Tips for Attacking Any Big Project

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I don’t know if y’all operate the same way, but I will allow large projects that I know will be time-sucks slide for a while…years, usually…until I finally end up squaring my shoulders and attacking them with gusto.

So…I decided to start out my summer (it’s summer here in North Carolina, anyway) with a photo and scrapbook organizing project.  This is the sort of project where there are drawers of loose photos from the 1960s, 1970s, and even unarchived family pictures from the early part of the 20th century.  There are tremendous stacks of still-framed photos from many decades ago and from various branches of the family tree.  And many, many pre-digital photos of my children in no order.  Oh, and school papers of varying degrees of appeal and sentimental importance dating back to preschool (and my elder child is entering his senior year of high school this August).

Yes, there are lots of stacks of things in my den right now.  I’m tossing, keeping, digitizing non digital, making reference notes about people and situations in some photos, and uploading to clouds.

Similar to any writing-related project, there usually comes a point in these organizing projects where I wonder what the heck I was thinking.  The temptation to put it aside and return to something easier (laundry, vacuuming, unloading-reloading endless loads of dishes into the dishwasher) is incredibly appealing because small-scale housework rewards us with an immediate improvement. An immediate feeling of accomplishment and ticking something off a list.  With a photo or scrapbook organizing project, things look worse before they start looking better.  A lot worse.  The same thing goes with a first draft—it can look a lot worse than the pristine, unwritten story in our heads.

But I keep on plugging, just like I do with the book projects.  I apply the same structure to both.  It’s a pretty basic approach:

Devise a strategy. Deadlines help.   I like to keep these goals really manageable, but make sure that the goal is hit every day.  And I like to have an end date on my calendar for completion.  I don’t want to feel like my house is going to be Photo Central for months. Same  idea applies to a book.

Set a timer.   It helps with focus to know that we’re clocked in only for a certain amount of time.

Show up.  Religiously.  It’s the only way to get through a project.

Avoid perfectionism.  Okay, when I’m digitizing photos by taking pictures of pictures?  It’s not perfect.  But it’s a whole lot better than the photo being buried in a guest room drawer for decades.   First drafts aren’t perfect either.  But aren’t they better than the blank page?

Eliminate distractions.   Put that smart phone in another room.  Don’t have the internet up on the laptop.

Make lists of things to do.  For my photo project, it looks like: make 3 stacks…toss, keep, digitize/upload.  For my writing, it might be:  Finish chapter two.  List 5 possible suspects who would want to get rid of my mystery’s victim.   List 3 red herrings to point away from the real killer.  Describe the story’s central setting in 3 different ways.

Avoid going off on tangents.  Because once I emptied out that big drawer in the guest room, it looked like a good spot to organize my gift wrap in.  Don’t go there.  Wait until the project itself is done.  For me, it works best for writing, too–I don’t edit/fix stuff until the first draft is completely done.

Fight the overwhelm.  Remember how far we’ve come since the start of our project.  If this is a home improvement or organizing project, it helps to take a picture of the “before”, just to remind us.  If its writing–remember that blank page and the first words we wrote down.

Celebrate successes.  It’s easy to feel like the project or book will never be finished.  If we’re always looking ahead of us,  we head right back into that overwhelm that I just mentioned.  Keeping goals small and celebrating successes can help us stay motivated.

Structure is key to keeping me on track.  But others do better with less structure.  How do you attack big projects—home or writing-related?  And…any photo project organizing tips or software you can recommend? :)

Image: MorgueFile: Alvimann

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32 thoughts on “Tips for Attacking Any Big Project

  1. Going off on tangents – LOL! That always gets me with any project, because one thing leads to another and soon I’m running all over the house doing things unrelated to the original project.

    I have a stack – maybe 5 or 6 stacks – of my mother’s photos I need to sort like that. Plus videos that need to be transferred to DVD. And some old records to commit to CD. I need a 40 hour day.

  2. Elizabeth, I’m with you and Diane on the tangents. It’s amazing how I can start at one place determined to get things done and wind up in a different part of the house doing something I hadn’t consider dealing with that day. We have a lot of home movies we made on VHS tapes. I’ve transferred a good many of them, but not all and we also still have some on 8mm that need changing. You’ve put me in a mood to accomplish a few goals here, thanks.

    1. Mason–Isn’t that crazy? It’s like I have attention deficit or something. And the tangent is always worthwhile…it’s just not needed right *then*. Good luck with your goals!

  3. Chunking is vital. Knowing the smallest thing which would constitute “success” helps me.

    I also try never to work longer than 90 minutes on any project. You can get in the zone in 30 minutes or so, but after 90 minutes, the effects can wear off. Better in most cases to stop, refresh, and come back to it, either now or later. I block out a morning slot and an afternoon slot, and make the afternoon slot optional when I have a big project. Show up faithfully for the morning slot, and if I’m in a good place with it, give myself more play time on it in the afternoon.

    1. Joel–I like your 90 minute limit. You’re right…after that point, I’m not exactly going on all pistons. Might as well take a break and then either start back again later that day or just start totally fresh the next day.

  4. Small goals and manageable chunks! I’m revising a book right now, so I chopped it into four parts. I just completed part 2, and its such a feeling of gratification.

    1. Kessie–I’ve never thought of the 4 chunks before, but that makes a lot of sense. I like the idea of the mental partition, only looking ahead as far as the end of that particular piece.

  5. Oh, I put off the time-suckers, too. That’s why it took me seven years to get around to actually painting and decorating my office. Now that it’s done, I wonder what the big deal was.

    But there are other time-sucks that are depressing, like the boxes and boxes of receipts and papers I had to keep for various reasons, and have yet to get rid of. Going to have a bonfire one of these days, I think. It’ll be faster than shredding!

    Some jobs can be done in timed chunks, some have to be done all in one go. The chunky ones tend to get done first. But either way, when they’re done, they’re done. Sometimes soliciting help makes all the difference in the world. My husband is really good that way, knows that lengthy disruptions in my work flow are to be avoided, and makes himself available for anything from lugging boxes up the stairs to overhauling the garden.

    Costco does video to DVD conversion? How did it turn out? My mother had slides transferred to video, which turned out fine, but the video transferred to DVD via Walgreen’s service was awful.

    1. Meg–I have fired myself from ever painting anything in our house again. :) It’s sort of a relief, actually…I did *such* a bad job…ha!

      A bonfire sounds like a great idea for destroying those old receipts and docs!

      My teen son has been my mule for the project–lugging out the drawers and the (heavy) stacks of framed portraits. You’re right–delegation can really make a difference.

      Costco did a very good job! I was impressed. We had several done there and several done with an online service that was not *nearly* as good. So Costco will be my choice for the remaining one or two that I should get converted.

  6. Elizabeth – I love these ideas. The more we focus and the more disciplined we are, the more likely we are to finish big projects. I also like the idea of breaking a big task down into daily tasks. I can’t write a manuscript in one day, but I can write X number of words (or something similar) in a day. And then I can feel good about my progress without worrying too much about what I haven’t (yet) accomplished.

  7. Because of this post, I just made a big red note on my calendar for when my current book goes to the editor! Thank you.

  8. Good luck with those photos! That is a BIG job – imagine how thrilled you’ll be with it done :)
    I might try making lists for my writing for the summer. I’m not a list person, but it’s worth a shot!

    1. Jemi–I will be *so smug* when this photo project is done! I think I’m already smug and that’s why I’m blogging about it. And I’ve told my sister and mother and my cousins about it. Actually, I seemingly can’t be quieted about my progress on this thing. :) I guess that’s because I haven’t touched the drawers in like….well, 13 years….and now am making such headway.

  9. Your post struck a nerve here, too–I attempted to reorganize my office a few months back and thought I was making great progress. Then the flu, family health issues, and a couple of trips out of town…photo organization/scrapbooking??? A distant dream :-) But isn’t the life of a writer interesting? Never boring! Enjoyed how you applied your list points to the writer’s life, good tips…

    1. Kenda–Ohhhh, definitely! Any sort of set-back with this kind of project can really make an impact. Because the last thing you want to see if you’re recovering from illness or any kind of stressful event is a bunch of photos and old papers…when you’re still wondering if you can possibly catch up on a couple of weeks of laundry!

      Same with the book, actually. At least books are tidy, though, when we look at them. These photo stacks…argh, clutter.

  10. On paper, I work backwards from the finished project to the first step. That first step goes on a weekly To Do list. The rule is: I can’t add anything to the list until I’ve finished everything on it.

    That’s providing that I can figure out the steps involved in the project!

    The timer works great for me too. I always have a “10 minute” task on my list. I’m always surprised at how much I can get done in 10 minutes.

    Great post. Thanks!

    1. Diane–Great idea! I’m always, always tempted to add to the to-do list when I’m working on something…so smart not to.

      I love your 10-minute-task that goes on every list. I need to add one of those to mine. The coupon drawer? The Pyrex and plastic containers that need stacking? Those would easily fit in 10 min.

  11. A timely post once more! :D

    I’ve been looking at my fridge and kitchen cupboards with the eagle eye of organisation lately, i.e. with a view to chucking out all the expired, mouldy stuff. Unfortunately, this applied to the rest of the house as well. I’m not saying it’s a hovel or anything, it’s just that my house is up for sale and I should declutter.

    I also have a collection of pictures I should frame. I can see the frames from where I’m typing this right now. They’re looking at me accusingly.

    I think celebrating success is the thing I do worse, in every aspect of my life. I keep having to remind myself that I’ve achieved a hell of a lot in my life so far.

    As to your question, you can do secret boards on Pinterest that will only be visible to you and anyone you wish to share it with :D

    1. AD–Sometimes it takes a while to eye stuff and figure out how to approach an attack–I did the same with my garage recently. Just kept looking at it until I could figure out the best way to handle it.

      Secret Pinterest boards! I didn’t realize that such a thing existed. How cool! Thanks for the link.

  12. Hi Elizabeth – as I’m going through another turfing out time and sort out – new computer and one that works faster .. still need to learn the techie stuff to get myself up to date – but I’m slowly moving forward …

    I have the photos and old cines ‘ready’ and together – so at some stage I can send them out … but there are a few more that will come to light. I did one photo go through after my mother died … but need another attacking session and doing what you’re doing putting them into digital mode … I’ll sort that I hope this year -at least the know-how.

    I’ve paper to clear out too – I find watching tennis helps with this … I can multi-task and can enjoy myself, while clearing more ‘stuff’!!

    Great tips though .. about chunk breaking, timing et al …

    Here’s to us all .. cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–Glad you’ve got the new computer! Good luck with the learning curve…hope it’s easy to figure out.

      Good time to be watching tennis! And that’s a good idea. French Open and Wimbledon with picture organization. :)

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