How to Start the Big Project You've Been Putting Off
Resist the temptation to minimize your anxiety.
Posted Feb 13, 2012
I want to write a screenplay.
I wanted to write one last year, but other work took more time than I expected, and I kept pushing "write screenplay" off my to-do list.
I know I'm not alone in struggling to make incremental progress on long-term projects or goals. How do you get started when you have "all the time in the world"?
Maybe you have a project with no deadline, like my screenplay. Or maybe you have a deadline that's months away—like preparing a speech, developing a business plan, or designing a training program. Perhaps you have a habit of procrastinating on projects with generous schedules until "next month" is "next week" and suddenly your long-term project has morphed into a panicky, short-term stress-inducing nightmare?
Doing something big and important is rarely as simple as just getting it done. Often we don't know how to start and, even when we do, we rarely already have all the knowledge and capability we need to see it through. Also, we almost always have more urgent things to do and so we push off long-term goals.
I know the basic advice: break the work into smaller, more manageable chunks, focus on the next small step that will move you forward, set intermediate deadlines.
It's good advice. But, in my experience, it's not enough.
Because, ultimately, the reason we procrastinate on a big, long-term project isn't just because we have too much time or don't know where to start. And it's certainly not because we think it's not important. In fact, it's the opposite.
We procrastinate on that big project precisely because it's important. So important, in fact, that we're too scared to work on it.
I've never written a screenplay. I don't know how to format it. I don't know how to structure the story. I don't even know the story I want to tell.
I'm afraid. Afraid that I'll fail. That I'll spend a lot of time on it—while other more immediate things don't get done—and it will be terrible, anyway.
I'm also afraid of the opposite: That I'll just dream about it but never actually work on it. Which, paradoxically, discourages me from starting it. If I'm never going to get it done, why start?
My screenplay isn't just mundane work; it's work I care deeply about. Almost all big projects fit into that category—even the report your boss asked for that you might think you don't care about. That's because a big project is a mirror. It reflects your thoughts and effort and even character. It has your signature on it. Failure in a long-term project isn't just a work issue; it's an identity issue. Is it any wonder that we procrastinate?
So what's the antidote?
Don't ignore your fear. Acknowledge it. As soon as you know you're going to give that speech or design that training program, take a quiet moment and experience the fear that comes with the importance of the project. Maybe you're afraid of getting up in front of all those people to give your speech. Maybe you're afraid of failing in your new business. Maybe you're afraid that your training design will expose how much you don't know. Maybe you're afraid of letting other people down.
Resist the temptation to minimize your anxiety. That's a false macho response and it lacks courage. It's also counterproductive; it gives power to the fear, almost guaranteeing that it will haunt you and prevent your progress.
Here's why acknowledging your fear works: You're scared because you expect a lot from yourself and you're afraid you'll underperform. When you acknowledge that fear, you're acknowledging that you might not have all that it takes to meet your expectations; you might not have all the tools, information, skills, etc. Admitting that, in turn, reduces your expectation of getting it perfect right off the bat.
And lowering your expectation of getting it right is the key to getting it started.
Acknowledging your fear also serves another, crucial purpose: it informs you. By recognizing that you don't have all the tools, information, skills, and support to see the project through, you're identifying your next, manageable step in getting started: rounding up the tools, information, skills, and support.
Even if it's not your choice (e.g., your boss committed you to do it)—commit yourself to it fully. Recognize that it will be a reflection of you and admit that you care about it. Even if you don't care about the project, you do care about your work and, in this moment, your work is the project. Make it one of your top five priorities. When you make the project one of your top five priorities, you're also—and just as importantly—choosing what's not a priority. If you have too many important things on which to focus, you'll never get to the big long term one. So slash your list until you're left with only five.
I use a six-box to-do list—each box represents one of my top five priorities and the sixth box, labeled the other 5 percent, is for everything else. That last box shouldn't take more than 5 percent of your time. One of my five boxes always represents a long-term priority, which, for this year, contains my screenplay.
Now you're ready for the standard advice: Break the work into smaller chunks and make sure you know how to do the first chunk. Set an intermediate deadline. If you need other people involved, get them involved early, as commitments to others helps you take your deadlines seriously.
Finally, decide when and where you're going to accomplish the first chunk and make an appointment with yourself in your calendar.
When you sit down to start your work, you may feel the resistance—fear—come up again. But now you know what it is. Acknowledge it and it'll be easier to move into the work.
There's one more thing. Share your fear. Some people may think you're a wimp. But that hasn't been my experience. Telling others you're intimidated by something you have to do gives them permission to feel—and maybe express—their own fear. I find that people are gracious, supportive, and empathetic.
And that support, it turns out, helps us all get our most important work done.