Zero to Ph.D. – How to Accomplish Any Task By Going Small First

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A couple of years ago, I watched a TED talk that changed my life. 

I had just finished my computer science master’s degree and was starting out as a fresh Ph.D. student in the department of distributed systems…

… and I was overwhelmed.

There are many computer science students reading the Finxter blog so I hope to find a few encouraging words in this article.

Not only was I overwhelmed, but I seriously doubted my ability to finish the doctoral research program successfully.

I was so impressed by my colleagues, who were much smarter, wittier, and better coders.

So what were (some of) the things that were bothering me?

  • Reading and understanding code.
  • Reading and understanding research papers.
  • Designing algorithms.
  • Maths.
  • Presenting stuff.
  • English.
  • Writing scientifically.
  • “Selling” my approaches to my supervisors.

The list goes on and on — and I really felt like an imposter not worthy to contribute to the scientific community.


Then I watched the TED talk from a former investment banker who claimed to possess the formula to achieve anything.

How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals | Stephen Duneier | TEDxTucson

The formula: break the big task into a series of small tasks. Then just keep doing the small tasks (and don’t stop).

I know it sounds lame, but it really resonated with me. So I approached my problem from first principles: What must I do to finish my dissertation within four years?

  • I need to publish at least four research papers.
  • I need to submit at least ten times to top conferences — maybe even more often.
  • I need to create a 10,000-word research paper every three months or so.
  • I need to write (or edit) 300 words every day.

So my output was clear: if I just do this one thing (it’s really easy to write 300 words) — I will have enough written content for my dissertation.

Quality comes as a byproduct of massive quantity. πŸ˜‰

But to produce output, any system needs input. To brew tasty coffee, put in the right ingredients: high-quality beans and pure water. To produce better outputs, just feed the system with better inputs.

  • Question: What’s the input that helps me produce excellent 300-word written output?
  • Answer: Read papers from top conferences.

So the formula boils down to:

  • INPUT: read (at least skim over) one paper a day from a top conference in my research area.
  • OUTPUT: generate 300 words for the current paper project.

That’s it. After I developed this formula, the remaining three and a half years were simple: follow this straightforward recipe to the best of my abilities, even with serious distractions, doubts, highs, and lows.

The day before I published this article originally (in 2019), I delivered my defense. Based on my sample size of one, the system works! πŸ˜‰

So what is your BIG TASK that is overwhelming you? How can you break into a series of small outputs that guarantees your success? What is the input that helps you generate this kind of output?

πŸ“ˆ Recommended: How to Overcome the Imposter Syndrome as a Doctoral Computer Science Researcher (and Thrive)