Eating the Elephant

I begin this post with a disclaimer: the subject matter of this post is a long way from original. Getting things done is a well-covered topic, and a quick web search of my title will show you that many others have covered the topic in a very similar way. That said, I think the topic is important, and through recent emails, and conversations with artists, I know the issue is pertinent to my audience. This post is my take on how to approach certain projects and tasks.

I recently finished a large project at the gallery, or at least got it far enough along that I felt I was definitively moving from one phase to another. Looking back over the work involved in the project, I realized this might have been one of the largest projects I had ever undertaken. Without getting too far into the nature of the project itself (that will be the material of future posts) I realized that I had learned some real lessons along the way about discipline and perseverance.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned, however, was the importance of breaking big jobs into manageable tasks, and it’s this lesson that I want to discuss today.

Several years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. I had created a workshop for artists on how to approach galleries and build successful relationships with them, and I knew from feedback to the workshop, that this was material that needed to be distilled into a book so that it could be disseminated to a wider audience.

In a lot of ways, the book would be very easy to write, I thought. I had already created a very detailed outline when putting together the workshop, and in giving the workshop had refined a lot of the narrative that would accompany the main points of the book. Really, all I had to do was sit down and start typing.

For some reason, this was easier said than done. I started writing, but the progress was far slower than I had anticipated. I would find some time to write in my crazy schedule, and sit down and start writing, and while I was writing the words seemed to flow pretty easily. But then, I would be called away to deal with some other issue, or get into another project, and the next thing I knew, several weeks had passed without my having written a word.

It was clear, at this rate, the book was going to take years to write. This might have, indeed, been the case, were it not for a serendipitous conversation with a cousin.

I was giving a workshop in Nashville, TN, where this cousin lives, and was able to spend some time with him and his family while there. At breakfast, we started talking about my book (he had written a novel several years earlier) and he gave me an incredibly powerful suggestion.

My cousin told me that he had read a nonfiction book by Stephen King on the craft of writing, and that what had stood out to him was King’s suggestion that, when writing, the author shouldn’t worry about writing a book, which could be a daunting task, but should instead make a commitment to write 1500 words a day – a manageable undertaking. Ironically, I’ve still never actually read King’s book myself (for all I know I’ve completely misunderstood King’s direction) but just that suggestion was enough to get me launched.

On the flight home that day, I wrote a little over 1500 words and committed I would do the same every day until the book was completed. I wasn’t perfect – I missed a few days (which I tried to make up) – but about 4 weeks later I had a first-draft of the book completed. 4 weeks!

I’ve since written a second book using the same technique, and I apply this principle to almost everything I do, large or small, important or not.

Breaking things up works especially well for those pesky jobs that aren’t really critical, but you wish you could get done – like cleaning out your studio, for example.

Several years ago, we cleaned out our storage area at the gallery. The cleaning and organizing resulted in a huge pile of refuse. There was too much trash to place in our garbage bin; we would have filled it many times over. It also would have taken multiple trips to the dump to eliminate the pile, and somehow I couldn’t find the time or willpower to make the long drive to the municipal collection center. Looking at the pile, I would throw my hands up in the air and despair of ever getting rid of it.

Finally, I decided I would attack it a bit at a time. Every day I would move ten items from our pile to the trash bin out back. When I arrived at work, the first thing I would do is grab ten items and move them to the trash. This wouldn’t take more than a few minutes – it was easy!

A few weeks later the pile was gone.

Book Reading Calendar

I even apply this to reading books. I’m an avid reader, but I have a crazy schedule between running the gallery, giving workshops, writing for the blog and chasing 4 active kids around with my wife. If I only read when I can find time, I never read. So instead I read a book 10 pages/day (usually I have two going at a time for a total of 20 pages a day). I print out a little calendar that I create in Excel that keeps me on track. 20 pages a day is doable, but at the end of the year I’ve read 7300 pages.

Some projects aren’t as easily broken down. If you’ve decided you want to put together a marketing campaign, for example, it’s not as if you can break that kind of project into bits. Instead, make a time commitment. Thirty minutes or an hour alone might not get you far, but multiply that by five days a week, four weeks a month, and after a month you’ve put significant time to the project.
I’m not perfect at this. There are still times when I fall behind or procrastinate and end up pulling all-nighters to get ready for an important event or engagement, but I have found that any project worth committing to is also worth planning. Breaking it up into day-size pieces almost guarantees I’ll get it done.

Do you have a project looming on the horizon? Try using this strategy and see how eating the elephant one bite at a time makes the project infinitely more doable.

What strategies do you use to get your big projects done? Do you have experience using this strategy? What would you tell someone who is using it for the first time? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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