Big Projects and Productivity

A comment on a previous post points out that people sometimes get stuck on long projects and stall because they haven’t figured out the next step.  “Write a book” seems a little daunting.  You can’t get it done today.  So you shy away from getting started at all. 


Productivity gurus talk about figuring out next steps and putting them in your planner (i.e., David Allen and Getting Things Done), and that strategy makes a lot of sense for many tasks.  If you want to plan a family vacation, you can figure out the main steps and break them down: save the money, book the trip, have a good time.  To save the money you might set up an automatic withdrawal at your bank so that a certain amount of money from each paycheck is moved to a special savings account.  To book the trip, you might call a travel agent or search online at or  And so on.


But some projects are stubbornly resistant to this approach.  The “steps” to writing a book are pretty basic: Write page one.  Write page two.  Repeat as needed.  The same for other big, long-term goals.  To lose weight, the steps are simple (which is not to say they’re easy): eat less and exercise more.  You can turn these steps into action items by keeping a daily food journal and writing exercise dates into your planner, but it still comes back to having the motivation to do these things for the long haul, over and over, even when results aren’t immediate. 


“Write a book” can be a paralyzing prospect, but so can “write page one, then page two and so on for the next five hundred days,” which is what a productivity guru would have us do.  But to me, and I think to most people who successfully get to the end of a big project, the trick is to get excited about writing one page after the other.  I’m lucky I can spend two hours every morning at the coffee shop working on my fiction.  I can think of years when I didn’t have that kind of luxury.  It’s a gift, and I don’t want to squander it.


What I mean is we have to love the process – the act of writing.  That’s why so many of us fail at things we know we should do – like lose weight – because we don’t love the process.  All we’re doing is trying to get to the reward.  But it is really hard to reach the reward if you don’t love the process.  Which is why you need to love the process, even when you’ve spent the afternoon erasing everything you wrote in the morning.  


To me, this is more about mindset than anything: I’m learning something every time I take out a scene I spent six hours lovingly crafting (when I could have spent that six hours doing something equally valuable).  This is what I tell myself, anyway, and I think that’s the crucial point.  The things we tell ourselves about our work shape the reality of our work.  So look for all the ways you can love the process of whatever you’re doing instead of focusing only on the reward at the end of it.