HOW TO COMPLETE A BIG LONG PROJECT
Major creative projects are challenging, in ways that often surprise us. There are hundreds of ways to keep ourselves from successfully completing creative projects, and only a few ways to ensure that the whole process—from start to finish--is rewarding. We end up mired in needless anxiety and guilt as we contemplate doing a project that is supposed to be a wonderful, creative opportunity?
The higher the stakes, the more likely it is that we will stall, or get derailed, on our way to completion. For a number of reasons, big long projects have fairly high stakes attached. What follows are three suggestions that make successful project completion far more likely, as well as a list of “demons” that can stand in your way, and ways to vanquish them. These suggestions are based in my many years of helping colleagues, graduate students and undergraduates complete major projects; on years of reading research and advice on creative blocks; and dealing with my own experience finding all kinds of reasons to delay my own work.
· pick a project you really, really want to do
· create a project file box
· do something with the project file box at least 10 minutes a day, six days a week
Steady contact with an intrinsically interesting project helps keep you focused on what needs to be done, without raising the stakes too high. Here are the details:
It may seem easy to pick projects you really, really want to do, but it’s not. Most of the time we pick projects that we think we want to do, but they are really projects that we think we OUGHT to do, that seem sensible to do, that will please an advisor or parent, impress our friends, or look good on our resume. This is not a project that you really, really want to do, but a project that you would like to have already done. That’s different. Don’t pick that kind of project.
If you are stuck in the midst of a project that feels oppressive and uninteresting, go back to the beginning—what drew you to this project in the first place? How can you reshape your project to capture that energy and magnetism? What can you DROP so that the project once again feels live and interesting to you?
Creating a Project File Box
The file box system is a way to keep your project organized, contained, accessible and tame. Everyone touts the value of organization, and obviously it helps to have files that include project outlines, editorial input, data, references, etc. But the key to this system is that you are not just organized, you are also committed to CLOSING the file box whenever you want, after your ten minutes are up. In other words, when much of it is neatly categorized in a file box, the project doesn’t sprawl, induce guilt, take over a corner of your room and gather dust. It is contained and accessible.
But perhaps most important, the project is “tamed.” It is tamed because a key element of your file box is the “ventilation file,” where you vent all your worries, doubts, frustrations and anxieties about the project. I believe this is the ultimate key to successful project completion—a file where you can fully express all that is holding you back.
Every creative project involves worry, doubt, frustrations and anxieties, and they can grow into the demons I describe below. The ventilation file short circuits this process by addressing the demons head on. It lets you spend your required 10 minutes just venting about how hard, stupid, wrong or foolish the project/your editor/your schedule/the plan may seem. And once you’ve done that, for reasons that I still don’t understand, it becomes much easier to reconnect with some fruitful element of the project, and therefore to move forward.
Ten Minutes a Day, at least
Ten minutes is a very short, but very powerful, amount of time. Most projects stall because people wait until they have a large block of time—and a block of time never comes. So people lose touch with momentum that they had at the beginning, fall behind, imagine growing mountains of work undone, get increasingly anxious, avoid thinking about the project altogether, cancel appointments with their agent or editor or critique group, while making vague plans to stay up all night for weeks on end to get things done, and then they fall apart or throw together something mediocre, while having made themselves anxious, guilt-ridden and miserable for months. With ten minutes a day, this just doesn’t happen.
Obviously no project can be done only in ten minute increments. But if you spend at least ten minutes with your project file box every day--just reviewing what you’ve planned, seeing what you’ve already done, figuring out the next right step, sorting out what still needs to be accomplished--you keep yourself connected to the interest and energy that will MAKE time to get the project done. The hardest part is always getting started, and this Ten Minute System means you stay started, every day.
But most important, it means that you are guilt and anxiety free. All you need to do is spend ten minutes sorting things out, or writing in your ventilation file, or reading over an outline, or deciding on some phone calls, or checking on some sources, then—if you can’t spend more time—you are free, free, free! No need to feel like you “ought” to be spending Long Hours Slogging Away at the Looming Project. It is, thanks to the project file and your ten minute rule, organized, accessible, contained and tame. It stays personal, interesting and fun. You stay connected, and you start making time for something that you want to be doing.
Demons and How To Deal With Them
Even if you follow the Project Box/Ventilation File/Ten Minutes system, it is still possible to experience project demons that await us all. Here are some of the most common stumbling blocks—keep them in mind, and see how many of them show up in your ventilation file.
The Magnum Opus Myth
This is the belief that all our work has to be extraordinary and world-changing, the best that has ever been. Nonsense. It just has to be good enough to say something interesting or valuable, accessibly. We can simply make our contributions to the world; we aren’t obligated to astonish or transform it.
The Hostile Reader Fear
This is the assumption that your agent, editor, or ultimate audience member is eager to shred your meager but beloved effort into bloody little pieces. Nonsense. Your readers just want to find out what you have to say. Pretend that you are creating your project for the most supportive, interested and kindhearted friend you can imagine, and go from there.
The Cleared Deck Dream
My personal favorite, this is the belief that if you can get all this Other Stuff out of the way, THEN you’ll have the time you need for the project. Nonsense. There are always loose ends, and tons of Other Stuff that needs doing, and that will never change. Our in-boxes are always full. Instead, just spend ten minutes a day on your project, and see what happens.
The Perfect First Sentence/Brushstroke/Shot etc.
Some people don’t make progress on their project because they can’t get the first part perfect. Remember, it’s your project and you can start work on the easiest and most fun part now, even if it’s what you think will be at the middle or the end. Half the time, you don’t need the part that you’re stuck on, anyway. So always head for the most easy, interesting and rewarding parts of your project first, and you’ll be amazed how often it turns out to organize itself. If you feel you MUST begin at the beginning, then just start out with ANYTHING that can get you to the good stuff—you can lop it off later.
The Imposter Syndrome
Doing projects can feel very revealing, and plenty of us go around worried that someday “they” will realize how inadequate and flawed we really are. We know that our talents and insights are incomplete, and instead of accepting that, we hide our inadequacies behind pompous writing, or grandiose projects, or snide remarks. We avoid being criticized and try our best to keep the façade going. But projects are collaborative, and peers and advisors can help us communicate more clearly and effectively, if we let down our guard, accept our limitations, and work as well as we can with who we actually are. The best work comes when we seek to express, not impress.
All projects ebb and flow, and sometimes you feel like you have run aground, or lost direction, or gotten off into some hideous jungle. Maybe you have—but don’t panic. Your project has many “right” ways to do it, and your agent, editors and peers can help you find your way back to your central questions and goals. So can your project file. Your notes, outlines, drafts, false starts, plans and especially your ventilation file contain clues to what really matters to YOU about the project. So find ways to get back to your originating interests. I recommend having a 3 x 5 card with your central question written on it, posted on top of your file box. When you get lost, check back—are you still addressing your central question?
Drowning in Possibilities
In the Information Age it is easy to be overwhelmed with far more information, ideas, sources, quotes, film footage etc. than you actually need. You can hope that they will magically sort themselves out into a project, but often they do not. Again—seek the help of advisors and peers to get back to your central question, and sift through the possibilities to pay most attention to what works best for YOU. You don’t have to use everything out there, so put stuff aside (hey, you might want to do more projects in the future, right?) for a later day. Focus on what matters most to your central question, and let the rest alone.
Compared to X, I’m….
It is easy to feel inadequate or burdened or somehow “less than” when you compare your progress with others. Don’t get caught in this trap—your project is yours, with its own pace and possibilities and contribution to make, and it doesn’t matter if your friends are splitting the atom or working on a Hollywood release or starting their own concert tour, or quitting school, or doing some measly project that takes a tenth of the time you are putting into yours that will make them a million bucks. Their progress has nothing to do with you. Write out your envy and fear and hostility in the ventilation file and move on.
What Was I Thinking?
It’s easy to plan a Too Big project, especially in the first exciting planning phases. If you really have been too ambitious, recognize it and reduce the project to its most important elements. Better a strong, well done portion of a larger project, than a project that never gets done because it became too overwhelming.
Project demons multiply unless and until you spend frequent, low stress time with your project, doing the most interesting and exciting parts, without worrying about changing the world, being criticized, having enough time, finding the perfect beginning, impressing everybody. When you feel lost and overwhelmed, write about it and ask for help from friends and advisors. And remember—you only need ten minutes a day!