If you’re like most creative people I talk with, you probably have a dozen different projects bouncing around in your brain. You may even be working on a dozen different projects at once, bouncing back and forth as the muse strikes.
That’s a common approach — but it can also be exhausting, creatively.
I’ve been feeling the creative burnout lately, so I picked up Productivity for Creative People by Mark McGuinness. It’s a great book, but one section in particular really struck me. He talks about creating a sustainable workload by figuring out what ongoing work you have to do (client work, family obligations, recurring tasks) — this forms your base time obligations.
Then, in your extra time, work on a project.
McGuinness defines a project as anything requiring a large chunk of sustained work. That could be planning for an event (book launch, speech, conference), building an asset (writing your novel, creating a website, blogging), or clearing your backlog (dealing with piled up emails, errands, or housekeeping tasks).
Rather than using my method of bouncing distractedly from project to project, McGuinness limits himself to one project at a time, then works through it until he’s done. Rather than trying to herd a whole mess of basketballs toward the other side of the court in one go, McGuinness takes one ball, dribbles it down, shoots and scores before jogging back to pick up the next ball.
When you’re spread too thin, it’s hard to do your best work. Of course, life still gets messy, but keeping the principle of one project at a time in mind can help you create better art, work more quickly, and stay energized.
Find your priority
What’s the most important thing on your plate right now? Not just the most pressing — what will make the biggest impact on your career or life right now?
That’s your main priority.
Of course, chances are you have a dozen other obligations that need to happen, too. You may be faced with multiple deadlines or an overabundance of client work. Doing this work may take greater priority from day to day, but your big priority project should always be chugging along in the background.
Even if you have multiple responsibilities or deadlines, try to stick with the One Project approach as much as possible.
What that means for me is that I now spend larger amounts of time working on a specific task until completion, rather than trying to accomplish work for five different clients in one day. I’ll generally choose two pressing client projects per day, and spend the morning working on one and the afternoon working on the other.
Commit the time
Remember that overarching priority we just talked about? Even if it can’t be your daily priority, commit a few minutes each day to making progress.
One thing I realized a few weeks ago is that the root of my recent creative block is that I’ve been waiting for a mythical huge chunk of time to materialize so I can work on my novel. In that waiting, I’ve written nothing.
Finally, I decided simply to take 30 minutes every day and work on it first thing before I do anything else. It’s been a fairly easy resolution to keep, and even though I’m only writing 300-500 words a day, that’s 300-500 more words than I was doing last month!
If you can’t find 30 minutes, I know you can find 15. Commit to spending that time on your big project, no matter how hectic life gets. Then, even when life seems crazy, you’re making progress where it really counts.
Commit to going deep
Sometimes you can’t help but be spread thin — there’s simply too many demands on your time.
But skipping shallowly along won’t make it better. In fact, it’ll just make you feel like you’re being pulled in too many directions at once.
When you need to blast through a daunting pile of projects, commit to going deep. Rather than taking shallow sips from each project, turn off the internet, take a deep breath and practice focusing on the task at hand until it’s done.
I like to make myself a visual reminder to work deeply, like putting a Post-it note on my laptop screen, or tying a piece of yarn around my wrist. That way when I have the urge to zip over to social media for a minute, I’m reminded of my commitment.
This is much harder than it should be (for me, at least!) But it’s also an incredibly satisfying practice.
Avoid getting spread thin in the future: Keep a list of “no”s
The best way to not be overwhelmed today is to have said no to half your obligations earlier — obviously. This tip may not help you if you’re already spread thin, but Future You will love you for doing this.
Start keeping a list of things you say no to. I simply don’t take on certain types of copywriting projects, for example. I’ve also stopped taking on clients if I don’t love their company’s mission. In addition to client work I say no to, I also have a much messier list of personal projects I say no to. A few weeks ago I came up with an amazing anthology idea, which got a great response from friends who wanted to submit to it. When I told my husband, he said, “I have two words for you: Stay focused.”
Don’t worry. It’s going in my back pocket.
How can you tell what to say “no” to?
I can’t remember where I first heard this phrase, but this sums it up for me: Only say yes to what “feels light.” What’s your gut is telling you when you consider this project. Does it fill you with energy and joy? Does it make you feel leaden? If you sit quietly with the decision, can you hear a little voice in the back of your head screaming “noooooooooooooo!”?
Remember: You don’t do your best creative work when you’re spread too thin. Try picking one project and staying with it until completion — or at least until your creativity is telling you its time to change gears.
If you could pick one project to work on today that would have the biggest long-term positive effects on your life or creative business, what would it be?