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How to do something big

[ 1 ] November 23, 2010 |
Climbing Karsten's Ridge against the bright blue sky

Image by mikep, via Flickr

Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Something grand and ambitions? Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a book, or build an airplane, or hike the Appalachian Trail. It’s huge, life-changing even, and you’ve known for a long time that you want to do it, but you haven’t done it. Why?

Well, it will be hard, right? Doing something so big is daunting. It seems overwhelming, maybe even impossible, especially with the busy life you have. I subscribe to the “top three tasks system,” which says that you pick the three most important things that must be done today, and do those right away each day. However, today’s “top three” list includes at least six things, and some of them are not small.

If you’re already overwhelmed, overscheduled, and overtaxed, how could you possibly write a book?

Well, life is life. There’s always going to be a to-do list with more stuff on it than you can get done. Always.

The reality is that we can’t possibly do everything. Even if we only did the things we want to do, there’s not time for all of those, either. We have to choose.

It’s easy to automatically choose the tasks that present themselves with most urgency and do those first. For me, another trap is the easy ones. I often do the things that will take very little time or effort first, because I get the instant gratification of checking them off the list.

But here’s an idea: if we don’t have enough time to do everything, maybe we should do the most important things first. If we don’t, we may never do them.

If your life’s dream is to write a book, start writing! If it’s the Appalachian Trail, start training. Whatever your dream is, make it your number one priority. Doing work that you care about is one key to living a satisfying life.

But how?

Let’s get concrete.

Break it down

Any big project is too unwieldy to do, maybe even to think about, as a whole. Start by listing the tasks. What smaller things need to be done in order to accomplish the whole?

For example, if you’re writing a book, make an outline. Break it down into the chapters and sections that will need to be written. You will also need to edit the book. If there will be images, you need to make, buy, or find them, and get the proper permissions to use them.

If you will be doing it yourself, you need to find distribution channels, a printing service if it will be a paper book or a hosting service if it will be an ebook, and do or outsource the layout and design. If you plan to use a traditional publisher, you’ll need to research contacts at publishing companies and send out queries and proposals.

For any project, keep listing and breaking down the steps needed to carry out your goal until each task is small enough that you can see how you would do it.

Do one little piece at a time

It’s impossible to write a book today, but it’s quite doable to write a small section on one particular topic. Do that. Whenever you can, pick a task off the list and do it.

Don’t make it serious

For me, sometimes even these small tasks seem too hard, and I drag my feet about starting. But if I tell myself, “I’m not really working on this, I’m just trying this one thing for a minute–no big deal,” usually I try the one thing, get absorbed, and I’m off to the races.

But take your dream seriously

This is something important to you, so don’t let other people poo-poo your ideas or preempt your time to work on it. The most productive and satisfying work happens when you can get so absorbed, you enter the “flow state”: you’re so involved in what you’re doing, you don’t notice the passage of time or the outside world. You’re totally engaged.

The flow state is pure gold for getting things done and being creative, and it is also one of the best sources of satisfaction in life.

To get it, practice working on your project with as much concentration as you can muster. Eliminate all the distractions you can: turn off the phone, turn off the email notifications and chat, and tell everyone you’re not available for the next hour.

If you find your mind wandering, or your mouse wandering over to the internet, you can train yourself to concentrate. Tell yourself that for the next 20 minutes, you’re working on this, and after that, you’ll take a break or give yourself a reward. If you start drifting off task, check the clock, and if the time isn’t up, redirect yourself back to what you’re trying to do. Then take a break when 20 minutes are up.

At first, it may be difficult to resist the temptation to wander off into thinking about other things, looking something else up, or checking email, but as you practice working in 20-minute blocks, you’ll get better at it. You’ll start getting absorbed in your task to the point that you don’t notice when 20 minutes have elapsed. That’s great! Just take a break later, when you reach a natural stopping point in your work.

As you keep getting better at concentrating, you’ll reach the flow state with increasing speed and ease. That’s when your enjoyment and productivity really take off!

Throw yourself into it

When I was working on my PhD, the department chair gave all of us grad students a great insight: your progress does not grow linearly with the level of work you put in, it grows exponentially. That means if you go from one hour a week to two hours a week, you might think you would get twice as much done, but actually, it’s more than twice as much.

The more often you work on something and the more you throw yourself into it, the more benefit you gain. One reason for that is that the ideas stay fresh in your mind. If you work on your book once a week, you have the whole week between sessions to forget where you left off and what you were doing. If you work on it every other day, you don’t have to take time to catch back up to where you were—you still remember. It’s even easier if you work every day.

Meanwhile, your brain is still working on your project behind the scenes while you’re doing something else. When you work on your project frequently, it stays in your head, so you can keep your mind working on it while you’re sleeping, eating, and doing other things. That causes huge gains in the amount of ideas you’ll have and the connections you can make between them.

tiny people getting ready to climb a mountain

Image by mikep, via Flickr

Nail the logistics

It may seem obvious, but to get work done on a project, you need to do the work. I’ve trained myself to be able to achieve the flow state pretty easily once I sit down to work on the things I love, but I still struggle with getting myself to sit down to work!

For me, the way around this is to make a schedule. I declare that during a and b blocks of time, I’ll write blog posts, and during x, y, and z, I’ll work on the ebook. I hope that some day I can be more organic about what I do, but for my current level of discipline, scheduling is the way to make sure something gets done.

Another thing that helps is separating work from play. Although I enjoy writing blog posts and the ebook so much that it really is play for me, I would still be tempted to keep reading other people’s blogs, “researching,” emailing, or otherwise messing around if I didn’t designate time as work time.

It also helps to have a designated work space. I’ve been doing this since college. Despite being very small, my school had two libraries. When I wanted to wander around, space out, or read fun stuff, I went to the liberal arts and science library. When I needed to study or write a paper, I went to the engineering library. I’m not an engineer, so the only time I went to that library was when I needed to get serious work done. Sure enough, when I locked myself in a study room, I would quickly get down to work.

Your work space doesn’t have to be as dramatic as having a whole special building to go to. If you can set up a corner of a room in your house, that’s great. For me, it’s even more basic. I have a net book that I use almost exclusively for writing. It has a very small screen, and the wireless connection is a little slow, both of which turn out to be features when I want to avoid internet temptations. When I sit down with it and fire up OpenOffice, I know I’m there to work, so I do.

Set up a support structure

If you can get the people in your daily life behind your project, that can make a big difference. You could have your friends, significant other, and kids interrupting you and trying to get you to do things with them instead of working on your project, or you could have them encouraging you and maybe even facilitating your having time to work on it.

To help the people you know support you, let them in on what you’re doing. Tell them what you’re working on, and most importantly, why you think it’s great and why it’s important to you. If there are small ways they can contribute, making them part of the project will help them buy in, care about it, and want it to succeed.

On the other hand, if your family and friends think you’re crazy or your project is stupid, keep them away from it and don’t let them discourage you. The fact that it’s important to you makes it important, period.


As you’re throwing yourself at your dream work, it’s possible to get burned out, or so overwhelmed that you don’t want to do anything. I’ve done this to myself, and it’s not pretty. Some people think you can’t get burned out doing something you love, but for me, that’s just not true.

If you’re doing a project that’s so short, it could be considered a sprint, it may be worth it to throw yourself in completely and not worry about taking care of yourself. Maybe. But for anything lasting more than a week or two, you need to take care of yourself. You will be happier and more productive if you take time for rest, breaks, and fun in between work.

That means keeping your life balanced to include eating right, getting enough sleep, and spending time with people you care about.

It also means making sure you have time to think. You need some time to just space out and let your mind wander. If you’re just go go go all the time, you’re inhibiting your ability to get ideas and make connections. Spacing out may seem like a waste of time, but in reality, it’s crucial.

Remember why you’re doing this

In any project, there will be rough spots where things get difficult. When those points come, you may have a hard time staying motivated or interested in the project. You may want to quit.

Too tired... sleeping on keyboard...

Image by Sarah G..., via Flickr

Quitting is ok, if it’s for the right reason. If you’ve come to realize that the project is doomed because a better solution already exists, or you simply no longer believe it’s worth your time and energy, then certainly quit. There are better ways to spend your time than pounding the pavement trying to convince everyone to use your telegraph service.

But if the project still has value and you’re just feeling down, it would be a shame to quit. If you keep going, you could do something great.

This is the time to remember why you’re working on this project. What’s great about it? What will it give you and/or the world if you finish it? Visualize the results that you want in as much detail as possible. If you do this from the beginning of the project, you make it easier to do when you get discouraged, and make it less likely to get discouraged in the first place.

So what’ll it be?

What are you waiting for? The first step is getting started, so get started. Start planning and breaking your project down into tasks.

Are you worried that you’re too old to do this? Maybe you’re thinking about how much better it would have been if you had started last year or months ago.

That may be true, but it’s not getting any earlier! You’ve already tried not working on the project, so you know it won’t do itself. It’s up to you—start today!

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (1)

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  1. Cara, this is great. You touched on almost every issue i encounter in my desire to create a future- my fears, worries, non supporting friends and family, doubt, motivation n just everything. Sometimes i feel am alone but now i know i have people genuinely supporting this cause- you are one of them.

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