Ask Steph is a monthly column where I answer all of your tricky business questions! Get ready to tackle everything from setting up better software & systems, to organizing your work day, to planning out your business content, to establishing better boundaries with your clients. Have a question for me? Ask away, right here. See archives here.
How Do I Complete a Project With Lots of Moving Parts?
“Dear Steph, I have big dreams. Maybe you can relate? I’m constantly having awesome business ideas that I just know would be amazing and serve my audience, but I can never seem to see them through until the end. I always get stuck, then give up. It just becomes too overwhelming to handle all the details and remember all the steps I need to take to make my idea a reality. How do you handle projects with lots of moving pieces, whether that’s for yourself or for with your clients?”
You find a system that works for you.
The truth is, there’s no one simple magic formula for getting projects done. The enormous variety of project management apps and leadership styles alone shows us that there is more than one way to skin a cat (so to speak). There are so many ways to make your ideas a reality, and finding the system that works for you involves a LOT of trial and error.
Do you know how many task management systems I went through before settling on my current fave? Way too many. And I STILL think about changing it! Regularly! So my caveat to all that follows is to say: keep trying new things. Keep experimenting with calendar blocking or batching your tasks or whatever newfangled paper planner lights you up this week. Keep exploring until you find what works for you.
That being said, and since you asked, I do have some ideas. There are three key ingredients that make the biggest difference in my work with clients. Without all three of these things, your work will be less effective and it will be harder to complete a project. Once these factors click into place, progress starts happening faster and more efficiently than before.
And the great news is that there are so many different ways to work with the same core ingredients! Each one can be customized by you, chosen to match your personal preferences and style of working. Sounds fun, right? Maybe this makes me a nerd, but: it really is fun. It is such a joy to find systems that make you happy and help you get things done. So without further ado, here are those three key pieces of the puzzle, plus a few different suggestions of how you can integrate them into your workflows.
1. Make It Visual
Without a doubt, this is my favourite of the three strategies, and the one that seems to make the biggest difference right away. Most of the time when we have a great idea, we get a powerful vision in our heads. The problem is that a powerful vision is not the same as a plan. Focusing solely on the vision is like watching a glamorous documentary about where you want to go on vacation without packing your bags or booking a flight or finding an Airbnb. Good luck getting there!
Instead, we need to make each part of the journey tangible, tactile, or visual. We have to make it real for ourselves by getting it out of our heads and into the world.
RESISTANCE ALERT 🚨: I get that this is scary! The moment we make it real, we make ourselves vulnerable. The moment we make it real, it is no longer the perfect, flawless dream in our imagination. As Ann Patchett writes in her amazing book The Getaway Car, making it real means killing the butterfly. I get that this sucks, but sadly, there is no other way.
Chances are, you already have a visual method that speaks to you, so I encourage you to make ample use of it as part of your creative process. The moment you have a big idea, kill the butterfly and sketch it out. Take it from imagination into action. By the way: I’ll link some digital tools below, but I find this process works SO MUCH BETTER in an analog format. I’m not sure why, but my best tools for making it visual are a piece of printer paper and a black Sharpie. Here’s an example of a basic bird’s eye view I created for my upcoming retreat (!) in Whimsical.
Ways to Make It Visual:
- Draw out a mind map
- Make a literal sketch on paper (of a room layout, of a retreat itinerary, of a website homepage)
- Create a flow chart
- Make a Kanban board (digitally or with post-it notes)
2. Make It Timely
Next, it’s super important to slot your plans and ideas into a form of physical calendar time. Just like we don’t appear at our vacation destination with a fruity drink in our hand without going through airport security, so too do we not suddenly arrive at our goal without taking steps along the way. And when do those steps happen? Over the course of hours, days, weeks, and months.
I’m going to tell you this right now: your idea is going to take longer than you think to turn into a reality. Way longer. Maybe three times longer, maybe more. Don’t just keep scrolling like you know this! Take it in! Accept it as truth. And once you’ve accepted it, give yourself more time. Take your initial dream date of when you’d hoped to launch and double it. Once you’ve accepted that things take forever, you’ll no longer feel as discouraged when things seem to be taking forever. (And if you prove me wrong, I will be utterly delighted, for that will mean that you’ve launched your dream early! Nothing would make me happier.)
Next, you have to connect your vision to the reality of the time you have. Big things happen one day at a time. Take your visual plan in one hand (whether that’s a flow chart, mind map or otherwise), and a calendar in the other, and start to map your milestones and tasks into the time you have available. Essentially, you’re building a workback schedule to complete the project. You’re matching all the big steps you need to take to a specific date or time.
Ways to Make It Timely:
- Literally give yourself more time (extend your due date)
- Put your (realistic!) launch date into your regular calendar
- Print out calendar pages and write in your major milestones on your way to your goal
- Make a one-page summary of your big steps with dates next to them
- Assign yourself due dates in your project management software
3. Make It Smaller
This is something I talk about in more depth in my productivity course, but for now just know that if you’re struggling to complete a task, chances are that it’s too big of a task. Even if it “seems simple” or “should be easier than this”, the fact that you’re not moving forward is a sign that you need to get more specific.
This is a big part of why I love my current task management software, Asana. Not only can I give myself due dates for big tasks (for example, writing this blog post), I can also give myself due dates for each of the smaller tasks along the way (for example: 1. Create the outline, 2. Write a draft, 3. Add links, photos & emphasis, and so on).
When tasks are small and specific, you can more easily see where they can fit into your day. When they’re big and intimidating, you can’t. And you can’t complete a project without fitting in all the necessary tasks.
Making your work tasks more bite-sized keeps you motivated! By doing so, you’re acknowledging all the work that goes into “one simple task”…which is actually more like ten smaller tasks. Seeing yourself tick things off (even if they’re “easy”) keeps you connected to the project! There’s nothing more demoralizing than working all day and not being able to check anything off your to-do list.
Ways to Make It Smaller:
- Make sure every “task” you assign yourself can be completed in 30-60 minutes or less
- Find a task management system that you like! I recommend Asana or ClickUp.
- Assign every single small task a due date
- Give yourself credit for each and every tiny task you complete
- Try calendar blocking for each of your small tasks to really put them in context
- If you liked this post, you might also be interested in reading these posts: How to Break Down a Big Project, and How to Motivate Yourself as an Entrepreneur.
- For even more information on how I structure my work days and to learn the basics of what I consider to be the most productive approach to work, check out my course with Make Lemonade, Operations 101 ⚡️: Do More In Less Time!
- Interested in the retreat I’m planning in the examples above? Join my newsletter here to be the first to know when these tasks are completed! 😉 The retreat is happening next February 21-23, 2020.
Practice Makes Progress
The most important ingredient of all is persistence. Like so many things in life and business, the process requires a tremendous amount of trial and error. We hear the phrase “trial and error” a lot, but I hope you internalize it as a core value and remember that trials and errors are normal, expected, and absolutely okay. If you could see how many systems I have tried and gotten frustrated with and abandoned, you’d probably feel a lot better about feeling a bit confused by how to set up something that works for you. But like I said at the top: there’s no magic formula. Just make sure whatever system you choose includes all three of these ingredients, and you’ll be off to the races before you know it.
I’d love to know: How do you complete a project that you care about? How do you stay motivated and organized to do your best work? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @stephpellett.
PS. If you’re interested in bringing more productivity into your work day, don’t forget to check out my course, Operations 101 ⚡️.