Anytime I’ve ever worked on a big project it’s felt overwhelming. That’s true all the way back to my fifth grade report on Frederick Douglass and up to my first cover story for Newsweek about a Nazi hunter. And most recently, I’ll admit, it’s been The Muse’s first-ever multimedia feature, which recently launched, that’s filled the recurring role of “Big Project Stressing Me Out.”
The big projects have gotten bigger over time. But each one was daunting in the moment. They were exciting and terrifying. In many ways, the fear came from the sheer size of each endeavor, and a sense that I’d never get it done. And sometimes that became paralyzing. There was so much to do I didn’t know what to do—where to start or what to do next each time I sat down to make some progress. Especially when the deadline was still a ways away (or even ambiguous) and there was no clear structure to the time between now and done.
That’s probably why a tweet from Lilly Dancyger—deputy editor of Narratively and editor of Burn it Down, a forthcoming anthology of work by women and non-binary writers about anger—felt so relatable and helpful. I immediately filed it under “Wish I’d thought of this years ago but fine, at least I know I’m definitely trying this next time.”
“Small thing I've been doing during this latest ms revision that's really helped,” wrote Dancyger, who’s also writing a memoir. “Leave a post-it note on my desk @ the end of each writing day w/ a very specific task to start w/ when I come back to it, so I don't have to spend the first hour(s) flailing around getting reoriented.”
Small thing I've been doing during this latest ms revision that's really helped: Leave a post-it note on my desk @ the end of each writing day w/ a very specific task to start w/ when I come back to it, so I don't have to spend the first hour(s) flailing around getting reoriented— Lilly Dancyger (@lillydancyger) July 27, 2018
It’s so simple. But it makes so much sense. It takes time to settle in and get focused on your work, even when you know exactly what tasks you’re supposed to be ticking off.
While “write 200 pages” or “complete the end-of-year analysis” are feasible long-term goals, they’re not reasonable or helpful items to think about for today. And if that’s what’s in your brain, how will you know what to do right now?
Dancyger’s suggestion—to put a specific to do on a tangible sticky note and plaster it on your workspace—would let you skip over that initial flustered period. I imagine it’d not only make you way more productive, but also take some of the stress and fear out of the process.
“This practice has really helped me make the most of the time I have to write, because when I get to work I can go straight to what needs to be done,” Dancyger told me in an email. “In the past I've wasted a lot of my writing time reading over stuff and figuring out what to do next, but with a clear and direct starting point I can get right to it.”
I’m sure the next big project I take on will still be overwhelming to some extent. But I’m excited to try out this little trick to make it a little less scary, and a little more productive.