I thought that I would post a few ideas that I've had about accomplishing big tasks. Most of these have occurred to me as I've grappled with the dissertation writing process as I work to complete my PhD.
1. Fear is the mind killer (apologies to Dune). I have little problem launching blog posts out to (almost) 10,000 monthly readers, but sending in my first bit of academic writing to my committee was very tough. I would guess that this is based upon a certain sort of selective insecurity-- I feel comfortable in the discourse that is our community here at LTNE, but my uncertainty about my own abilities within the model of academic discourse was very strange, especially as I've moved in and out of academia periodically through the years. Many times I thought to myself, "Mike, what the heck is wrong with you? You've been to war, traveled all over the world, accomplished many difficult things, but here you are nervous about sending in draft academic work for review? That is ridiculous!" Yes it is. If you are confronting something that is new or uncertain, it will probably be a whole lot less scary than you think, so just get over it.
2. Quality work matters. If you are fearful about 1) that is probably good, because that means that you are taking seriously the importance of doing quality work. If you don't have a degree of fear with everything you are doing, you probably aren't stretching yourself. Complacency is an ugly thing.
3. Work creates momentum. Big projects appear big until you break them down into smaller projects and then into even smaller ones. I keep a spreadsheet with multiple pie charts that show each one of my chapters, their anticipated length, and how much I've written. I know how many pages I need to write each day. If I don't make the cut, that number goes up; if I do, it goes down. I've discovered that most days where I go in determined to do "great work," that I do just that-- and not only great work, but I get a head of steam that builds momentum and translates to multiple pages. Getting started really is the hardest part. Plus, you'll create a "new normal," that will propel you along.
4. Research is a siren song. When you are uncertain, fearful, lazy, or unproductive, it is easy to turn to research as a solution. I mean, reading one more article is still work, right? Sure, but it also isn't writing. If you aren't writing, you aren't producing, and if you aren't producing, you aren't getting the job done. Write.
5. Time is what you make of it. I'm really very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to write full time. This was very unexpected. When I finished my course work, I had anticipated writing the dissertation in my own spare time, which I didn't look forward to, but if I wanted to finish, that was the cost. However, it would have been far easier to say, "I don't have the time," when, in most cases, you probably do. As a corollary to 3) above, I'm now absolutely convinced that any person can finish almost any creative endeavor over the course of a year with just one hour each day. If you want to publish a novel or an e-book, create a blog with some reach, publish video reviews or how-to's about your favorite things, create a piece of music, paint something worthwhile, start a side business, get back into shape, or accomplish almost any other task, you can probably get there with an hour a day. I'm thinking about writing a novel after I finish several other goals. If I do, it will be one day and one page at a time.
6. Gain some perspective. What is the worst thing that can happen with your project? Visualize that. Now, was that really that bad of an outcome? It probably wasn't. Once you visualized your failure, did you still have the essentials in your life? I would guess that you did. In your visualization, were you embarrassed? Did you feel like a failure? Why? Those emotions, though very real, are choices-- you've allowed yourself to feel this way. Isn't it better to rob your future self of these sorrows by simply acknowledging their possibility now? Things are rarely as bad as we think they are and the really bad things are usually beyond our control anyway. Acknowledge that fact. Failure is an important part of life. (Here's more that I've written on negative visualization).
7. Take some friends on your journey. I have a few people who read and comment on my work before it goes into my committee. This is incredibly valuable, not just because it makes my work better, but because they are authentic readers, who are willing to offer biting criticism alongside encouragement, each where it is warranted. Pick wisely, though, as the people you bring on your journey need to believe in it and they must be willing to be honest.
8. Distractions are everywhere. Structure your environment and your project in a way that you avoid them. Is there something that always commands your attention, but you know is getting in the way of accomplishing your goals? If so, get rid of it. When it is time for me to write, I physically disconnect my Internet access. If I don't, I'll find it too easy to check email, see what's going on in the news, check Facebook, etc. Is TV eating up your time in the evenings? Cut your cable. If you are powerless against the distractions, you need to get them out of your life.
9. Prioritize. I'm beginning to understand better my own limits. Yours might vary, but I'm discovering that I can only do a few things well and perhaps only one thing very well. Figure out what you really want to accomplish and focus on that one thing and accept some risk with your other goals. If you can accomplish multiple difficult (and different) things simultaneously, then you are probably exceptional.
No doubt I'll learn a few more things over the course of the remaining months of my writing and over the upcoming years as I tackle new projects or challenges, as they emerge.
Is there anything you're setting out to accomplish? Anything else to add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!