How to Document Big Projects (So You Can Repeat Them Easily)

Policies and procedures can be easy to write. Just use a diary to know what happens when.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #519

Since time immemorial, philosophers and holy men have debated: what separates humans from animals? Some say it’s language. Some say morality. And some even say love. But you and I, dear listener, we know the truth: what separates man from animal is that we (and we alone) have policies and procedures. 

From the Ten Commandments to The Joy of Cooking cookbook, we love to write down how we do things, in our charmingly naive belief that other humans are just sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting to receive our great wisdom.

(In reality, of course, they’re as self-absorbed as we are, and only pretend to listen so they can start sharing their wisdom at the first available opportunity.)

Our Future Selves Need Documentation

But there is someone who genuinely needs our wisdom, and needs it in a big way: our future selves.

To market my Get-it-Done Groups, I have to put together an email "launch." That’s a series of emails that go out to my email list, telling people how awesome the groups are, and how they should sign up immediately so their lives will be full of magic and unicorns and fairy dust. Plus, everyone will respect them, they’ll become instant trillionaires, and they’ll find Mr./Ms./Ziz Right...or at least Mr./Ms./Ziz Right Now.

There are three email lists that get messages. Each list needs a separately-written series of 3–4 emails. Each email must be tagged, so the same person doesn’t get sent multiple emails. And each email links to a registration page that may be slightly different depending on which list they were on. 

There are about 10,000 moving parts, and this has to happen every time there’s a new Get-It-Done Group starting. 

If there are a few months between the groups, by the time it’s time to do it again, there may be a dozen tiny details that need to be re-learned or reinvented. It’s way too much to remember through sheer force of memory.

Document as You Go

The first time through, a project like this is horribly complicated. But you can make it easier next time by documenting as you go. Take a page out of The Joy of Cooking and make a recipe for doing the big, complicated task.

Get a notebook to use for your procedure. This is your “resource book,” where you’ll capture everything you need to do your Big, Complicated Task.

Step one: identify what to document. Ask yourself, what am I working on? “I’m writing an email discussing how we can accidentally drop projects on the floor.” If you give a super-specific answer like that, ask, What larger task is this part of? Your answer: “I’m creating a promotional email campaign.” That seems like a good task to document. Not too vague and big-picture, not too detailed. 

This becomes the title of your resource book. Create promotional email campaign.

List out the steps as you do them. As you put together your promotional campaign, jot down the steps in your resource book. If the first thing you do is grab a calendar and decide dates for the emails, then write down, “1. Grab calendar and choose dates for emails.” There’s absolutely nothing mysterious or magical in what you write. Just make a diary of the steps you take.

Get Down and Dirty

Include all the details. When one of your steps requires additional information, or an email address, or a phone number, or reference to a particular resource, note that, too. For example, rather than just writing, “consult with the marketing department,” paste in a copy of the agenda you put together for that meeting. That way you’ll know what to consult about.

If you find your project includes making phone calls, jot down who you had to call and the phone number, for future reference. “Called local health department to ensure ink used in emails was non-toxic. Talked to Fred, at 212–555–1212.”

Err on the side of including too much detail. The next time you follow this process, you can just skip details that don’t apply. 


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.