Listen to this lesson:
Believe it or not: The key to staying focused on your goal and actually finishing your project isn’t all-nighters. It’s not grit. It’s not “just suck it up and do it.”
The key to making progress (all the way to the finish line) is small, repeatable actions, not crazy scrambles and “hustle.”
Obviously, we talked about this way back in the Creative Compass Challenge Day 2, when we discussed creative habits. And a habit is a necessary structure for regular progress!
But on any given day, what, exactly, will you DO? What are the specific tasks that you’ll accomplish in that lovely window of habit-stacked time?
Staying focused on your goal means knowing your next steps
When you focus on your end goal (or milestone in a larger goal), you may immediately feel stuck and overwhelmed.
The only way to stay focused on your next step is to have clarity on what it actually is.
The trick is: You need to know where you’re headed, and also, most of the time, completely ignore that end goal and simply focus on the next steps you need to take.
You know what the end result of your project is supposed to be. It could be a podcast episode, a comic book, a novel, a costume—you have an idea of what comes after the hard work.
The nebulous mass of hard work.
The problem is, do you know the first step to take? The only way to confidently keep your focus on your next step is to actually identify what your next step is.
OK, but how?
Projects vs. Tasks
To develop a clear path to your goal, you need to identify specific actions that you’ll take. The tricky bit is: you may think you already did this when you wrote “finish draft” on your to-do list.
But what do you literally need to DO?
If you don’t identify a concrete next action, when you sit down to get started, anxiety crawls up your spine. Before you know it, you’re on Instagram, or folding clothes! WHY is it so hard to “finish draft ”?
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 tasks. They are projects.
The project is the forest and tasks are the trees.
Projects are things we want or need to get done that involve multiple steps
Even something as simple as a phone call—“call Aunt Betty”—can turn out to be a project with a series of hidden steps if you don’t have her new phone number or you don’t know when she gets back from vacation, which adds “call mom to get Aunt Betty’s number” or “check email to see what Aunt Betty told me about her vacation” to your list.
If you’ve been not-calling Aunt Betty, these hidden actions may hold the secret to why.
On the other hand, Aunt Betty might be really annoying. Also a dilemma!
I’m not trying to overcomplicate or add anxiety to ordinary life stuff. I just want to put it into sharp relief that if even those projects that seem small in scope turn out to involve more steps than you’re conscious of, it’s no wonder that big, ambitious projects are so challenging to finish.
Define a “task” to gain clarity on your next steps
There are two types of tasks:
- Measurable tasks. These are what we imagine when we think “to do.” Measurable tasks are concrete actions that will result in some specific outcome in a more-or-less definable time period. The are finite tasks like “Read Wikipedia about giant redwoods, and take notes.”
- Time-bound tasks (quotas). For more open-ended activities that are unknown in duration (and possibly not totally clear in outcome), schedule chunks of time to lend structure to them. (As in: “Spend one 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, do it for the allotted amount of time, and then check it off your list. If you’re not done in one hour, you can schedule a second session. But making the task time-bound also allows you to stop and move on to new things after that hour is up. You won’t feel trapped by the task or fall into self-blame for not finishing. This is what I call a Quota task.
Time-bound tasks: Quotas
Quota tasks are perhaps the key concept to master when your goal is to build sustainability into your creative life. And who doesn’t want that?
Quotas, by their nature, take the focus off the end goal, and put it squarely where it belongs, on being present with your work and moving it forward as part of the way you live your daily life.
This is how you weave your work into your days, rather than working with a feast-or-famine approach.
On the practical side, when you’re dealing with open-ended creative work, like creating a draft, you may not have any idea of what kind of timeline is realistic, especially if you’re relatively new to this kind of work.
This is just how drafting works. You’re going to be tempted to set what appear to be “tasks” like “write chapter 3.”
But that’s not a task. That’s a project, with multiple steps inside of it. Here’s what an actual action plan for the project “write chapter 3.” might look like:
- Review outline of Chapter 3.
- Mind-map Chapter 3. (A mind map is a visual way to think through and break down the elements that feed into an idea. You start with a central idea, then create branches for components that feed into that idea, then sub-branches for elements that go into those components.)
- Write for one hour a day on a first draft of Chapter 3
This last bulleted item, the quota task, might be a task you repeat twice, five times, or even 20 times—however long it takes to complete the draft.
That depends on how long, complicated, or difficult chapter 3 is, and you may not know that until you’re finished. But I guarantee that if you work on it steadily for a number of quota sessions, you will finish drafting chapter 3.
A final note about quota tasks: In teaching many cohorts of the Creative Focus Workshop, I’ve noticed that students who are hardest on themselves, the toughest taskmasters, may benefit most from using time-based quota tasks almost exclusively in the drafting phase of their work.
If you make yourself miserable over missed self-imposed deadlines, try it.
Decode mysterious next steps with Questions To Answer, or QTAs
If you’re struggling to break down a piece of your project into doable tasks, consider using QTAs. Generating QTAs is a positive and productive way to dig into what you need to learn or piece together to make your project a go.
The best way to use QTAs is often by starting at the end, and working backwards. Why? Because, as I pointed out above, you know what the end looks like, for the most part.
It’s the beginning that’s a mystery.
When you’re using QTAs, try to focus on questions that will have clear answers in action when you get there.
More existential questions like “Does my project need a deep message?” or big “how” questions like, “How can I apply this idea further in my work?” are likely to lead to just a big, scary, “I have no idea!!”
Instead, try “what” questions, like this:
“What do I mean by ‘applied?’ In what context? What would it look like if this could be applied? What are other cases that are parallel? What are the features of the case I used that make it useful for this argument?
“What do I mean by a ‘deep message’? Are there examples of this in other work I can find? Are there examples of work I like that don’t have a deep message? What would it look like to have or not have a deep message? What made me think that? Is it a gut feeling or evidence? What does the evidence point to? What is the gut feeling attached to?”
The idea of QTAs is not to necessarily find definitive answers (though that’s nice when you get them!) but to pull apart the threads making up your stuck place or dilemma and identify paths forward and smaller, more manageable problems to solve.
The process gives you a bit of distance and an analytical mindset that can get you out of frustration and into problem-solving mode.
Again, you don’t necessarily need answers! Imperfect action and learning from what happens is a big part of keeping things moving. But you’re more likely to pinpoint what do try with QTAs.
How to stay focused on your goal: identify your next steps and build a project path
Step 1 : Identify the stages of your project
- Think through what stages your project contains. Typical stages include:
- Prep work
- Polish and presentation
- Marketing and selling
- Create a page in a notebook or note-taking app for each of your project stages, so that as you have those random thoughts in the middle of the night, you have a preset place to capture them until you’re ready to consider them.
- Label each page with the project stage.
Step 2: Break one stage down to tasks
Break down just the first (or next available) phase of your project into a task list on the page you’ve set aside for that stage (or in a task-management app).
If you run into unknowns, use QTAs to see if you can identify what you need to do.
Step 3: Pre-decide what you’ll work on next, and when
Pick the next task, the one that needs to be done in order to unlock your ability to do the ones that follow, and put it on your calendar. If it’s a longer, open-ended task, like drafting something, assign it a chunk of time to chip away at it. (This is a quota task.)
Since you’re building a habit for this type of work, slot your next step into your habit-stack time-slot.