily.

Not long after my wife Elaine and I met, we discovered that we each owned a postcard with the above image: "Making Slow Progress." I'm happy to see that this postcard is still available from Hold the Mustard Photo Cards.

comments: 7

Anonymous said...

I have a neighbour who follows-up on his mowing with scissors. You can see him in the summer, bent over at the waist, making the grass more even than the lawn mower could. By contrast, our lawn has a whole different level of granularity. ;)

Lee said...

Excellent and sound advice, pity I adore a comma splice.

Anonymous said...

I came here from Boing Boing. Your advice is very good for more than students.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea I was a practitioner of the principle of "granularity", until I read your blog. As a kid I imagined dividing my school work up onto a tiled floor. I worked at getting one tile cleaned up instead of getting overwhelmed by the "mountain" of work. As an adult, I did run into a mountain of work and the granularity concept kept my sanity intact on a job with a construction company who dug a 10' by 10' hole and a 3'by 30'trench at the back of a tiny house. When time came to back fill the backhoes sank in the soft ground created by a spring we uncovered. The slope degree and the torn up ground prevented the use of wheel barrow. Took me five days with one shovel and a rake to backfill. When I finished no one believed no backhoes or mini-excavators had been used. For a long time I was considered the most outrageous liar when I said I had finished the job just using a shovel.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, I also kept this postcard on my wall for years.

Michael Leddy said...

Ian, your story reminds me of the poet Charles Bukowski's stories of being beaten by his father for missing just one bit of grass when mowing. At least your neighbor is punishing only himself.

Lee and Tomb, thanks for the appreciative words.

Miquel, I'm the son of a tile man, so I find your tile metaphor really interesting.

Jim, thanks for coming by! Was that postcard by your computer? (I'm trying to remember if I've seen it in your house.)

Thanks, everyone, for commenting.

Anonymous said...

When I lived in Korea, my landlord lived below me. His yard was about 10 x 12 feet, and he used to sit cross-legged and cut it with scissors, dragging a grocery bag along with him as he went for the clippings . He seemed to find it meditative. Odd thing for a police sargeant to take up.