How to tackle multiple large personal projects?
December 4, 2013 5:20 AM   Subscribe

I need some advice on getting things done. I have several large personal projects I've been trying to work on for a long time, but I am having trouble making even the smallest dent in each.

There are probably 5-10 different projects. They include things like: frame and hang artwork, clean out closet, edit 4 years worth of vacation photos on computer, mend pile of clothes, set up personal portfolio website, etc.

For the vast majority of these projects, I am NOT comfortable with outsourcing. This is also the culled list, so for the sake of this question let's assume I've already dropped the least important, not-everything-has-to-be-done projects form the list.

A few projects have a hard deadline. A few have a soft deadline and a few are "hopefully someday" projects.

I am really good at making action plans, and I have already identified (most of) the steps necessary to finish the projects. I use Evernote to organize these projects into workflows.

So why aren't they getting done?

Here's what I suspect: I try to work on a little here and there each day. So lets say, I've got 5 projects I'm currently working on. After exercise, work and my day-to-day tasks such as to dos and making dinner, I divide up the remaining day into chunks for each project. But that only leaves like 1.5 hours for each, which I sort of feel like isn't enough time to really get into the "flow" of productivity. I might knock 1-2 items off each project's action list, but I never feel like I'm making a big dent and certainly am not felling any sense of completion.

I am also scheduling pretty much every waking hour of my day, so needless to say, I have little downtime and am often mentally exhausted by the end of the day. Its gotten to the point where I lay awake at night and think about all the things I *didn't* get to that day, and how much more I have to do the next day.

I sort of think it would be better just focus on one project at a time and one project only, working until total completion before moving on to the next. Last night I downloaded a pomodoro-style timer, to help me focus and to also enforce breaks so I at least get a little downtime here and there.

I would appreciate any other tips or advice.
posted by Brittanie to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you've answered your own question with the 2nd to last paragraph. If you think approaching them one at a time could work, that sounds like a great first go.
posted by colin_l at 5:47 AM on December 4, 2013

I wonder how well you are working on any given project, because 90 minutes on almost any project should make a visible difference. So I'd think first a lot about efficiency.

Then I'd think about scheduling in break time because you can't work without it, and also working on 1 or maybe 2 projects each day instead of 5, trading them out as done. So first you frame the pieces that will go in one room, then you edit photos from one vacation, then you mend 3 winter (or summer, if you're in the southern hemisphere) items, then youstart again with framing some other room's work. (Or whatever split makes sense.)

I say this not because your one at a time plan is a bad plan, but because it wouldn't work for me -- I'd get bored with doing one thing and start slacking and losing efficiency, where switching to a new project would get me interested again.
posted by jeather at 5:50 AM on December 4, 2013

I have this problem too! In addition to the pomodoro timer, I have found that having company - in person, on phone, or on instant messenger/skype - helps if that is possible. I sometimes make a "date" with a friend to keep me company by talking to me about silly, fun things while I do part of a task like sewing on buttons or gatehring stuff to go to Goodwill or whatever . Then we switch off when she needs something done.
posted by pointystick at 5:51 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Since you only have 90 minutes to work on stuff, maybe you should break the to-do list down into 60 minute tasks, so that you can get that sense of accomplishment by checking something off the list each night.
posted by COD at 5:52 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

"I am also scheduling pretty much every waking hour of my day, so needless to say, I have little downtime and am often mentally exhausted by the end of the day." this is a sign you need to outsource some of this work, which i understand you are resistant to, but i would suggest keeping yourself open to it in the future. it is also a sign that you may need to start saying no to other things in order to reclaim your time.

people who are that over-scheduled and busy can solve the problem by either a) saying NO to commitments, tasks etc. until they reclaim some of their time or b) they outsource lesser tasks so they can focus on the more important ones or c) they do a combination of both.

can you outsource making dinner on some nights, or other daily to-dos? can you ask for help covering your other commitments sometimes, so that you can get a longer period of time (beyond 1.5h) once or twice a week, and get into that flow/look forward to that flow and working on the project? to be honest, people who appear to accomplish a LOT are mainly able to do so because they have help, or pay for help. at the very least they are conscious of the possibility of paying someone else to do some things, which alleviates some of the mental to-do stress that keeps us awake at night. can be your friend.

it will probably be easier to focus on one project or two projects at a time, but given how you describe your schedule, that might not really address the problem. also i think pomodoro or similar is a good idea. i can pretty much only concentrate on something for 30-45 min before i need to step away and take a 5-10 min break from it, at least. 15 if it's a mentally challenging or physically uncomfortable task.
posted by zdravo at 5:52 AM on December 4, 2013

Different tips work for different people, but like the debt snowball maybe you should prioritise the list by the easiest/least difficult task and just focus on it until it is done. The sense of accomplishment you get should motivate you to tackle the next task. I agree that 1.5 hour chunks are not enough to accomplish much. You might work better with scheduling yourself with a daily main task and a secondary task to turn to if you are feeling overwhelmed. So as Monday=Framing (mend clothes as a "break'), Tuesday= Photos (closet) etc

Assuming your list is accurate, none of the things you list are "do-or-die" like going to work or buying food which makes your anxiety at night seem out of proportion to the tasks. Have you spoken with a Doctor to see if there is a medical reason for your anxiety? In addition to exercise, nutrition, and mediation, you may find medication may help - even if you only take it for a month to get back into your groove without wacky brain chemicals tripping you up.

Source= up until recently I juggled a full-time job, a part-time job that required extensive business travel, writing my dissertation full-time, volunteers commitments, renovating my century home, my personal art, three young school-age children and daily visits to my husband when he was hospitalised for a few months then later his daily home-care provided exclusively by me. So I understand being overwhelmed and feeling like you are treading water. But once I started wrapping up projects (one of my jobs was entirely project-based with simultaneously timelines ranging from an hour to several years) I was able to wrap more and more projects up more efficiently and I have resisted adding more projects unless they are truly value-added for me.
posted by saucysault at 5:53 AM on December 4, 2013

Can you dedicate an entire Saturday to one project where you "work on it like it's your job"? Wake up, make some breakfast, get some coffee, read the paper, and just lay into that thing. Sometimes that's the only way I make progress on learning guitar solos.
posted by 3FLryan at 6:06 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I think if this is generally the scale of things, rather than focusing on doing bits and pieces of each one, try to take whole days to set aside for one thing at a time. Not that they're all single-day affairs, but a full day will at the very least feel like a real dent made in it. A lot of them would probably get knocked off entirely. I can definitely confirm that this is the case with me. If I start off on a closet-organizing project and I just work on it a little here and there, it'll take awhile to get into it each time, I'll end up totally changing my mind about how I'm doing parts of it in between times so I'll spend half of my available time just redoing the parts I did the last time, whatever. So I'll say your instincts are probably right on. (And I'm now looking up a pomodoro app myself.)
posted by Sequence at 6:39 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to the pomodoro method, you might find the kanban style of project/to-do list management helpful. I really love that particular website for keeping track of projects, but you could also go low tech and use post-it notes.
posted by katie at 6:48 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you need to give yourself a break. I think first and foremost, you need to forgive yourself for not being able to get these tasks done by now. A majority of the tasks on your list are not "do or die", and your stressing about them is negatively impacting your life and hindering your progress.

Is there a way that you can re-organize your schedule to ban these tasks from your weekday life, and perhaps dedicate a larger chunk of (way more productive) time to them on the weekends? For example, if you usually schedule grocery shopping, house cleaning, and laundry on weekends, could you swap those tasks/time slots out with the 1.5 hours you have set aside nightly for your personal projects? While regular chores and errands can be accomplished with little thought, your personal projects definitely need more care and attention to actually make measurable progress, and I think larger chunks of time will benefit you greatly.

Additionally, I think you've already identified another thing that needs tweaking - you need to work on one task at a time. If you get burned out easily on projects, work on one thing for as long as possible (that may take you a day, a week, or a month) until you hit a wall, and then put that down and move on to the next highest priority task. Something that has helped immensely with my own anxiety in this type of situation is to put the non-active projects out of my mind completely. If you make the decision to focus on one project at a time, then there is no sense in worrying about non-completion of the other projects. You will get to them eventually. You have a plan. You are not allowed to worry about projects until they enter the position of main focus in your task list rotation.

One final note specifically about closet organizing: If you (like me) have a mental stumbling block about getting rid of clothing, that may be preventing you from starting this particular project. What has worked for me, has been pulling items of clothing from my closet that I rarely or never wear, and then storing them for 6 months to a year as a sort of transitional/baby step toward donating them. When the 6 months is up, I'll revisit the pile. If there is something in there that I totally miss and still think about often, I keep it. If I'm less than enthusiastic about a clothing item, I find that the 6 months of storage is a good way to break the mental attachment I have with clothes, and I can then easily give up that item with no regrets. Also, no one has ever been able to organize a closet in a series of 1.5 hour chunks. It's just humanly impossible. Give yourself at least half a day to tackle that beast.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 7:48 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just cleaned out the garage for the first time since we moved a year ago. The only way I find I can get a big personal job done is to drop most of the regular jobs. My free time is spent doing laundry, making meals etc... This weekend I ignored it all because I know eventually I will HAVE to do the laundry so the time will be found. The time is never there for my stuff. Think of it as "paying yourself first" but instead of creating savings your creating your own time.
posted by saradarlin at 8:59 AM on December 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Spreading yourself too thin can both hurt your productivity and your feeling of accomplishment.

This is some good commentary:
Keith Perhac mentioned in a podcast that a client told him he accomplished more in three days than the client had accomplished in six months. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s actually plausible.

Sometimes a consultant can accomplish in a few days what employees will never accomplish, not because the consultant is necessarily smarter, but because the consultant can give a project a burst of undivided attention.

Some projects can only be done so slowly. If you send up a rocket at half of escape velocity, it’s not going to take twice as long to get where you want it to go. It’s going to take infinitely longer.
posted by leopard at 9:11 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a Certified Professional Organizer, I hear this kind of tale on a daily basis. You say that you knock one or two things off of each project, but feel like you aren't getting anywhere. That's because you're not. (It's not like a cocktail party where nibbling on lots of little things adds up to feeling full.) Try this:

Pick two projects, one that is the highest priority (fixed deadline) and one other project where any one element is unrelated to the other. (Framing and hanging one picture is unrelated to framing and hanging the others. Mending one shirt is unrelated to mending a pair of pants, "getting into the flow" notwithstanding.)

Whatever amount of time you have available on Day 1, focus two or three 45-minute sessions (consider it a modified Pomodoro) on that main project. If you were my client, I'd ask you lots of questions to get a sense of what really needs to be accomplished and might find that the personal portfolio website has much more potential for ROI than the organizing the photos, and I'd encourage you to make that your focus.

Then I'd suggest that you pick something that requires far less mental involvement than the portfolio, and encourage you to do one element of that in between the high-focus sessions. You have a pile of clothes to mend -- something greater than two and probably less than 20 items of clothing. Mend one thing that is the thing you want/need to wear the soonest. We're in wintery weather (unless you're Down Under), so focus on things you can wear now. By the time you complete the high-focus task, you will have dramatically winnowed down the low-intensity mending pile. Interspersing long bouts of high-brain-power tasks with shorter bouts of physical labor will keep you from burning out.

I encourage you, however, to rethink delegating, outsourcing or getting help. That doesn't have to mean hiring a professional organizer to work on your closet with you; you could get an accountability buddy, a friend who wants to work on her closet, too. Skype at the start of two hours (the longest I'd suggest a "layman" should work on his or her own on projects like this, to forestall burnout), set a timer to Skype again at the midpoint and end of the two hours. You're each working on your own task, and can get intermediate feedback. If you can't spend money on getting help to mend or frame or hang, that's fine, but consider that it will take you much longer to marshal the motivation and actually complete the tasks than it would take a professional, and your time has a dollar value.

But long story short, picking at 10 different projects, rather than focusing on just two, one with a deadline and requiring high mental focus and one as a "relief" project, is going to help you feel more empowered. Small victories breed success.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:44 AM on December 4, 2013 [22 favorites]

I do think that focusing on these sequentially rather than doing them in parallel will help you a lot. One thing that becomes a problem when you try to do them a bit at a time is that most of these have some kind of setup or inconvenience involved that's better to deal with in one fell swoop. For instance, if you try to clean your closet for 1.5 hours a day 4 times instead of in 1 6-hour Saturday burst, you'll never be willing to put 100% of its contents out in your room first, or you'll have to clear the floor/bed to make a temporary holding zone 5 times (even if just a bit, don't underestimate the cognitive overhead of that) instead of once. For the photos and the website, you'll need to locate folders or look up help for a bit of technology and having to repeat that a half dozen times because you forget a little detail overnight is frustrating. I think doing an hour or two a day is better for continually ongoing or very large projects (so maybe the website once you get the foundation built) rather than something that's say, 10 hours or less and has a definite done state.

If you still prefer doing your projects in parallel or if there is a piece that can be split off like "go to store to buy the frames", I find that writing a complete list of the sub-tasks is very helpful, even if they're totally obvious, like "go to ATM," because a lot of times this helps me find a way to make one trip or task count for some other daily chore or project errand.

If you have any perfectionist tendencies, another bonus of doing one thing all at once is that you'll get bored of the sameness and your back will start hurting or whatever and you'll be more inclined to lower your too-high standards down to where you can complete the thing and just be done.
posted by zizania at 10:10 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots of helpful answers here, specifically the answers effectively giving me "permission" to put some projects on the backburner while I focus on the more pressing ones.

Wrong Kind of Cheese, your solution sounds super helpful, thank you for the professional advice. And katie, I like the idea of kanban — in fact, I had previously looked at Trello as an organizational tool.
posted by Brittanie at 11:49 AM on December 4, 2013

I have the same experience of where after I do all the daily must-do tasks there isn't time left for the larger projects. I have better results with selecting whole days where I start with the larger project and leave everything else (skip a day at the gym, takeout, no laundry that day) for later. My best results are when I leave the house and take my project to the library (or coffeehouse or whatever works for you). I do this every year for taxes. It would work for vacation pictures too.
posted by RoadScholar at 6:28 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update:

I downloaded a pomodoro timer for Chrome, Strict Workflow, that blacklists custom websites during the work period. That's been good for my daily to-dos and workday productivity. A friend (a grad student) also recommended making a weekly to-do list for 2-3 of the bigger projects I want to knock off. I think that's pretty similar to katie's kanban recommendation above, and it has helped maintain my focus a lot. I re-organized my future/maybe to do list in order of priority and have already finished 2 of the things on that list and am currently working in the third.

I also have to shoutout Workflowy, which has been the most helpful and intuitive tool for organizing complex and multi-step project to-do lists. I love it so much I became a Pro member.

Thanks for everyone's input.
posted by Brittanie at 7:00 PM on December 15, 2013

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