How to Work Productively on Big Projects
Recently I’ve been a in terrific productive flow. Due to the coronavirus situation, I have no in-person obligations now, so there’s no need to go to the gym, to guitar lessons, to run errands, or to meet up with people. My hair is growing longer, but my focus is growing deeper.
This has given me the space to tinker with my system for managing tasks and projects. I’ve had time to experiment with different approaches and to observe closely how those changes affect me. There’s less variety of activity in my life now, so I can perceive the impact of these changes more clearly. It’s like working in my own personal productivity lab where I can finally control the lab environment.
One simple change that I’ve been finding very effective has been to redefine larger projects as lots of smaller projects instead. For instance, the annual opening of Conscious Growth Club is a big project with more than 100 steps, and many of those steps have checklists of 10+ items within them. This year I decided to split that larger project into 17 smaller ones. The action steps are the same.
There’s a different feel where I have to work for weeks just to complete one project versus being able to complete multiple projects every week. I like the feeling of accomplishment I get from closing smaller projects more frequently. These smaller projects are just chunks of the larger one, but they’re crisply defined. Some of them can be completed in an afternoon.
As I continue to break off pieces of other large projects and turn them into their own projects, my projects list has grown lengthy. But the feeling of flow has increased because now I’m completing and closing projects more often. On a good day I might fully complete 2-3 smaller projects.
This helps me see myself as a project finisher. I’m feeling increasingly driven not just to work on projects but to push them towards full completion. It’s intrinsically rewarding to close out a project, and now I get to enjoy that reward 10-20x more often.
Imagine working on a project with 100 action steps to complete, and you’re only 9 steps in. How does that feel?
Now imagine fully completing one 5-step project and then finishing 4 out of 5 steps of a second project. How does that feel?
In each case you’ve completed 9 actions steps, and they’re the same actions. But the framing in the second case is likely to feel a lot better. It does a better job of building momentum and confidence, doesn’t it?
Moreover, if you only have 1 step left to go to complete that second small project, are you really going to leave that undone at the end of the day? You could, but you might feel driven to polish off that last task to fully close that project too. I’ve noticed that I’m more likely to push myself to complete an extra step or two if I’m that close to the finish line. It feels good to close out the project and move it off my plate completely. This is restful for my mind because when I complete the project, I can let it go.
Is it easier to tackle a big project like “write a novel,” knowing you won’t get far in a day, or to break off a small piece like “brainstorm and outline a rough design for one character” and complete it? Which framing leads to more procrastination?
Which is easier to face: a project that says “Clean house” or one that says “Do laundry”?
The framing of big projects may lead to thoughts like:
😓 This is gonna be a lot of work.
😓 This looks complicated.
😓 This will take a long time.
😓 How long will this actually take to finish?
😓 It will be a long time before I see results from this.
😓 I wonder what’s on Netflix…
With small projects the framing shifts to:
✅ I can knock this out this afternoon.
✅ Only 6 action steps? I can do that.
✅ This looks simple and compact.
✅ This seems pretty straightforward.
✅ I can see all the steps at a glance.
✅ It will be nice to get this project done today.
✅ I’ve already finished 5 projects this week… which one to do next?
My suggestion is to consider how you’re presenting your work to yourself. If you present a long, slow slog up a mountain of work, your mind and body may react accordingly. If you present yourself with accessible projects you can readily finish, you may enjoy some meaningful gains in focus, flow, and fulfillment.
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