Ah, the long-term project.
Is there any more giddy feeling of ambition and self-confidence than when you decide to take on a huge, whopping, large-scale project? And could any sensation sink more than when you start to think how, exactly, you are going to go about it?
The good news is that long-term projects are often absolutely accomplishable! They’re going to take some pluck and planning, but you can do it. Below are three quick tips to help make long-term projects doable, and even bearable. We all got your back!
Make a plan
Start backwards. When is your long-term project due? If you’re doing it for external reasons (like for a client), you’re a lucky duck*; odds are they have a due date in mind. If this long-term project is self-propelled, like a novel, pick a date for yourself. Write it down, circle it in red, tell a friend - even if it seems scary.
After you’ve determined your final due date, work your way back. When do you want to finish the first draft? The second? When do you want to finish your preliminary research? Now is the time to set signposts between yourself and the finish line – this will serve not only to structure your time, but also to provide encouragement in the weeks or months ahead. It’s going to feel GOOD when you accomplish Goal #1 – and we’ll be chasing that high.
Be ambitious when creating deadlines, but not insane. If you were starting a diet, you wouldn’t aim to lose 10 pounds the first week; similarly, don’t aim to finish your book’s first draft within two days, unless you want to take up a serious caffeine pill habit.**
*It may not feel like this when said client is breathing down your ducky neck. But think of that moist, urgent breath as motivation!
**Don’t do this.
Like Bill Murray in WHAT ABOUT BOB, some of us get a weeeee bit overwhelmed at the prospect of big projects. Indeed, I sometimes get overwhelmed by the idea of going downstairs to the bodega to buy seltzer. And I’m not alone!
Again, take it from Bill Murray: baby steps.
Now that you’ve set your first loose outline, ignore it for a bit; shove it under a big pile of papers on your desk, put it in a drawer, lock it in a closet. It’s just an outline, it’s not set in concrete! It’s a helpful structuring tool, not the law. Now we are just going to focus on:
Particularly in long-term projects, if you focus too much on the end result, you are going to get frustrated – even paralyzed. You will get the intense urge to pitch your latest draft off a cliff and run away to become a caveperson. Cavepeople have perfectly stressless lives, right, except for the bat rabies?
We are going to thwart that almost irresistible urge by taking everything one baby step at a time. Focus on the process: doing each day’s work or reaching the next goal COMING UP, not the long-term result. For instance, when I’m staring down the barrel of a looooooong piece, I tend to procrastinate wildly and then clean my whole apartment and then spend a day wallowing in my self-pity. Ahem, I do actually do all of those things! But then I try to focus on short-term, concrete, action-oriented goals, like writing ten pages each day, 5 days a week for instance. I don’t always get to ten pages! But the effort alone moves me forward.
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Leave room for despair
Listen, there is going to be a day when you will wake up and think “I cannot do this, I cannot get this done, I have wasted all of my time and effort for nothing, this project is utter poop and everyone will soon know it.”
Guess what? The good news is that EVERYONE feels like that. I’m sure that Da Vinci, halfway through the Sistine Chapel, wanted to rework the whole thing into a nice, easy stencil pattern.
Instead of refusing to let yourself feel any misgivings – or worse, taking them as tokens of your doom – accept them as an almost-inevitable part of your process. Doubts are going to pop up, especially in a long-term project; it’s just a natural part of concentrating for a long time on any given subject. It doesn’t mean that your project is a failure! It’s just a sign that you’re moving forward; take despair in its stride, and keep on keepin’ on.
Virtues like patience and persistence are easier talked about than evinced – but by focusing on small steps and continuing to progress, you can absolutely finish that novel, or that large-scale painting, or heck, that skyscraper. Long-term projects require more of us, but little rivals that feeling when you step back, at the end of a long journey, and think: “Look at what I’ve done – and how far I’ve come!”
Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.