See that forest? It’s made of trees.
You’ve picked your One Goal and said good riddance to Idea Debt. You’ve cleaned your desk and done a full Brain Download. You feel fresh, renewed. Ready to work. You sit down to get started and…anxiety crawls up your spine. Before you know it, you’re on Facebook. Or playing a video game. Or vacuuming, for god’s sake.
What the hell, man?
Does this mean you’re a lost cause, that you’re not cut out for doing creative work? Absolutely not. It just means you need a next action.
I hear you. You’re saying, “Whoa, Jessica, I hope you’re not throwing me another planning project. I do not have time for this shit. I have a lot to do!”
It’s true, getting your stuff under control takes a bit of time. It will feel like it’s taking you away from your projects, perhaps for longer than feels comfortable. But you’re not really getting your work done now, are you? Get your creativity-related anxiety under control and you’ll work more, and more efficiently…and (at least some of the time) on the things you choose to work on.
I’ve written about this before: procrastination is tied to anxiety. It causes anxiety, but it is also caused by anxiety. This anxiety stems from not having thought through the steps, the literal actions, that will get you to your goal. And in fact, you may not actually know what the steps are. That’s part of the problem with creative work. Sometimes the work consists of “think about this thing for a while.” And that’s super vague and unhelpful, not to mention something we’re amazingly bad at doing under the best of circumstances. (Note: our world of digital devices clamoring for attention 24-7-365 is definitely not the best of circumstances.)
If you did a brain download, you will have an frighteningly long list of things to do, many with deadlines, many of those deadlines pressing. Have you gotten traction on those things? No?
When confronted with a large, vague, and overwhelming creative project, we freeze.
I can tell you why, without even knowing what they are: you don’t know your next action.
This applies just as much to things on your list like “get a flu shot” as it does to things like “launch my podcast.”
Those are not actions. They are projects.
The project is the forest (sometimes it’s a very Dark Forest) and actions are the trees. Projects are things we want or need to get done that involve multiple steps. Even something as simple as “call Aunt Betty” can be a project if you don’t have her new phone number (“call mom to get Aunt Betty’s number”) or you don’t know when she gets back from vacation (“check email to see what Aunt Betty told me about her vacation.”).
A project like a novel, a podcast, a comic book, a blog…a startup software company? Oh man. There are so many actions hidden in there. There are actions inside actions.
OK, so, what do you do?
- Take your big, overwhelming creative project and break it down into action steps. (Easier said than done, I know. Help follows.)
- Put the steps into your system (the same one you created last time with the Brain Download exercise).
- Schedule the actions that lead to leaping (or even inching) your project forward.
- Create a tracking system for those actions and review it weekly.
Sounds simple. You might be tempted to skip it, or skimp it at least. Don’t. These simple four steps are actually unreasonably hard, but shockingly valuable when done right.
Granularity: break that overwhelming creative project down into steps
Start by breaking your project down into basic stages.
The phases probably look something like this (of course not all projects need these stages, and some will have different ones):
- Prep work
- Polish and presentation
For each of those stages, there are multiple action steps. Don’t worry, you don’t have to break them all down right now. In fact, don’t. All you’ll do is get overwhelmed. But in your system, create headers for each phase, so that as you have those random thoughts in the middle of the night, you have a pre-set place to capture them until you’re ready to consider them.
Next, create action steps within the first project phase
Start with just the first project phase, because if you keep going, you may get overwhelmed, or you may fall down the list-making procrastination rabbit-hole and never come back.
Creating action steps within that phase means pinning down concrete things that need to happen, actual tasks, things like “Read Wikipedia about giant redwoods, take notes.” These are things you can do, finish, and check off.
But it’s also about scheduling chunks of time for activities that are not as concrete, such as, “1 hour working on mind map for my new blog series.”
Because you’ve made that activity time-bound, you’re more likely to do it. You can put it on your calendar, you can check it off your list. If you’re not done in one hour, you can schedule a second session.
This is how drafting works. You’re going to be tempted to make what appear to be “action steps” like “draft chapter 3.” But, really, that’s not an action. That’s a project. There will be multiple steps inside that project. Here’s what an actual action plan for the project “draft chapter 3” might look like:
- Review outline chapter 3.
- Mindmap chapter 3.
- Write 500 words a day on chapter 3. Or, alternately: 1 hour a day on chapter 3.
This last item might repeat 2 times, or 5 times, or 20 times. I have no idea how long, complicated, or difficult chapter 3 is. But I guarantee that if you work on chapter 3 every day for a set amount of time (or every week for a set number of sessions, if you don’t have the time to do it daily), you will finish drafting chapter 3. It may not happen on your preferred schedule, but tell me the truth: is it happening at all, now? And that’s not your preferred schedule either, is it?
Now, pinpoint your next step, pull on your boots, and start walking.
You can find an expanded version of this article, as well as the accompanying activity, in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.
Take concrete steps to move forward with your work. Read the whole series: Are you letting thinking about your creative projects hold you back? Set One Goal and kickstart your creative work into gear. Identify all the Open Loops that are stopping you cold, and then break down your big project into Granular action steps. Finally, recognize that taking care of your creative process is the best kind of self care, and do a Review.