Most of us, I suspect, have a complex relationship with work. We like it, and yet at times it also intimidates us. We get engaged, right up until the point where we face a really mammoth task, whereupon we often discover an overwhelming urge to go right back to bed. The more that I talk to people, the more I’m convinced that this is a normal human reaction. The more that that I learn it’s normal, however, the more I realize we need strategies to confront our intimidation if we aren’t going to spend our lives buried under a duvet.
As someone with ambition, along with more than my share of projects that have been put off for one reason or the other, I feel more than a little qualified to comment on the topic. Hopefully, I’m also far enough along in this adventure called life to provide some helpful insights as well.
The big thing with large, ambitious tasks is that they are, to put not too fine a point on it, large and ambitious. While this may seem to be a statement of the screamingly obvious (I do make those once in a while) it’s an important factor to acknowledge. If the tasks we were facing were simple and straightforward, then we’d just get on with them. Or, if we didn’t, we would only have our usual, bog-standard reasons for procrastination to blame.
Part of the challenge we face has to do with size. There is a scale of project beyond which the human mind has difficulty visualizing. Interestingly, this adjusts by person, and our comfort level can stretch over time. But there will come a point when we stop feeling comfortable, and the project becomes overwhelming in its nature.
Getting a handle on size is critical, and there are a few strategies that we can employ to deal with that. An important approach, and perhaps one of the easiest and most effective, is getting started. Do something. Anything. Simply taking action helps to reduce the feeling of overwhelm. Seeing progress helps illustrate that we are accomplishing something.
Over the course of the winter, for example, we had a bad ice storm where I live. Power was out for 12 hours. Roads were treacherous. I was stranded in a hotel, not able to get to the customer’s site where I was supposed to be working, and also unable to get home. By the time I did, mother nature had run her course. Three trees were down, and many others on the property (we have a lot of trees) had lost twigs, sticks, branches and whole limbs. Not only was the detritus strewn across our yard, but it was also nicely accumulated in our neighbours’ yards as well.
Walking out for the first time to survey the damage, I felt crushingly, overwhelmingly discouraged. There were fallen branches everywhere. The scale of the destruction was epically large. Where do you even start? I despaired. But start I must. I started with one corner of a neighbour’s yard, and began picking up, lugging and dumping. My fitness tracker logged many, many steps. Three days later, I had a pile of lumber that would take seven trailer loads to get rid of. But the yard was clean. If I’d let the size overwhelm me, it would all still be out there (or I’d have given in and hired someone). Instead, I started with one stick and kept on going, and it eventually got done.
Clearing brush is one thing, of course. It’s simple. It’s mostly repetitive. The most challenging and difficult parts are those where you break out the chain saw. But other challenges aren’t so straightforward. This is where you get into the spectrum defined not by size but by ambition.
The scope of our ambitions will, of course, vary. They could be focussed on writing a book. Doing a doctorate. Engaging in research. Learning an instrument. Painting in oils. Writing a play. Coordinating a massive organizational change. Moving to a new computer (often harder than it looks). While others may have done something similar in the past, for us it is new. It is different. It is a little bit—or a lot—intimidating.
The interesting thing about the really big ambitions is that they often take on new and very different forms of procrastination than what we engage in when we are avoiding our weekly status report. We think that we need to be ready. We need to be in the right mindset. We need the right tools. We need a dedicated work space. We need to do research. We need more books (well, that one’s legitimate; I always need more books). All of this becomes a whole other project (or set of projects) to tackle, before we can start on the thing we claim to care about doing.
Writing my doctoral dissertation was a little bit like this. I needed a workspace. I needed the right frame of mind. I needed stuff. I remember vividly being in a writing store in Granville Island in Vancouver, buying a leather satchel, a notebook and a fountain pen that would be the tools that helped me write my thesis. Because they were just exactly the right sort of things to tackle a project like this. And did they help? Well, I used the book, the satchel travels with me regularly when I am working in cafes and I still use the fountain pen. But did I need them? Not really. There is nothing that was essential or required, and a plain pad of paper, a Bic pen and a plastic bag could have served me just as well.
By the time I got around to writing the book that was based upon my dissertation, I just got on with it. I built a plan, I started writing, and for the most part I cranked out a first draft in about a month. Preparation and space was far less of an issue. I mostly wrote where I was (which was often in hotel rooms, cafes and restaurant lounges). For some sessions I wrote a couple of hundred words, and during some I managed a couple of thousand. But I simply wrote.
What is important here is separating the real from the imaginary in terms of what we need to work with. If you want to learn the piano, for example, you’re going to need some form of keyboard. It might be an ancient upright. It might be a Casio from the 80s. It might be a modern synthesizer. But it does not need to be a fourteen-foot Bosendorfer concert grand, lovely as those actually might be.
Tackling a big personal project does need space, time and focus. Some preparation genuinely is required. If you want to do a large writing or research project, for example, you are going to need a place to work, to organize, to store your materials and to have them available to you in a relatively efficient fashion. This might be a physical workspace in your home. It might be a really organized system on your computer, if you can function purely in the digital realm. You do need to attend to process, workflow and systems (physical and virtual). What those systems are, however, will often emerge over time. Insisting on perfect before you get started is simply a way of pushing out the inevitable.
And that’s where we get back to the lesson of ‘one stick at a time.’ You aren’t going to get to your perfect system before you start; it’s going to evolve. Evolving means that you are going to find some things that don’t work for you in how you are organized, and you are going to go back and re-do things that you thought you had figured out. This is not a sign of failure. It’s a normal part of progress.
I’ve recently found, after years of looking, a piece of software that lets me reasonably manage and keep accessible the various articles I come across (and often link to in my writing). I started to set up and use it a couple of months ago. So far, I’ve been accumulating things that I find as I work through how to use the software. One of the discoveries I’ve made is that I should have really started by collecting articles differently than they way I did. Which means, in part, going back over two months of discovery and re-doing part of that work.
There is a lot of other work I need to do to make this software work for me. Archiving and organizing everything else that I have, in Dropbox, in Evernote, on my hard drive, on archive drives, and elsewhere. I have collections in the software on two separate computers that currently aren’t synched. I’ve been invited to beta test the new software, which is tempting in that it promises better synchronization functionality, but comes with the risk that beta software isn’t guaranteed to work as promised. I’m still sorting out my workflow in using the software. I have not yet adopted a discipline that lets me stay on top of what I am doing using the software and knowing I am organized. In short, just making this software work for me is a project, and it’s not my priority project right now. At the same time, it is getting in the way of some of my other priority projects. So it probably needs addressing.
There are a number of insights embedded here in how we think about tackling complex and uncertain projects. One is that process is important, and we need to spend time on process as well as on the content of our project. At the same time, we can’t become slaves to process. We shouldn’t we feel the need to build the perfect process before we start, nor should that be seen as realistic. Typically, that’s just a sign that we are putting off the inevitable.
A good working strategy is to figure out a process that appears to be relevant for right now, and to consciously build in reviews every week or so to check in on how it is working. Quite literally, schedule a time to stop and ask yourself how your process and tools are working for you, and what’s getting in the way. Think about what tweaks you might make, and make those. That’s a good way of course correcting, making sure you don’t get too far down the wrong path, while also helping to ensure that any adjustments that you do need to make don’t get to a point where required changes appear overwhelming and insurmountable.
Don’t be obsessed with the perfect equipment, the perfect software or the perfect space (physically or in terms of mindset). There is always going to be something new or better or different that you could use. At the same time, switching tools is always new and painful. There is usually a steep learning curve, a steeper migration curve and the resulting benefits are often illusory. If your process is (mostly) working, then stick with what you’ve got. Next project, think about moving if something different looks really appealing. But try to be realistic about how much new software or new tools are going to make a difference for you. Daniel Lanois, producer behind such musical legends as Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and U2, had a great observation in this regard: “We didn’t have a lot of equipment, but we really knew how to work the equipment we had. Which is kind of a good lesson: options, a vast array of possibilities, is not as good as being master of a few.”
Do get started. This involves first off being clear about what is necessary in order to get started, and then doing that first. Don’t be overwhelmed about how many things come after that first thing. Do what’s first, and keep going. Thinking about ‘what’s next?’ is a really helpful strategy, and for me one of the most important things that comes from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. He views projects as a series of steps, and planning a project isn’t about planning all of the steps; it is about knowing what the next immediate thing is that will move a project forward. Identify what that specific next thing is and get it done, and you are already on your way. For my new software to be useful, for example, I need to get everything I’ve found in the format that it should be. Then I can consolidate libraries. Only then will I worry about a beta test. The rest of my knowledge of the software will come in time, as I need to do more.
The other important insight (which also comes from David Allen) is about context. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s an important idea to reinforce. You are not always going to be in an awesome headspace when you are tackling your project. Some days you will be raring to go. On other days you will be entirely disillusioned and uninterested. You might be tired, you might be cranky or you might just have had a long day. Just because you aren’t in the best headspace to move things quantumly forward, however, doesn’t mean that things can’t get done. I may not be up for writing one evening, but a mindless couple of hours converting files on a night when I’m bored will get me one step further forward. Having to-do’s under a context of “Bored” or “Watching TV” means you can actually feel smugly productive even while you are slacking off.
As Lau Tzu, the Chinese philosopher responsible for the I Ching, put it, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It will be followed by many others. Direction may change. Desirability of the destination may change. The destination itself may change. But you won’t get to the end of your journey unless you start.