How I failed the Stanford online NLP class

One of the most frustrating aspects of my professional life are projects that are unplanned and unmanaged.  Even the most interesting project can quickly become a painful burden if no one takes the time to do some thinking and planning before plunging headlong towards a fixed deadline.  So it is not without a certain amount of embarrassment that I must admit the obvious: poorly managed personal projects suffer the same fate.

When I first heard about the Stanford NLP class I was pretty excited and signed up a couple months before the class started.  I knew it would require a time commitment, but figured that I’d have enough time to handle the lectures and assignments.  And I did.  Or rather, I would have, if I had done even minimal planning for it.  I didn’t, which is why the course is half over and I’m still on week one.  This post is an effort to come clean with myself on how that happened and salvage some lessons so that this doesn’t happen again.

The first thing I realized?  If my process (ha!) for starting new projects involved more planning I would have had a chance to say “gee, do I have two nights a week to commit to learning NLP?” and would have been forced to make the decision between taking the course and making room in my schedule.  In short, I need a much more thorough planning phase before I commit to a new project.  Here are the tools I’m going to use: a project goal statement, a step by step outline, and a calendar consultation.

Project Goal: A statement of what I intend to accomplish.  It’s ok if I don’t actually accomplish this, or if goals change over the course of the project.  This is mostly to help crystallize my thoughts on the project and keep projects manageable.  I don’t really have time for giant open ended projects right now and any project I can’t state the goal of in a paragraph probably isn’t ready for me to dive into.

Outline: Once a goal is defined I should be able to outline some concrete steps between where I’m starting and where I’d like to be.  The outline will be very high level — major milestones on the path to the goal.  Each step should have a rough time estimate in days.  Most of my projects don’t have the same time constraints that my professional work does and this maps pretty well to how I work.

Calendar Consultation: Once I have an outline with step by step estimates I’ll be able to look at my calendar and determine if I have the time for a commitment the project entails.  Being able to look at my calendar and say “I don’t have the time to do this right now, but I will in 2 weeks” will be a massive improvement over the shoot-from-the-hip style planning I’m doing right now.

Of course, to be able to look at my calendar and determine my actual workload will require that I actually know all of my commitments.  That brings me to my second takeaway: I need to do an audit of all my open projects.  I plan to subject all my current projects to the same type of planning process I just described.

All that up front planning is all well and good, but how will I know if it’s working?  While I suspect I’ll be able to tell whether or not I’m getting more things done holistically, I’d much rather add a little structure and generate some data I can analyze.  Each project should have a post-project debriefing, much like the thinking that led me to write this post, where I  try to explore some of the lessons I learn from the difference between my planning and reality.

I can’t say that I’m happy with the way this has turned out, but it’s not a total loss.  I may not have learned much NLP, but I think I’m starting to learn some valuable lessons about how to manage me better.

Thank you to Matt Baker, Deana Rutherford, Gilad Shanan and Nick Shaskevich for reading drafts of this.

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1 Response to “How I failed the Stanford online NLP class”


  1. 1 mark (@markheseltine) April 12, 2012 at 7:37 AM

    As any experienced project manager will tell you, a project without enough resource is blocked from the start, but you’re right, we don’t usually look at our personal projects in this way. So you make a reakly good learning point, which echos so many things I’ve tried to undertake myself, with the best of intentions, without putting enough time aside to do them!


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