Monday, March 14, 2011

Staying Afloat


Taking on a big project – whether it’s re-landscaping a yard, renovating a room, writing a novel or cleaning a messy garage – can be so intimidating that we stop before we start. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed, or even “whelmed” (I was surprised to find that’s actually a word) means to become submerged. With K gone for a week, I’m proofing one mystery, writing another, preparing the vegetable beds and cleaning up the other garden beds. But (so far) I’m staying afloat.

Here are a few suggestions for keeping your head above water during big projects:

  • Break the project into smaller pieces. Then break those down to still smaller tasks. Keep doing this until the individual tasks feel doable. Just as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, you can only write a story one paragraph at a time. That feels a lot more possible than “writing a novel.”

  • Or you can break a large task into comfortable time increments. For something like yard work, or even editing, I sometimes use a timer and fit as much as I can into twenty minutes or half an hour. This is related to the Pomodoro Technique, one of many life hacks people have developed in order to get things done.

  • Give yourself lots of time. Seems pretty basic, but panicking toward the end of a deadline is immediately overwhelming.

  • Take breaks. Get up and walk around. Or, if your project has you on your feet, sit down. Have a cup of coffee or herbal tea. Breathe. And if you have time, a twenty minute nap can do wonders.

  • Fill your creative well. This can take many forms. Some people might go to a movie or spend an hour at the flea market. Others might read a book, talk on the phone, or spend an hour knitting. This week I stopped by the hardware store to see the new chicks and baby rabbits, bought and hung an ivy plant in the bedroom, made queso fresco to eat with seared nopales and tomatoes for breakfast, and started radish seeds sprouting for salads – which gave me the feeling of growing something even though it’s too early to plant outside.

  • Eat good food. Lots of fresh vegetables, lean meat, complex carbohydrates – and don’t over eat. Again, pretty basic.

  • Get some exercise. During a big project might not the time to start a new intense program (unless your project is losing weight) because you want to be energized, not exhausted. Keep at whatever program you already have, make time to engage in sports that you enjoy (enjoyment is good!), or simply take a walk during a low-energy part of the day.

  • Know when your low-energy part of the day is. I’m energetic and find it easy to concentrate in the morning even though I hate to get out of bed. So I have a system of alarms that allow me to wake up slowly and a coffee pot programmed to make coffee so it’s there right away. Around two or three in the afternoon I want nothing more than to take a nap. Sometimes I do, but sometimes I walk instead and end up feeling even more refreshed. If I’m short on time I schedule something mindless for late afternoon.

  • Sleep enough. That might be six hours for some or nine for others. You know how much is enough for you. If you’re not getting that much sleep, turn off the television and go to bed.

  • Ease into it. In A Writer’s Time, Kenneth Atchity points out that most projects start out slowly and gain momentum as you make progress. In my experience, he’s right. You just have to trust that process.

Now I’m off for a twenty-minute stint in the yard …

1 comment:

  1. You're so right about breaking things down. I always have to do that at the start of a new freelance project (either copyediting or proofreading). I have a checklist of things I must do with each project, so I always start with the ones that will familiarize me with the project (for example, saving and organizing files, adding page numbers to the TOC, or marking indicators for endnotes). Being able to check off a few small tasks right at the start helps build momentum, and they have the added bonus of making subsequent tasks easier to accomplish.

    Your mention of sprouts reminded me that's something I've been wanting to try. Thanks. :)

    Also, Anne Lamott is a wise woman--love her work.