Don’t let your projects die: give ‘em space to thrive

Let’s say you want to grow a plant. You pick a big ol’ tropical plant, bordering on four feet tall…and then you plant it in a pot that’s six inches across, and expect it to grow well there.

Sound likely?

No, it doesn’t, does it? However, that’s how many people treat new ideas and projects – they start trying to grow them, without giving them any space first. When you want to create something new, you need to actively and intentionally create a space and a structure for it. In other words, you need to decide how, where, and when you’re going to work on this project. And here’s the key: you need to do this before you start working on it.

Where

Usually, deciding where this project will be worked on is easy enough – it’ll probably be the same space where you do the rest of your work. Make sure that that’s a good fit, though, as our workspaces have a huge impact on our actual work itself. One example from Making Ideas Happen, which you might remember from last week’s post, is that a study showed that smaller, more confined spaces helped people focus and get their work done, whereas wider, more open spaces with higher ceilings tended to be great for brainstorming. Interestingly, you can get roughly the same results by manipulating your perception of the space, even if the space itself isn’t changed any. Optical illusions, anyone?

Another good idea is to designate a specific space for keeping track of your progress on this project and collecting any notes or ideas you might have. Whether it’s a physical notebook or a notebook on Springpad, having a dedicated place to keep track of everything makes it much easier to re-find that brilliant idea you had or that note you took down when reading a relevant book.

When

Depending on how well you work within a schedule, you might do anything from setting aside a specific chunk of time to having a full day of the week to work on it.

One thing to consider is that creative work tends to be best when done in larger chunks of time (three hours or so). Think about it: if you take 15 minutes to get into a flow state working on a project, then you’ll only get 45 minutes of flow-state work done on that project if you’ve set aside an hour for it. And then, the next time you come back to it, it’ll take you another 15 minutes to get back into that state. To minimize the time cost of switching tasks, work in the largest possible amount of time you can. (While, of course, still scheduling in short breaks every 45-60 minutes to get something to drink or take a stretch.)

If you’re having trouble finding the time for this project, try tracking your time for a few days (RescueTime can help, if you want to get a really accurate view) and seeing if you have any large time leaks that you could eliminate to streamline things. You might also see if there’s any daily activities that need replaced. For example, consider your current routines – see if you’re wasting time on any unnecessary systems that were put in place for a reason, but have now lost their purpose. If you used to use the first hour of your day to plan the rest of your day, which was necessary two months ago, but now you’re only using 15 minutes of that hour to plan your day and the rest is going to puttering around in email, then you can use that time elsewhere.

Last but not least, make sure that the time you’re planning to work on this project is during your peak productivity times of the day.

How

Once you have the where and the when taken care of, the how of working on the project usually solves itself. After all, you know what your objectives are for this project, right? (Right?) If not, set aside some time to pick out your first and foremost objective with this project, and then your secondary objectives (usually 3-5) as well.

In The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry suggests phrasing these in questions – for example, when he and his team were developing an online collaboration tool for teams, they had questions like “What are the key functions teams need to collaborate on?” and “How can team members share inspiration for projects?” Using this technique gives you something to focus on immediately when starting the project, outlines your priorities, and makes it easier to start gaining momentum.

One roadblock that you might run into is focus and lack thereof. Without focus, you can’t get good work done, but finding and keeping your focus can be ever-more-difficult in this era of constant connection.

The easiest approach is a preventative one. If you keep the distractions from happening in the first place, you don’t have to worry about having the willpower to ignore them. If you must work in a browser window, use only one tab, or use an extension like Controlled Multi-Tab Browsing to keep your tab limit low. You can also use a browser extension to block distracting websites during certain hours (goodbye, Twitter!) – here’s one for Firefox, one for Chrome, and one for Safari. If you have writing work to do and don’t have to work in a browser, then OmmWriter is the program for you – zero distractions, zen backgrounds, what more could you want?

These digital structurings are meant to compliment physical preventions. Close your office door, have earplugs or headphones if you have noisy neighbors or people doing lawn work outside – you get the picture.

The process of laying out where, when, and how you’re going to work on your latest project might seem superficial or too simple, but it has a huge effect on the amount of work you’ll get done. Instead of having to figure out each day or week where you’ll fit it in, you’ve already consciously carved out a space for it in your life – which makes it a lot easier to work on, which makes it a lot likelier to get shipped.

Having trouble getting a handle on your latest project?

Most people approach a big project in one of two ways: they either tend to throw themselves repeatedly at the project as whole, exhausting themselves in the process and not making as much progress; or they break the project down into a massive to-do list and then stare at it, hyperventilating. But it doesn't have to be that way. This kit helps you break your big project down without overwhelming yourself, figure out what bits are the highest priority so you can start there, and delegate effectively with less busy work for everyone involved.