Help me help myself get down to work
February 21, 2012 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Strategies for getting things done, especially when those things are deeply important, pretty scary, and you have no idea how to start.

I'm suffering from imposter syndrome/procrastination paralysis or something. I have a creative project I'd really like to get off the ground, but I'm plagued by self-doubt and have therefore been putting it off. When I do finally get down to work I last maybe 20 minutes before bouncing away to do something, anything else.

Tell me your tips and tricks for tackling big, frightening projects. I'd especially like to hear from parents of young children (mine are 5 months and 3 years). When there's ALWAYS something else that needs your attention, it's very easy to avoid the big task.
posted by lizifer to Work & Money (19 answers total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
When I was young and foolish, I'd dive into any random project, heedless of how hard it might turn out to be. When I was older and fancied myself less foolish, I hesitated to dive in, because I wanted to finesse it and get the biggest bang for the least investment of buck.

When I was young and foolish, I was surprisingly productive. There's something to be said for finesse, but there's more to be said for done.

Do it, and take the doubt as a signal to pause and ask, "What am I doing wrong just now?" not "What are the latest posts on MeFi?" If you don't know the answer, then you're simply not wise enough yet; keep going. Done beats Metafilter every time (no offense to mathowie)
posted by spacewrench at 7:41 PM on February 21, 2012 [11 favorites]

You'll get lots of good productivity tips here, but I just want to also put out there that if you have to force yourself to do a creative thing, then you might just not be that into it. I used to try to forge ahead with projects anyway, but I've since realized that getting bored with something can be a healthy signal to move on to the next (bigger, greater, more enthralling) thing.
posted by ella wren at 7:46 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you describe your creative project in one grounded sentence? Good example: "I will choreograph an interpretative dance about a day in the life of parents who have a 5 month old and 3 year old." Bad example: "I will create an interpretative dance for the ages." Now, within that context, can you describe what your project isn't? Good example: "This project does not include staging, costumes, or funding of the dance." Bad example: Anything that has nothing to do with the interpretative dance.

Then break it into manageable tasks. This will of course depend on your project, but don't make them too granular or ambitious. Using the silly example, step one could be create an outline; step two, character summaries; etc.

I actually think it's good that you only have 15-20 minutes to work on it before getting interrupted. Having a small amount of time can let you work in short concentrated bursts instead of milling about while looking at MetaFilter, kitten YouTube videos, etc. Set a timer and, even if you have more to do, stop when your time is up. That will keep you motivated to work on it the next time.
posted by sfkiddo at 7:51 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can't seem to make myself do much of anything without setting a timer. Even just 15 minutes of working on something a day can really help. Once you get enough done, the momentum can push you along.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:54 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I just noticed the language in your question: "Strategies for getting things done, especially when those things are deeply important, pretty scary..." (emphasis mine) Why are you describing the project in this way? Do you really want to do it or do you think you should (for family, money, etc.)? Seems like you'd be excited/enthusiastic about the creative project if you really wanted to do it just for the sake of doing it.
posted by sfkiddo at 8:08 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would suggest reading the book "Getting Things Done", which can help you to manage the tasks to make it seem less daunting. As for actually doing it, you should schedule time to work on your project, and when you are working on it, turn off your phone and other things for that hour or however long you are there. Set a timer, so you don't have to think about how much time is left, you know that you will just work on it until you hear the ding, and if you feel like continuing, you'll keep going.

What you need to do is to train your brain that when it feels like it needs to do something different and gets distracted, you are going to in fact keep working, so it might as well just keep concentrating for that hour until you are finished.
posted by markblasco at 8:09 PM on February 21, 2012

Seems like you'd be excited/enthusiastic about the creative project if you really wanted to do it just for the sake of doing it.

It's possible to be excited about the project AND terrified you're going to fuck it up at the same time.

Sometimes what I've done is....start in the middle. Say my project is a play (in my case, that's what it was). Both of the plays i've written, the very first thing I wrote was...a scene somewhere in the middle. Something I had a really strong bead on. I didn't have to worry about setting anything up, clarifying anything -- in some weird way, I guess I figured that if beginning my project was giving me trouble, I'd just skip the beginning.

Then when that bit was already there, then I'd jump around, writing bits here and there to fill in the details more -- if I finally figured out how to begin the thing, I'd write it -- and then go back again and again and fill in more and more until hey, look, I was done. But everything I've written, I skipped the start and started somewhere in the middle.

Try that -- try some step that you'd usually think you have to wait until the middle of the process to do. Once that exists, that kind of shifts your focus to something outside yourself that exists, and it can help you get over the hump of "but how do I start this".

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:15 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Dude(ette?) I am in the same boat as you. I can see you. That is me waving at you. For a couple of years I have been flirting with this project and I will do everything but work on it, even if I set aside time. For me, the problem is that I am afraid that it will suck compared to the vision I have of it in my head.

I have, in the past couple of months, made some headway though. First, I lowered my expectations to something more reasonable and more inline with my skill set. Since it's a creative project that I am not going to be depending on for any kind of financial gain or fame or fortune or anything like that it makes it easier for me to be realistic about what I can really do. That was step one.

Step two was once and for all deciding what tools I needed to do the work. Too many times I would be ready to get down to brass tacks and I would convince myself that I didn't have the right doo dad or the right wattage light bulb or the right flavor coffee or the right ply toilet paper or whatthefuckever I got in my head that I just had to have to get this show on the road. I have two sets of working stuffs: a permanent one and a smaller portable so I can work if I end up sitting in a doctors office for 20 minutes or on the train, etc.

Step three was to set realistic goals and write them down on a piece of paper and frame it on my wall where I look at it every day. I tried every godforsaken todolist management trick I had ever heard of. A lot of my work time was spent trying to figure which to use. I tried to "get things done." I "remembered the milk." Wunderkit, Lifetick, todoist, you name it, I have an app for it on my fucking droid. Its over flowing with to do apps. I ended up writing it down old school on a piece of paper and put it on the wall.

Step four was the easiest for me but will probably be harder for you because of the kiddos. Finding the time. For me that time was the morning. Early, after my coffee. This used to be my reading time. That may be harder with an infant, but if you can find a pocket of time when 5 days out of seven your baby is asleep, use that time. If it's a project that can be done in small units of time it will be easier for you (obviously).

Step Five was the hardest for me. Telling someone else about my project. I chose someone whose opinion I trusted and who would kind of be a task master of sorts. They will send me an email and ask me how its coming or call at night to make sure I worked on it today. That has been the biggest motivator some days, my accountability buddy.

So I have made more progress in two months than in the past three years doing those 5 things.

Good luck to you! Hope someone here has answers that help.
posted by holdkris99 at 8:31 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Try not to build up the project too much in your mind before you do it. Or the reality will never (or rarely) match your high expectations. And make sure to figure out the pleasurable parts of the creative process: Once the mere act of creation is satisfying, you'll be inclined to do it more often.

Another technique: Arrange a public showing. Even if you don't have it done. The threat of embarrassment will get you off your ass and a tight timeline will keep you laser focused on what's important.

Anyway: My two cents.
posted by chasing at 11:12 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actually think it's good that you only have 15-20 minutes to work on it

This has helped me with things that I want to do but never seem to actually sit down and do. Choose ten minutes and work on it for ten minutes then stop. Set a timer. After that ten minutes are up, it's time to go make dinner / read blogs / rake the yard / whatever procrastinaty thing you would have been doing otherwise. Or maybe ten minutes of some other project. Repeat every day or two.

It's easier to start, because it's less daunting— really, how much are you really going to do in ten minutes? (Sometimes quite a lot.) And when you stop, the last thing in your mind isn't indecision and avoidance, it's "hey I'm doing cool shit here! now I have to stop?". And eventually, when you do sit down for a longer time, you'll have gotten a lot of the pace-breaking details straightened out already (from working on them, or just having encountered them and thought them through during idle moments).
posted by hattifattener at 11:47 PM on February 21, 2012

When I have a creative project and I've got what is essentially writer's block, it is a signal that the project I have just isn't important enough to me.

Something is fundamentally wrong with it. If it's writing, it might be the characters or the entire premise. In my earlier years I just tried to "tough it out" and work through cruddy feelings, but now that I'm older I just use my interest in the project to pull me through.

Heck, we could all give ourselves a kick in the pants, but sometimes there is a part of you that knows better, and is trying to tell you to either go in a different direction or change something about the project before you move forwards. I would recommend respecting that part of you, taking a break and doing something fun and enjoyable in the mean time. You may find that you have a whole new perspective on your project when you return to it, or suddenly be struck by a different approach to your goal that will feel more natural, sensible, and fun.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:51 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

What you need is a kind of internal aikido.

Aikido is an interesting martial art, because it's all about co-operating with the opponent in order to bring the opponent undone. In aikido, you don't knock him down; you work from the premise that your opponent's body just naturally wants to be down, and you help him down.

Perform an internal reframing of how you perceive your own procrastination: realize that the task you keep on putting off is in fact not the most important thing to you right now; the act of continuing to do whatever you're doing right now is demonstrably more important. We procrastinators really like our flow states. We fall into them readily, and we don't like jumping out of them.

Now you could beat yourself up about that and try to change it the karate way, striking firm blows with things like GTD and kitchen timers and whatnot. Or you could tackle it the aikido way using Structured Procrastination, which follows from the observation that the avoidance of task X is all the motivation a procrastinator needs in order to knock over tasks Y, Z, A, B, C, D, E and F.

Over the years I have frequently been amazed at finding myself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to attend to something truly important because I was putting something else off. And I'm getting much better at finding plausibly important but actually worthless things to be the Thing Put Off. Just don't tell me that's what I'm doing, and I'll be fine.
posted by flabdablet at 2:01 AM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Get these two books by Steven Pressfield (audio versions are available if, like me, you prefer to listen):

Do The Work

The War of Art

This man understands procrastination, excuses, and every kind of obstacle, real or imagined, that might be standing in the way of a creative project.
posted by seriousmoonlight at 2:41 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a former parent of a young child:

Get the timer that you plan to use, and make it big, obvious, and cute. Then set it in front of your three year old and tell her that she gets your undivided attention for five minutes after it goes off, or you will sing her a song, or something.

I guarantee she will enforce your time limits way better than you will.

Then, also, your brain may start to think of it as "something cool I want to do but I keep getting interrupted by the kids!" Which is how most of your fun activities seem at that age, sometimes.

You can increase the length of the timer without needing to change this.
posted by corb at 4:25 AM on February 22, 2012

I would like to push back a bit against the suggestion that if you don't feel good about the project it might be the wrong project. Speaking personally, I'd never get anything done if I thought that way. Steven Pressfield is too melodramatic for my tastes — turning my projects into "Art", on which I must wage "War", just makes them scarier — but I think he's right that your negative feelings are just as likely to be evidence that it's the right project.

Anyway it doesn't matter, because you don't need to wait until you feel good about the project in order to do it. That's an additional, unnecessary belief. I found this realization totally liberating, and I think a lot of "motivational" techniques actually make things worse by surreptitiously reinforcing this assumption.

Just set a timer for five minutes longer than you usually manage to stay at the project, and on the first day or two make it your goal merely not to get up and bounce off to something else, despite the emotional discomfort. Don't try and feel good about it, just try not to run away. The worst case scenario isn't exposure to all your friends and family as a fraud — it's just wasting 25 minutes, and even as a busy parent I bet you occasionally do waste 25 minutes anyway. So this is no worse than that and it might be much better. I try to remind myself that the outcome is none of my business.

Also read Bird by Bird.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:19 AM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, you guys and the wisdom and the common sense and the speaking my language... ahhhh. Thank you.

Now if you can get me to stop googling former colleagues who have not had kids and have moved on to enormous fame and fortune, that would be gravy. (Yes, yes, my precious little people are fame and fortune of a different variety, but they don't come with an Academy Awards gift suite, amirite?)
posted by lizifer at 5:33 AM on February 22, 2012

Now if you can get me to stop googling former colleagues who have not had kids and have moved on to enormous fame and fortune, that would be gravy.

Ah -- for THAT, you want one of the essays from Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird. It's writing, yes, but she also has a chapter that deals with "being jealous of your colleagues when they do better than you temporarily" which you can apply to anything. There's advice, but it comes across as....commiseration, in a way.

It's not so much a tone of "I conquered this tendency in myself and here's how you can do it too," because - seriously, NO ONE gets past that. Her tone is more "oh, GOD doesn't it suck when they get that way? And don't you HATE IT? And don't you hate how crazy it makes YOU -- oh, get this, here's how I reacted myself last week, isn't that CRAZY? God, I'm NUTS, right?...Yeah, we all get that way, can't be helped....oh, but I found out THIS helped me a little, so at least I'm not THAT bad. Or at least no one found OUT how neurotic I was acting....I mean, I ate a whole pint of Ben and Jerry's after, of course, but at least I maintained long enough, you know?"

Because you will never conquer the feelings of jealousy. All you can do is MANAGE them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:22 AM on February 22, 2012

You may find the pomodoro technique interesting:
posted by chill at 11:53 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Last night I didn't want to edit a damn thing. So I went in with a firm goal of one page. Instead, I ended up finishing the chapter. Tonight's goal: one page. As a procrastinator, it's a lot easier for me to get moving for one page than 300 pages.

When I'm drafting non-fiction articles, it's the Pomodoro technique of 15 minutes on, then 15 minutes out of the room. The reset helps me realize I don't have to labor at a single project for 30 hours at once, just 15 minutes right now. Since you're already hitting your first 20 minutes, you might want to try setting a reminder to go back to project for the next 20 minutes.

I also have a recurring to do list set up in Remember the Milk for my weekly creative project. If I blow a deadline this week, then I'm allowed to make two entries for the following week.

When my kid & I were younger, we both did our projects in the living room, especially after dinner. I learned to tune out the TV.
posted by dragonplayer at 3:25 PM on February 22, 2012

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