Why you should focus on ONE GOAL instead of spreading yourself thin between creative projects
In my article about Idea Debt, I told you to stop dreaming so much, and get doing. It’s important to finish what you start. But just for a minute, let’s dream together.
Imagine you figure out your schedule, and realize you have maybe eight hours a week for creative work outside your day job, if you’re careful. You have eight projects. So you put in one hour on each. Seems logical, right? But really: How deep are you gonna get? How far are you gonna be able to move that needle? Will you be able to finish what you start?
Now, imagine you spend eight hours over the course of a week on one project. You might get a whole chapter drafted in eight hours. Stranger things have happened. And if you’re spending chunks of time all week on the same thing, your brain is going to be working overtime on it. When you’re in the shower: brainstorm. When you’re in the car: things are clicking together. Have your notebook or voice notes app handy. You will have ideas. I guarantee it.
And if you follow this pattern for—depending on the project—between a month and a year or so: the thing is done. Actually done. You did it. Good lord. Imagine the party you’d throw to celebrate that.
What would it be like to have a big thing completed and in the world? What would that do for your self-esteem? How might it connect you to other people? What kinds of professional opportunities might come up as a result if you finish what you start?
…And if in this whole exercise, you were flitting between imagining one big thing on your list, and another bigger thing, and then how this third thing ties into your master plan, you got issues, babe. Because here’s the truth:
Too many projects = no projects.
Admittedly, I have the same issues. I know whereof I speak. I have a million things going on, and I feel harried and just busy all the time. It sucks. And worse: it’s not effective. Take Trish Trash, for example.
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars is my sci-fi graphic novel about a 15-year-old girl who wants to be the number-one derby star on Mars (because, of course, roller derby will be the #1 sport of the future. Natch.). The first volume of Trish will come out in the US in November, which is really exciting. But I started this book in 2007. Actually, it was Christmas of 2006. By the time the three parts of the story come out, it will have been cooking for 10 years.
Why has it taken me so long? Well, the pages take a long time to draw, yes, and writing the script is demanding. But the real reason is illustrated by today, right this moment: I’m writing this article on a day when I also plan to lay out 2 pages of volume 3 of Trish Trash. But if I were not writing this article, I could lay out at least 6. If I were not doing all the other projects on my docket, I’d lay out 12.
If I had been concentrating on only Trish Trash in 2007 and 2008, I’d have had it finished in 2009 at the outside.
And what would that have meant for me? I’d have a 200 page sci-fi book published, I’d have been building readership, possibly leading to opportunities to make derivative works (read: animation or film), certainly opening the door to sequels…and I also wouldn’t be drawing it now, when I’ve got other stuff I really want to be focusing on.
Focus on one goal at a time.
Sure, focus on one goal at a time.. Easy for me to say. But when your projects are your creative babies, when you’ve been carrying them all, in backpacks and in slings and on your shoulders and on your hip…sometimes for years on end, how do you make the decision?
Sometimes, you decide based on what will gain you small wins. If I sit here and get all the way through this draft right now, then I will have the satisfaction of getting this post out on time, and that will clear the decks to make it easier to concentrate on Trish Trash later in the week.
Sometimes, you make the decision around money. Even if I’d realized all this stuff back in 2007 (I didn’t. I’m slow that way.) I could not actually have concentrated on Trish Trash in 2007-8 because I was already in the midst of writing Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and then Mastering Comics, my two textbooks on comics. And I was doing that because I got decent advances and had to pay my bills. TT would not pay my bills until I signed a contract, and that wouldn’t happen until 2008. Decision made.
Sometimes, the decision is about developing something that feeds your future self, something that will take a huge time and energy investment, but that you know you’ll be proud of in the future, and it will create new opportunities for you. It will build a new road into the future.
That’s why in 2011, I took on Out on the Wire while still inching forward on TT. It added three more years to the timeline, but it was completely worth it to engage so deeply with great radio and podcast producers and to create a statement about building narrative that can form the heart of a new conversation with readers and other professionals.
It was worth it to me, but it came at a price. Trish Trash was a current, exciting project for me in the past. Today? I still love this book, but I finished it emotionally, mentally, three years ago.
Is that a price you’d be willing to pay?
Finish what you start.
Telling yourself that you’ll just do a bit on this thing and a bit on that, that you’ll fit it in, is a recipe for ending up with nothing finished. When you don’t finish, you end up feeling like you’re not working hard enough, so then you hate yourself a little bit, or maybe a lot. You blame yourself, and you say, I just need to work a little harder. But there is no bottom to this syndrome. There is no point at which you find enough time to do all the things, all at once.
Choose one thing and go all in.
Choose one thing and it’ll set you free.
You can move forward, and actually finish what you start … if you focus on ONE goal at a time, and march inexorably towards it.
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.
So true — I suffer from the “90% Problem” … I’ve always operated on the roulette wheel principle you describe so well, dabbling a little each day on a succession of projects, guided by day-to-day inspiration, turning my attention to whatever beckons loudest — balancing unbidden conceptual breakthroughs (the most fun and alluring) with financial necessities (often drudgery) … Consequently I’ve got baskets of projects, in all media, going back decades (!) that are all 90% complete, and just need me to provide one missing element to push it over the finish line… And trust me, I’m not (as some have suggested) “afraid of success” — I just need to stop building lists of more intricate projects and start ticking off the ones that need to get out the door already, even if they’re not quite yet perfect, so I can get on to the next… With each passing year, we become increasingly aware of not only day-to-day time constraints (9-to-5 jobs, raising kids, etc.) but that, best case scenario, we’ve got at most 18,000 days to get it all done — total! counting weekends and holidays! — and a third of that time is spent asleep, which brings it down to 12,000 days… Not to be morbid, but once you’re middle age, half those days are already behind you, and they seem to fly by faster… OK, I’m convinced — time to stop wasting time!… (To quote the title of my 1990s song that’s 90% recorded.) … Back to work…
Great points. Someone once told me there is no such thing as “priorities.” Priority is singular, we must focus on a single creative project at a time. However, there is also something to be said for follow through, and Trish Trash is your baby. When she sees light of day, I know you will do right by her. I look forward to the November release.
Hey! I came across your Idea Debt post through a friend sharing on Facebook. I’m newly independent as a writer and editor, and I love writing for businesses and blogs, but I’d like to maintain creative writing for myself as well. So first thing I did was find people to email me advice and daily encouragement. But I’ve matured a bit, so I’ve been weeding out my email influences. When I came across your blog I decided this would be a good encouragement to create influence.
I was talking with a BFF who is going through some drastic changes in her life. She told me she felt overwhelmed. Of course I offered to watch her kids, etc. But your blog focused me on gaining control. She’d struggled with one project, and I could tell it weighed on her, so I recommended she intentionally put it to the side instead of avoiding it. The next day you sent your One Goal sheet, and I confidently forwarded it to her.
I think, in addition to time management skills, your One Goal sheet gives us back control. We are no longer slaves to our work, ideas, passions, projects. And we don’t have to feel guilty for putting some things off. It’s just not time to focus on that right now.
Anyway, thanks. And congratulations on such a successful post!
The one goal project is definitely a difficult one for me. I do complete things and have lots of energy. However, having too many projects prevents me from becoming amazing in one area.
I’m going through my list and I’m not sure how to realistically select one project because of existing commitments. One thought was to select what I would like my one project to be once the commitments are taken care of, then blast through the work for commitments. I $work part-time so I could treat these as a job.
Jessica….coming across your writing at ‘the perfect moment’!
I have recently come to this exact thought about narrowing creative focus and so want to both thank and salute you for so clearly articulating the reality of how one can so easily scatter creative energies that we end up fragmented and completing zip!
I complete a job with 200+ kids a week soon and as such, plan to essentially go on ‘retreat’ to re-structure both time & space to support ‘the’ one creative project I have now on the proverbial plate.
Many thanks for posting your pearls of wisdom here!!! Carolyn
That’s a very interesting post. I have suffered from idea debt. I think it’s not just the fact that you invest so much time into it – it’s also that you’re alone in any creative endeavour, and this is scary. The reason you entered the creative game is because you have a killer taste. And maybe your own production is not on par with your taste, so you struggle a lot.
Eventually, if you keep going, you might reach that tipping point where what you do is tasteful even for your own standard.
But then, do you know what happens? That you suffer from confirmation bias. And you NEED confirmation from peers first – and you might get it, but you don’t really trust them. So – as a writer – what you do is, let’s send this manuscript – which costed me 150 hours of sleepless nights and early mornings – to agents around the world.
And, because you know you’ve done something on par with your taste, on par with the market, you wait hopeful.
But it’s a crash and burn game. Because the market – as it is today – it’s broken.
The new generation of agents is a normal, white-collar job. They need to sell things to publishers that will then sell things to people. It’s a hard game, and they want safe bets. This goes completely against the logos of art itself – exploring and innovating. It’s very sad.
Self-publishing is an interesting space to watch – even if at the moment is full of crap!