Overwhelmed: How to Tackle a Big Project

When I was 14 years old, wandering around the halls of my junior high wearing braces and lugging a clunky cloth zip-up binder filled with loose paper, I already had dreams of writing books. I mostly kept these aspirations to myself. After all, I was trapped in the no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood, and was patiently waiting for a time and place to start being a “real” writer– I settled on sometime in the distant future when I would have my shit together.

Penning a clear bestseller, supervised by cats and baby horses

Penning a clear bestseller, supervised by cats and baby horses

Then Eragon was published and it shattered all of my perceptions of how old and experienced you need to be to write a book. Remember Eragon? It was the first book of a delightful fantasy series, a best seller by 2005… and written by Christopher Paolini, a teenage writing sensation!

Eragon’s sheer existence motivated me to try to bang out a novel. As you can imagine, this didn’t go as expected. Lacking a cohesive plan, my writing was sporadic and directionless. But the worst problem, and one that has plagued me into adulthood, was just the sheer size of what I was trying to do. I couldn’t help but see what I hadn’t written yet every time I tried to write. I had so far to go. My characters weren’t fully developed in my head, let alone on paper. I didn’t know how it was going to end. I would drill through a huge section, prioritizing number count over quality and would be disappointed by the results… I wasn’t doing my vision justice.

Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve probably encountered this in other areas of life. A big project can be beginning a degree and realizing halfway through the first gruelling semester how long it will be until you’re finished. It can be starting a business and jotting down a terrifying to-do list that makes the whole thing seem utterly impossible. Or it can be setting out to write a book and feeling the enormity of what you want to accomplish washing over you, smothering you. Suddenly you’re wearing sandbags on your feet and gazing up, up, up, at the summit of a huge mountain. In moments like this, it’s much easier to have a nap instead.

Bird by Bird, Son.

The following tip applies to any big project, but of course my focus is on writing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, non fiction, a website, or a thesis, you have to pull yourself out of the land of the future and back into the present moment.

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If you’ve never read Anne Lammot’s Bird by Bird, I suggest you do so right away. The title itself is based on a story about her brother and his deep childhood overwhelm. Having put off a report on birds for school until the last moment, he is struck down with panic. Their father sits him down and says, “Bird by bird, son. Just take it bird by bird.”

I often find myself muttering this out loud near strangers when I feel the familiar tug of overwhelm, when my sight is firmly planted on the top of that mountain, hidden up among the clouds. It helps me remove those sandbags, look at the trail instead, and start walking. What “bird by bird” truly means is to focus. Rather than muttering to herself, Anne has a 1 inch x 1 inch picture frame on her desk to remind her to hone in on one bit at a time.

The next time overwhelm threatens to pull you under, remember that big projects are no more or less than a bunch of small projects tacked together. Breathe a sigh of relief, and choose something to deep dive into today. If you keep this up, not only is it sustainable but shockingly efficient. Writing a tiny bit every day adds up quickly– while other people are frozen, mesmerized by the top of their mountain, what can you accomplish in a week, a month, a year?

Challenge: Try it out today.

  1. Pull up your big project. You may have a to-do list or plan of some kind, and you may not. It doesn’t matter. Just hold it in your mind. This project is your mountain.

  2. Bring your gaze to the trail where you are today. Choose a bite-sized portion to focus on. Today, just tell a story from your life that will serve as an illustration for this chapter. Or perhaps your character, having recently broken up with his longterm girlfriend, has just moved into a new apartment on a strange block. He opens the door for the first time. Describe what he notices, what he smells, what he’s thinking about and feeling That’s all, just that one moment in time.

  3. Write enough that you feel happy with what you’ve done, but stop before your energy has completely expired (see Distracted and Anxious for focus strategies and experiment until you find your sweet spot. My personal sweet spot time is 45 minutes of writing at a time). I don’t know about you, but whenever I write until I can write no longer, I am far less likely to be excited to pick it up the next day. Before you leave your desk for the day, choose something small to focus on tomorrow so that when you sit down, it’s easier to get back on the trail.

<<< Does distraction and anxiety prevent you from focusing on accomplishing what you love? Read “How To Slow Down For Long Enough To Write Something”

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