How to finally finish a big creative project

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Getting big things done is a constant battle.

When it comes to big projects, especially personal projects, you just never seem to find the time to get it done.

Here are three hacks to help you avoid the guilt that comes along with procrastinating, keep you focused on the task at hand, and create momentum towards finishing your big creative project.

1. Break big projects down into tiny steps

When you look at a Chuck Close portrait painting you go, “Wow! How in the world does he do it?”

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

Looking at the finished product, what you don’t notice are the tiny steps he takes.

The building blocks of these massive portraits are three and a half inch squares on a grid. He works on each individual square and then all the squares put together make up the giant portrait.

Working on a big project, you’ve got to break that project down into tasks and tiny little sub-tasks so it doesn’t seem overwhelming.

In turn, you are paralyzed by the scale of it and work on something else instead.

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The first step could be as simple as just figuring out what the tasks need to be.

For example, as I’m writing this, it’s early April and I’m in the middle of doing my taxes (super late… I know). This is not a creative project but it is still a big, daunting project.

Rather than saying, “Oh man, this is going to take forever!” and then working on something else instead, the first thing I did was review last year’s taxes.

That was the first task. Just review them.

The next was to copy the folder I have from last year where the taxes are organized into different sub-folders (1099’s, receipts, mortgage docs, etc.), and create a place to put the new tax documents.

So that was it, just those two tasks to start. That took me about 10 minutes. Doing that gets me on the road to finishing my taxes.

If I look at it as a huge daunting project, I’ll never take that first step.

Another example: I recently finished a course on pricing for designers. The course is over 3 hours long, which is around 25,000 words.

Aside from the writing, I had to record the audio voice-over, design the slides, master the audio, edit the slides together with the audio, master the audio with the slides, compress the video down to a smaller file size, upload the video to the video host and then link it to the courseware, and on and on.

It was a mountain of work, but broken down to the smallest elements, it was much more manageable.

I recommend using something like Basecamp or just a plain old whiteboard (my favorite) to list out your tasks and subtasks.

Checking off each box and having these tiny little steps keeps your momentum going and you’ll always know what you need to work on—which is half the battle.

And that brings me to the next hack.

2. Schedule it

It’s deceptively simple, but if you schedule time on your calendar it will help you have a dedicated time to do the work. Without a schedule, you’ll flounder.

Once you have all of those tasks listed out, it’s time to schedule it.

Scheduling takes the burden off of you to DECIDE to do the creative work now or do it later. That little bit of decision making eats away at your creative energy and cognitive willpower and pretty soon all you’ve been able to accomplish for the day is looking at Facebook and Slack.

So you’ve got to get it on your calendar.

I take about 20 minutes on Sunday night to think about what I want to get done for the next week. At the end of each day, I revise what I have scheduled for the next day as things change throughout the week.

I try to keep it simple and guilt free as possible and change what I’ve scheduled as needed, but my main goal is to always know what it is I should work on next.

If I have to do something other than what is scheduled, that’s fine, but I always know what needs to get done.

Nothing earth shattering here. Basically, just a to-do list and a schedule, right? So you might be wondering why time management and getting things done is still an issue for you.

It could be the way you’ve scheduled the work.

A tech investor named Paul Graham published an essay back in 2009 titled Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, and talked about two different types of schedules.

There’s the manager’s schedule where the day is broken up into hourly intervals and you are changing tasks on the hour.

This type of schedule in not ideal for doing the type of creative work designers and writers do.

Frequently switching tasks, also known as context switching, is taxing and doesn’t allow you to ever get into a creative flow.

It’s also why on days where you have meetings you never get much creative work done. Even if you’ve got a free hour sandwiched between two meetings, you don’t have the time or momentum necessary to get “in the zone” to do good creative work.

The maker’s schedule, on the other hand, at most, cuts the day in half so you have a solid 4 hours to do creative work.

No email, no Facebook or Slack, no meetings.

Just time for creative work and allowing yourself to get creative flow.

3. Give yourself a deadline

Without a self-imposed deadline, there will be no specific urgency to finish a project.

After you look at all of the tasks and subtasks you’ve outlined, give yourself a realistic deadline to finish your project.

Notice how your taxes always get done by the deadline? It’s because of that urgency that you get it done. Without the April 18th deadline, there is nothing to force you into action to break it into tiny steps, schedule it on your calendar, and block off large chunks of time to finish the tasks.

You need that urgency.

The deadline is your friend.

However much you want to procrastinate, the deadline will get you in the chair and keep you there making progress.

And on days where you just can’t—where getting things going is not working, try to just do one tiny little task. It could be the smallest, quickest task. So long as you do something to move forward, any progress is good progress.

What’s a big creative project you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t? Leave a comment and let me know.

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About Ian Vadas

Ian Vadas is a designer and the author of Work With Clients You Love. Get the eBook to learn how to select clients that pay well, treat you with respect and allow you to do your best work.

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Comments

  1. Wow such a great article!
    I love the part about maker and manager schedule:)
    My BIG project is my website. I get lost in the details and don’t move ahead
    Is there a detailed step by step schedule for creating websites?
    Thank you
    Best regards Eva

    • Glad you liked it, Eva.

      I’m sure there are step by step schedules for this but it would depend on what type of website you are trying to build.

  2. Hey Ian,
    I had never heard of the manager’s vs the maker’s schedule. I just always used to feel slightly guilty for being unable to stick to a detailed schedule. I’ll stop that right now! 🙂
    Thank you for your inspiring articles.
    Cheers,
    Sonja

    • Good to hear it, Sonja.

      Try that different schedule and see if it works for you. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. I know switching tasks constantly never works for me.

  3. Great thought to keep in mind… constantly.
    Thanks.