24 January 2018

Case Study: Four Tips on How to Complete Big Projects Currently Bogging You Down

Have you ever wanted to `embark on a big project, but felt stymied by the size of it?

Everyone is busy. We all have our regular work, existing clients, prospects, staff or contractors, deadlines to meet – the game goes on. So, where do we find time to implement new projects? It’s so easy to say ‘I don’t have time’, isn’t it.

A Personal Case Study:

A major activity I’ve thought about for years is to write novels. Non-fiction is easy for me – I can churn out business writing relatively easily, with six big books and many smaller ebooks, articles, workbooks and products to prove it. But for years I’ve made excuses about doing novels. The long-running internal dialogue went like this:

  • I don’t have time to focus on fiction while I’m running my business.
  • I need large blocks of time to get into the flow.
  • The research will take too much time.

However, something happened a year ago to change that belief, and I’m jumping for joy ‒I’ve just finished my first historical novel.

People keep asking how I did it. I’ve identified four key strategies.  I hope you’ll find them helpful also, as you undertake your next big project.

Tip 1: Set a Goal

Learning point: Don’t focus on the mighty effort required to finish. Break your project down into bite-sized achievable chunks.

Example: A year ago I attended a 2-day course with writing coach Kathryn Burnett. http://www.kathryn-burnett.com/. At the end of the second day she challenged us to set a target of words per day, per week, or even per month, that we felt we could commit to.  She said, ‘I don’t care what the number is. I just want to you to set a number that you believe you can do.’

I know heaps about goals; I even teach it. But having someone else challenge me helped lift the excusitis I’d become bogged down with. So I found a relevant marker and worked backwards.

I had already booked to fly to Canada and the States seven months later to visit family. Given that the story shouting to come out is set in 1830s/1840s America, it dawned on me that the coming trip was an excellent research opportunity. And, if a decent number of words had already been penned, any research would be more relevant and useful.

Breaking the overall target into small pieces, I calculated that 500 words a day until I left would give me 80,000 words ‒ a decent chunk of completed work. A small daily target felt achievable; 80,000 words felt like an impossible mountain. I didn’t manage 500 words every single day, but for more than 2/3rds of the year, I did. (Life sometimes got in the way.) However, it was very gratifying to have 50,000 words completed before I stepped on that plane in August. It didn’t matter that I didn’t make the target of 80,000. It was only a device to keep me focused. And yes, even that amount of work made a huge difference to the research.


Tip 2: You Might Have to Put Something Else Aside

Learning Point: Sometimes we have to temporarily sacrifice a good goal for the greater goal.

I gave up two things.  One was sleeping in. Early morning is always my most creative time, so for most of last year you would have found me at my keyboard soon after 5am, even on holidays and weekends. I usually wrote for two or three hours, depending on what else was happening that day.

One other thing I gave up, for the second half of the year, was French classes. I’ve been learning French for the last six years, with the aim of speaking reasonably fluently with friends in France. Those extra hours not travelling to class, in class, and study, were allocated to the writing.


Tip 3: Don’t Underestimate the Power of Small Contributions Over Time

Learning Point: Every few minutes makes a difference.

 Jim Collins, in his fabulous business book ‘Good to Great’, talks about the ‘Flywheel Effect.’

“Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort … If someone asks ‘What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?’ … you wouldn’t be able to answer. … It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied in a consistent direction.”

What small piece of activity can you do today that will make an impact on your big goal?

From a writing perspective, another New Zealand writer, Jude Knight gave me some really practical advice. http://judeknightauthor.com/. She is a very prolific Regency romance novelist who also holds down a day job in Wellington. (If you enjoy that genre, check her out. Her books are really well written and quite addictive.) She commutes to work on the train from the Wairarapa and can power out 800-1,000 words in an hour’s commute.  She said: ‘Even if you’ve only got 10 minutes, write. It’s amazing how quickly a book will grow if you use the gaps.

After that conversation, I found myself following Jude’s advice. The result has been electrifying.


Tip 4: Lock Yourself in to a Commitment to Others

Learning Point: Energy is released when you commit to someone else. It might be an ‘unreasonable friend’ who doesn’t take your feeble excuses. It might be a date when something’s due. Ask any student with a deadline looming!

In October, when I was about two-thirds of the way through, an opportunity came up that required the book to be complete by late January. I decided to apply for it. Suddenly I experienced an amazing release of energy. Words poured off the tips of my fingers. I found myself working into the evening, even though I’ve never seen myself as creative in the latter part of the day. The more I wrote, the easier the writing became. Since then, other opportunities have also arisen. Whether or not I’m successful with the first one is no longer important. The motivator was the deadline. My behaviour changed, energy lifted, and the book is finished. Completion becomes its own reward.


All the very best with your own projects. You CAN do it.



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