Build your own life structure
March 1, 2010 2:38 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn how to structure long-term, personal projects that have no externally set time limitations.

Class time, work time, and meeting times that are pre-scheduled for me, I can deal with alright. Assignments that carry a hard deadline I can also handle.

My problem is with more nebulous projects, often ones that I'm pursuing in my 'spare time' for my own interests. I never end up spending any time on these projects or making any progress on them because they're non-urgent and thus easy to delay another day.

I like the idea of breaking things down into tiny, discrete steps and then making carefully planned out timelines but I have trouble estimating the time it takes me to noodle around, get started working, and then actually complete a portion of work. Often I have trouble even defining my goals concretely.

Procrastination probably plays a role here, but I think strong, consistent skills in structuring my time and goals would go a long way. How do you realistically plan out these types of low-urgency, vaguely defined (wrt time) projects?
posted by mossicle to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on what motivates you, you could try blogging your process-- even finding out how much time things take becomes a task in itself, if you use your blog as a log of your progress.

Figuring out how to present what you're working on to a (even theoretical!) audience will give you a structure by breaking your project up into posts, and if you could commit yourself to posting schedule that would give you a deadline. And it's a rare hobby that doesn't have a fervent blogging community out there that you can connect with to chat about what you're doing!
posted by Erasmouse at 4:33 AM on March 1, 2010

I can't solve your problem because I have this same issue. I can tell you what I do though:

Logging progress. Sometimes this is in a private notebook sometimes it's on my blog. This serves two functions, I've found. One is to get me excited about working on the project again. The other is to put some pressure on me, as though there really were a deadline and hordes of people were clamoring to read it. (Completely fictional, obvs.)

Just Do Something. A lot of times I think I'm stuck on a problem but I'm not actually working on it. When I actually do stand up and walk down to the workshop and put my hands on things, I find that the "problem" usually evaporates. "Oh, I'll just nail this HERE and then put that THERE and done." It's a version of the blank page syndrome for authors. Just start writing/doing *something* and the next step will present itself to you.

I try to have a defined time that I'm going work on it. OK, right after dinner I'm going down there and I'm not coming up for at least 30 minutes.

I haven't tried this one, but I'm sure it would work for me and the type of project(s) I'm doing: Work with some friends. Having to "hold up your end" of the project is similar to the "people are waiting to hear an update from me on this" above.
posted by DU at 5:48 AM on March 1, 2010

Maybe I am projecting, but it sounds like you don't know how to get started and hope that by writing it down, you'll gain a better idea of how to get from point A to B. I'm not sure if this is the best way to accomplish that.

If you have no proscribed endpoint, creating elaborate time lines that will need to be endlessly revised is a distraction rather than an asset. Instead, do as DU suggests and create a routine activity, complete with a time frame (30 minutes, 1 hour, until bedtime, etc.)

If we better understand what kinds of nebulous projects you are planning, then maybe better suggestions on how to get started can be provided.
posted by gagoumot at 6:41 AM on March 1, 2010

Oh yeah and I tried making a timeline once. That was a disaster. Once you stray off it, it's easier and easier to not work on the project out of despair. And in my case, since I was working on an exploratory type project, it was very easy to stray off. You get to a certain point, realize this subtree of your search isn't going to work and have to jump to another subtree but now you are "behind"...
posted by DU at 6:52 AM on March 1, 2010

This may sound obsessive, but I schedule EVERYTHING on a google calendar. I am a freelancer who works from home, and I'm also a crafty-type person with a million projects at once, so I schedule, say, three hours for work, and maybe an hour after dinner to knit. An hour on Sundays to write letters. Time every morning to journal.

Certain projects have their own days of the week. Knitting is Sundays and Wednesdays, and I usually do it while watching a movie. Sewing or clothing mends are Thursday night. Workouts are scheduled. Social events are scheduled, and my tasks are moved to accommodate them. I even schedule some leeway time in case an event runs longer than it should. But every night I plan out my next day and I stick to it, and it's the only way anything gets done.
posted by Brittanie at 7:23 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been musing about this all morning.. reading over the other answers, clearly it's important to tailor a system that works for you personally. In contrast to Brittanie, I get so resentful of schedules that I'll avoid doing even fun things if they're on a schedule! On the other hand, while deadlines stress me out it's positive fact that I have never accomplished anything without one.

Stuff that works for me:

- some kind of community, some kind of feedback, either real-life or online. To keep plugging away without any kind of reaction from another human, that's dispiriting. Have you considered a class, if this is a class-y type thing?

- other people depending on you. Like DU says. Unquestionably very effective (for me) If you can find the right kind of people that would be great not only project-wise but life-enjoyment wise; though maybe it's an extrovert thing. Downside: can turn what's supposed to be you-time into yet more other-people's time.

- while a rigid position in time doesn't work for me, a rigid position in space does. If you have enough room in your place to set up a studio-corner-- something with all your equipment, inspirational images, and no distractions-- go and sit in it, and you will produce stuff. Or if you don't have enough room, for JK Rowling apparently sitting in cafes did the trick. Keep it shipshape, it's easy for that to turn into the Stuff Corner.

- daydream a bit. Imagine your amazing project/skill-set/world domination scheme in all its glory. I think the daydreaming part is really important!

- Enjoy the process. The worst is when The Thing turns into a chore. Consider it a meditation, a time to focus on the present moment. Embrace that very nebulousness. That's why I like blogging, because you can keep it explicitly about recording your process, your development, and if you find a new thing, you can go, 'hey, world, look what I found!', or if you're a more self-contained kind of person, you can put that in your own journal. Just let it be what it is- for me personally I find goal-setting disastrous on projects that are purely for my own interest, because it destroys the feeling of playful exploration. The operative word is PLAY. Just let yourself play.

Anyways, just my thoughts! You know the most useful thing I ever did was, when I found something that worked in terms of Doing Stuff, I wrote it down and had a little conversation with myself about what went well, what I enjoyed, what I'd like to incorporate more of into the next thing. I'm not a journal-keeper but I found the notebook with that conversatio, that I hadn't looked at in a few years, and in an unconscious way I think it's been really helpful.

Too Long! Takeaway: Play. Build a playpen and play in it, possibly with playmates.
posted by Erasmouse at 8:01 AM on March 1, 2010

I should have expanded my timeline comment a bit. Timelines didn't work for me, but scheduling definitely does. I just have to limit it to a day at a time. TONIGHT, I'm going to attach this to that and frobnitz the hoohah. After I do that, I'll think about what I can do next. I'll write that on my TODO list and do it tomorrow night. Etc.
posted by DU at 8:08 AM on March 1, 2010

I have a permutation on your problem: I can always find time to work on a personal project when I'm facing an important deadline, but never when I actually have a whole afternoon free to work (yay internet!).

One thing I've noticed that helps is to make myself externally accountable. For instance, I have a few fun projects that overlap with the needs of a nonprofit org I'm a member of. Because 150-odd people really want to see the results on time, I'm motivated to make it happen. That sort of sounds like making it no-longer-a-personal-project, and maybe that's true, but it gets done!
posted by Alterscape at 8:27 AM on March 1, 2010

I get together regularly with friends who have similar goals. We check in, cheer each other on, encourage each other when we get bogged down. This helps us all stay motivated and excited about what we're doing.
posted by tangerine at 11:48 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think strong, consistent skills in structuring my time and goals would go a long way.

There's a time & a place for everything, and it's called College.

Or maybe it's called the cafe down the street. Or maybe it's called the garage (startups, rock bands - there's something about a garage that's motivating).

Change your physical space. Create a physical space for just dedicating to whatever task at hand it is you're pursuing, and figure out what will get you into that space. Like I put on an audiobook every time I want to go to the gym & magically I find myself out the door & on the way to the gym.

Define very specific goals - find a book on whatever skills you want to develop and measure your progress in exercises or pages. Or if it's something else, something where you already have the skills, use the Agile method of defining the smallest piece that will work and building that. Then figuring out what the next piece you want to add is & adding that. Figure out how many "pieces" you can do in a week & set a pace for yourself - "five to seven pieces every 2 weeks" until you're on a roll.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:24 PM on March 1, 2010

I'm similar to Brittanie. Everything goes on a Google calendar. All of my nebulous on-my-own-time projects have three consecutive hours a week devoted to them. These are nonnegotiable times- I schedule other things around them as much as possible. I've found that this works better the fewer projects I do this with, because once your entire week is scheduled it gets stressful to rearrange stuff, which inevitably happens. But I also find that keeping it to just a few hours, once a week means that I say to myself, "this is the one chance you have to work on project X this week," and I end up focusing a lot better than I would otherwise.
posted by emilyd22222 at 5:05 PM on March 1, 2010

Tried The Big Picture?
posted by iNfo.Pump at 5:23 PM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: Nope, I've never tried The Big Picture but it looks like a great tool for this type of thing. Thanks for the link! And thanks to everyone for all the ideas. I'll really need to put a lot of conscious effort into making progress, but your suggestions will definitely help me figure out what works for me.
posted by mossicle at 6:44 AM on March 2, 2010

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