This Instructable is aimed mainly at Middle and High School students who have been sent away to work independently on a project, but it could be adapted for use by other people.
However, if your project is more complex, especially if it involves more than two or three people, you are probably going to get better use out of Gantt charts.
If you are a teacher, I have also added some notes (step 6) so that you can use this with your own classes.
Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.
Step 1: Starting
Every project starts somewhere.
Maybe you are all working to a theme, maybe you've been set a specific task, or maybe you've just had an idea pop out of the blue.
Whatever the origins of the project, you need to bounce some ideas around - write them all down, no matter how odd, and then pick your favourite one or two.
If you are working on the project alone, find a couple of friends or family members to brainstorm with, or maybe even your teacher!
Step 2: Negotiation.
Once you've got your ideas, you need to make sure they are acceptable to your intended audience (usually your teacher).
Remember that every project should be a learning process - you should come out of it in some way a "better" person, maybe with greater knowledge, maybe with greater skills, or maybe in some way less easy to define.
You need to make sure you know what relevant skills you already have and what skills you need to acquire.
If the project is in school, you need to consider what parts of the curriculum will be covered in the execution or presentation of the project. Be open to cross-curricular opportunities (maybe it's a History project, but you will be working on your literacy skills).
When your negotiations with your teacher (or boss, supervisor etc) have turned into a working idea, you need to know in advance how your success (or failure) will be measured. Maybe it will be a checklist of facts covered, a score from some judges, hits on a website, or even box-office returns.
Step 3: Time and Resources
By this point, you (and your group) will probably be working with only the lightest supervision, so you really need to pay attention to what you actually need to do, and when you need to do it by.
What material resources do you need to gather together or gain access to? This might be as simple as time at a computer, specialist tools, sculpting materials or space to rehearse.
What information do you need to accumulate? You may already know the facts you are going to present, but how do you know you are correct? Depending on the information you need, there are many ways of collecting it, from a couple of minutes on Wikipedia, to spending cold and miserable days counting dog faecal matter in the streets around your town. Don't forget that human beings are a valuable resource as well.
You also need to work out when you need these things. You will have a good idea of your final deadline, so work backwards from that. You need so many days to rehearse your speech, so you need the speech written before that. You need to have the main facts arranged before that, you need to survey public opinion before that, and you need to create the actual survey before that...
Write your deadlines down!
You should at least have a calendar or diary to write down deadlines, but if your project is complex, or involves a lot of people, this is the point you wish you'd listened to me in the introduction and done some research into Gantt charts.
Now, get on with it.
Do what you need to do, stay focused, and keep one eye on your mini deadlines.
Step 4: Outcome
After all your work, you will, eventually, finish your project, hopefully to the pleased surprise of your teacher.
Whether you have been drawing a poster, making a movie, creating a website, performing a piece of interpretive dance or building a garden wall, just do your thing, relax and go with it. Things are out of your hands now.
Take a moment to be proud of yourself and your colleagues.
Step 5: Judgement!
As the philosopher says, failure is always an option. But, so is success.
Once you have presented your final piece of work, it will be judged against the criteria you agreed to all the way back in step 2.
Hopefully, you will have succeeded, maybe you will fail miserably, more probably you will end up somewhere in between.
Whatever the result, be constructive about it.
Pay attention to where you went wrong, and figure out how to make it right next time.
Highlight what went right, and remember to do the same next time.
Whatever the result of this project, there will always be more in future, and if you learn your lessons now, future projects will only be better.
Step 6: For Teachers.
Whenever you get the chance, you should give students the chance to become independent learners.
Unfortunately, because they get so few chances, students are often not very good at it.
I was first involved in fully-independent learning in the last year before my school closed (they were already closing us, so there was nothing else they could do to us for missing out a few formal tests). We gave over-arching themes* to classes of 11 to 13 year olds, and then gave them a significant amount of time (nearly half the weekly timetable for a month) to produce something, anything, to prove they had learned something by themselves.
In the first attempt, there was one factor upon which most students failed, and that was in planning - they'd have a good idea, then wander off into unimportant details without achieving much.
So, for the second project they attempted, I put together the lesson you have just read through, and presented it to every class involved. Although it's aimed at making students independent, the lesson was very chalk-and-talk, with every student had a copy of the flowchart which they annotated as we went along. They kept the flowchart in the front of their folder for reference, along with a copy of their agreed success criteria and deadlines.
During the period of the project, on noticeboards around the school, I posted large versions of the flowchart, with highlights showing where they should be, and count-downs of how long they had left before the presentation deadline.
This second time through, the projects were much more successful - in the same year-group, working to the same theme, small groups produced books, posters, magazines, paintings, scale models, short plays, video documentaries and even one business proposal.
If you're a bit stuck in your ways, teaching like this can be stressful, since your entire class will be whizzing off in different directions, often outside your own area of speciality. At the same time, you'll feel surplus to requirements, because you will not be the centre of attention.
Do it properly, though, and it is a lot of fun. You can almost join in as if you were a student yourself, and every group should be able to teach you at least one thing by the end of the topic.
Be brave. Prove Calvin wrong.
* Such as "the history of our town", "Fair Trade" and "the Olympic legacy".