What’s Your BIG THING? How to Finally Get Traction on Your Dream Project.
Photo Credit: Dream Big by CHBD
Do you have something BIG that you really want to do but can’t seem to get to?
You know what I’m talking about. That BIG THING – the big dream, the big project, the new product, the solution to that complex problem you don’t have time to work on.
It matters to you.
It takes time, focus, and concentration. It’s what Cal Newport calls, Deep Work.
You can’t seem to get started. Life keeps getting in the way. You’re overwhelmed with the mountain of little things it takes to sustain your job and your life.
My BIG THING is writing – those writing projects (like “the book”) that never get done. I’ve turned avoiding writing into an artform. I was so good at it that while I was avoiding my BIG THING, I built two successful careers, launched and built my own company, and raised two children. The story, I affectionately call “How I overcame 40 years of writers’ block,” is more complex than one quick fix.
But along the way, I stumbled on a simple system that took me from inaction to traction.
I call it my ONE BIG THING system. Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Stop beating yourself up.
You can’t bully yourself into traction. Believe me, I tried. It may work for Navy Seals, but it doesn’t work for me.
When that nasty inner voice berates me for not making progress, I dig in my heels, break open the procrastination chips, and tune into Netflix. Or, I open my email and pretend to be productive.
I used to think that the reason I couldn’t get to my BIG THING was that I was lazy and undisciplined. But when I examined those assumptions, they didn’t hold up.
I was pretty good at keeping my commitment to others. I had the discipline to hold down a full-time job, grow and build a professional service company, and love, feed, clothe, and launch two children. Only my inner critic calls me lazy and undisciplined.
If you examine the story you’re telling yourself about why you can’t get to that thing you really want to do, you’ll probably find the problem isn’t a flaw in your character, or even a lack of time. It’s fear. It’s a deep-seated anxiety that you might not be able to pull it off. That you don’t have what it takes. That you aren’t smart enough. That you aren’t [fill in blank here] enough.
So, stop beating yourself up. Telling yourself you’re too undisciplined to do this is just another excuse. Give yourself some compassion. It’s okay to be anxious. It’s okay to have doubts. These days when I hear those voices, I give myself an imaginary hug and whisper, “You can do this.”
Step 2: Take the BIG out of your ONE BIG THING.
Here’s the story I tell myself moments before I become paralyzed.
This THING is BIG.
It’s critical. It’s difficult. It’s monumental.
The fate of the world rests on it.
If I don’t succeed at this ONE BIG THING, my life will be worthless!
Two problems with this story.
1) It’s paralyzing. The worst thing you can do if you want traction is to obsess about how vital and difficult this thing is. Your self-worth has nothing to do with whether you achieve this. And if this BIG THING doesn’t happen, no one is going to die (probably).
2) BIG THINGS aren’t really one big thing. They’re a collection of little things. They result from a process of accomplishing many small things over time. They unfold in three phases – showing up, getting started, and building and sustaining momentum until you’re done. This is the BIG THING process.
When you take the BIG out of your BIG THING, it becomes doable.
Step 3: Schedule your BIG THING first.
You’ve probably heard the popular personal finance advice “Pay yourself first.” This principle also applies to creating time for what matters most.
Before you schedule anything else, schedule blocks of time to work on your BIG THING.
My calendar fills up two or three months in advance. So, at the beginning of every quarter, I block off time for writing before the meetings, appointments, and obligations get in there. Working on your big project in the bits of time left over after everything else is done is a recipe for late nights and no progress. Schedule things that need focus and concentration first.
Schedule your BIG THING around your energy.
As humans, we have times in the day when our energy is high, and concentration and focus are easier. We also have times when our energy flags. When focus becomes difficult. BIG THINGS tend to take a lot of cognitive horsepower. They are best tackled when you have energy to give to them. For me, that is in the morning.
I’ve learned that I work best in intervals – usually 90 to 120 minutes of focused, cognitively demanding work, followed brief refueling breaks. Schedule your less taxing activities – email, routine tasks, most meetings – for times when your energy is lower. For me, that’s afternoons.
Defend your focus time.
The moment you block time in your calendar for this, you’ll get pressure to compromise – that little thing your boss needs right away, the urgent text, or the team meeting scheduled smack in the middle of your block of deep work time.
Let the people in your life know that this time is sacred. I’ve learned that the person most apt to compromise my writing time is me. When someone asks for BIG THING time, ask yourself, “How will my future self feel if I say yes to this?” and / or “What is the worst that will happen if I say no to this request.”
Remember, every yes that compromises the time you’ve set for yourself, is lost progress on this thing that really matters to you.
Step 4. Cure blank page syndrome with “starter.”
My yoga teacher says, the hardest part is showing up.
For me, the hardest part is getting started.
It’s blank page syndrome, but it applies to more than just writing. It is the ‘where do I start’ moment. When all you see is a great big goal and a great big nothing to work with. You say things like, “I got nothin’. Okay, maybe I’ll look at my email instead.”
Here’s the antidote.
Create starter the day before.
Think sour dough bread. To make sour dough bread, starter is the living culture that will make it rise. I try never to start a session of focused work with nothing. The night before, I create starter.
Starter can be a to-do list, a few notes in a notebook, an agenda for a meeting with collaborators. It can be as elaborate as a detailed plan of action or as simple as a few words scratched on the back of a napkin. It doesn’t matter. The question to ask yourself is, is this enough to get me started?
If you do this at the end of the day, your unconscious mind will percolate on your BIG THING overnight and in the morning your mind will be primed to generate good ideas.
Starter reduces anxiety and gives you traction.
Have a repeatable warmup routine.
When you go to the gym, you warm up. When you go for a run, you warm up. If you don’t, you are more prone to injury and you suffer more than you need to in those first few minutes of exercise.
The same is true of working on your BIG THING.
A warmup is like coming at a tough scary problem sideways. It settles you and sustains you until you drop into focus. When you do the same warmup routine every day, it becomes a ritual and a signal to your unconscious mind that it is focus time.
Here’s my typical warm up before deep focused work:
- Make a cup of coffee or tea.
- Check my daily “plan of attack.” (This is a simple, one-page list of my plan for the day.)
- Read over my “starter.”
Here’s what I don’t do to warm up – check email or check social media. That’s a recipe for burning up your deep work time.
Step 5: Follow the ONE BIG THING everyday rule.
Do one thing on your BIG THING every day.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of blocking off 90- 120 minutes every day. Maybe we can create a block of time for this project once or twice a week or once or twice a month.
The ONE BIG THING everyday rule is the connective tissue between those blocks. It’s how you sustain momentum. The bigger the thing, the more effort it takes to get it moving if it is at rest; but once it has momentum, the less effort it takes to keep it in motion.
It’s basic physics.
At the top of my daily plan of attack are the words ONE BIG THING. In the space next to it, I write the ONE BIG THING I will move forward that day. It’s not a goal. I don’t promise a particular outcome because days are funny. They can go sideways. What I promise is that I will feed my One Big Thing with something every day.
If I don’t have a major block of time scheduled that day, I will do something small but significant. I will send an email to move something forward, do a search on a related topic or even just review what I did the day before to keep it fresh.
Keep it fresh, keep it moving, and when you get to your next scheduled block of time, you can slide right into it.
Remember, a BIG THING is a like a dense cloud of little particles.
Tackle at least one particle every day and the next thing you know, you have a book-length manuscript, a finished report, a launched project.
The surprising thing I learned about my ONE BIG THING.
After using this system for awhile, I learned something surprising about myself.
The fun doesn’t come from the outcome like I thought it would. While seeing the finished product is satisfying, the satisfaction is fleeting. The thing that delivers the true satisfaction is the process. It’s the collection of days when I work on the stuff that really matters. It’s the feeling of incremental progress. It’s the many times I drop into flow.
I used to say, “I don’t love writing. I love having written.” I don’t say that anymore. It no longer feels true. I have learned to love the process of writing – when it flows, when it doesn’t, all of it.
It feels great.
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