Sometimes it’s hard to work out what you really want to do.
And sometimes it’s just as hard to work out when to do it.
For years, I worked on complex web-based projects – often several at once – for companies that were still figuring out their own systems and ways of doing things. The web conventions that we kind of take for granted nowadays didn’t exist back then. There weren’t many rules but clients had high expectations of what we could do and how long it would take.
Everyone felt better if there was a clear plan of action and, as the project manager, I was usually the one who had to work out how on earth we were going to get all this work done before the deadline. So I learnt how to break down big tasks into manageable chunks; found ways to communicate clearly with multiple teams and realised early on that I needed to write everything down; make to-do lists and keep myself on track, in order to help the team do their best work. At the same time I needed to be the calm face and voice, reassuring clients that everything was under control.
Today I spend most of my time creating my own projects and helping others make things happen. Of course I still use many of the tools that helped me in my project management days to help me complete my work. I can still find (or invent) a long list of things to distract me, before I sit down to do something I’m slightly anxious about. But now I recognise that doing all those seemingly unrelated things first is not actually procrastinating: it’s clearing the decks. If I can’t work properly unless I’ve done the dishes, tidied up my desk, made my bed, invoiced a few people, well, so be it. The difference is to recognise, accept and control this process.
I know that it’s okay for me to do these other things, and while I’m doing the dishes, I’m thinking about the things I want to put into this blog post, for example. I may not actually be writing but I’m certainly doing the thinking work, while I’m doing my yoga stretches. And knowing that I’m on a deadline – that I have to get this blog post written before a certain time today – motivates me to at least start. Start writing. Go on. Just start.
Too often it’s not procrastination that stops us doing things; it’s a projection of fear. Try out a guided meditation for a creative boost.
Fear of a future person judging our work; doing something wrong; not being good enough.
This kind of perfectionism can stop us from even trying, and can be extremely exhausting.
It stops you from starting because you’re afraid of what will happen when you’ve finished.
But there is real value in not only starting but actually finishing. Even if the end product or blog post or talk is not quite what you thought it would be. Good ideas are all very well but if you can’t push through the fear and actually put into practice all the years of experience you have, into the actual creation of your idea, how will it ever exist? The best thing about just starting with a first draft, a prototype or a new website plan, is that you will then have something to build on. Something exists. And then it’s a question of refining, adding, changing it until it’s something you are proud of.
So, dishes and yoga done, here are my tips to getting there:
1. Decide what the task is
Sometimes the simple act of articulating what you are actually trying to achieve is helpful to get the idea out of your head. I like to use a pen and paper and write out the end goal and stick it somewhere I can see it. It kind of exists then – even if it’s still just a concept. For example I’m going to organise an awesome event with 400 attendees in a London venue on 22nd Feb. Everyone will have a fantastic time, all the speakers and the team and the audience will experience such a fun, inspiring day, they will remember it forever.
Now that’s a more motivating statement and goal for me to work towards, rather than worrisome thoughts spinning around my head about putting an event on in a couple of months.
2. Break it down
Make a massive list. Get out all the stuff whizzing around your head, so do this in whichever way you find easiest or most fun. I like to use a big piece of A3 paper and brightly coloured felt tip pens. I do a brain dump of all the major things I need to do, then try to add in some details under each task. For example, with a big event, some things may already be fixed, such as the venue. But I still need to book speakers, set up the ticket booking web page. You’ll feel a great sense of relief to make a list and you’ll know you haven’t forgotten anything. You can always add and change things later.
Most people find deadlines or target dates scary. But it’s like any boundary – it can be your friend, give you a realistic target to aim for. Even if you haven’t been given a clear deadline, it might be useful to create one for yourself. You won’t keep putting off the to-do list until the last minute and panic the night before. Did you do this at school? Why put yourself through it when you could be working in a less stressful way, leaving more time to do other fun things? It’s not cheating to be organised and plan properly. These techniques will help you to think more clearly, freeing your mind up to be more creative and in control.
4. Action plan
So you’ve got your deadline. Now work backwards from that date, to fit in actions from your to-do list. Simple. It helps if you’ve got someone to check-in with, to help you meet smaller goals along the way. That could be a work colleague, or a trusted friend or mentor. If you were training for a marathon, it would help if you had a coach or a cheerleader to motivate you when you are flagging and to celebrate your successes. Why not have one when it comes to other goals you have in your life?