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.


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 fromΒ Making Ideas Happen, which you might remember from last week’s post,Β 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.


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,Β 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.


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.


  1. Making time & space for working on projects is soooo important! This whole last year I’ve been trying to work on projects in a crowded, messy space & it has not worked very well. It’s frustrating because at least 80% of the mess is caused by someone else & I was taught that you’re supposed to clean up after yourself, so I feel like I shouldn’t have to clean up someone else’s mess. But I’ve realized it’s going to be necessary. If I want to get things accomplished so that I can get out of this small space, I need to accept the reality of the situation. The mess is only going away if I make that happen. I need to clean up, put away, reorganize & transform this place into a place I can work in. And I’m going to need to work at keeping it that way.

    This may not be a fun project (who likes cleaning up someone else’s mess & trash?), but it’s worth it. I will be making space for fun projects. I will be making space for my creativity & making this space more inspiring for me. I’ll be happier & get a lot more done & my life will grow more & more awesome every day!

    Perfect timing with this post Michelle! Thank you!


    • No problem, CC! I’m glad you liked it, and glad I could help. Good luck in your cleaning + space-making endeavors. πŸ™‚


  2. Everything is so new with me and my business! I appreciate posts like this that get me thinking about how to structure my time and space working at home.


  3. I think your posts are having an influence on me. πŸ™‚ Recently I repainted and completely rearranged my office. A lot of my creative projects are handmade and happen offline, yet I didn’t have a workspace to accomodate those projects. I repurposed our old kitchen table as a project table and picked up a desk for my computer and online work (no clutter around my computer!). I also put up some party lights and organized my art supplies so they would be easy to get to. My “office” is now more of a studio that I love walking into every morning!


    • Oh ho ho, I don’t think I’ve ever been a good influence on someone before πŸ˜‰ I’m so glad to hear your office feels better to you now! May you have many happy hours in it πŸ˜€


  4. I’m especially stoked about the chrome extension that blocks social networking for periods of time. My biggest distracting time-suck is Facebook.


    • I feel you, except I usually get sucked into Twitter for huge chunks of time. Good luck using the extension – I hope it helps you out!


  5. Great insights! Personally, I have trouble with the bigger projects (like growing my business) rather than the smaller ones (like products or artwork or essays). The problem seems to be that I don’t know what kind of plant I’ve got, so I can’t figure out what size container it wants. Thoughts on that?


    • Whoops – I set this comment aside intending to come back to it because it was such a good question and then I forgot. D’oh.

      So, apologies for lateness aside…

      When you’re working on a bigger, ongoing project, I find that the best way to deal with it is by getting really clear and specific what your *current* goals are. If you’ve got something so big you don’t even know what kind of plant it is, you need to break it down until you do. So, you’d say “I want to have an email list of x people and have x regular clients in three months.” and then set about making that happening/making room for that. And then when you meet that goal, figure out what your next goal is.

      Does that help? I might have misunderstood the question, and if so, I’d be happy to answer again! & thank you for commenting πŸ™‚


      • I definitely see what you’re saying! And that does help with part of it.

        I think the bigger part of what’s got me stuck in the project of growing my business, though, is that I’m getting really tired of focusing just on numbers (email, newletter, money) and want to focus more on the service aspect of the project. I know how to grow and make room for numbers, but when it comes to the more nebulous concepts like helping and community. I don’t know what kind of planet that is; I don’t know how best to offer my help to make the biz grow. Asking people doesn’t often work because what folks consciously would like is different than what they need or would respond to. It’s almost like I can feel the shape of the plant but can’t see it – missing vital information.

        Not sure if that’s more clear or just more confusing. It’s hard for me to put into words, but I tried!


  6. This is all so true. When I’m working on something I’m usually simultaneously watching tv and playing on the internet. I say that I work better that way but I think that’s a lie, lol.

    I have OmmWriter and I think tonight I am going to use it for an hour or two and see if I can get something really accomplished. Thank you for the reminder that focus is actually a good thing!


  7. “…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.”

    ^ Wow! This makes total sense to me!

    Also, I’ve found that a slow, steady pace on a treadmill or elliptical helps me to brainstorm or sort out big abstract ideas. Perhaps that tiny bit of attention I’m paying to walking takes the edge off of my judgy, analytical self…


    • That bit about the treadmill or elliptical makes perfect sense – I’ve heard a lot of people say that they get their best ideas when out walking, too. I think it’s partially that your judgy, analytical self is distracted, and partially that you’re doing something sort of on autopilot which lets the rest of your mind wander around and play with things.

      Thanks for commenting Stephanie – glad you liked the post! πŸ™‚


  8. Pingback: Body Loving Blogosphere 10.23.11 | Medicinal Marzipan

  9. This is a great post, and I especially appreciate the resources – I could definitely do with using a browser extension! I’m really looking forward to applying what you’re talking about, as I’ve found that working on a project in dribs and drabs tends to take over my whole day and make me feel like I’m never truly relaxing. Thanks Michelle!


    • Thank you Marla! I’m glad you liked the post πŸ™‚ I feel the exact same way about working in dribs and drabs – it takes over your whole day and you end up fitting your day around your work instead of the other way ’round. No bueno!


  10. Pingback: The Three Reasons You Can’t Stick to Your Plans

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.