Bite-Sized Goals and Mousey Nibbles: Managing Lengthy Projects

Working your way through large, lengthy projects, like . . . oh, writing a novel, for instance, can be overwhelming, can’t it? First you have to write down the words, then you have to fix the words, then you have to fix them a second time, and possibly a third or fourth or fifth time. Then you have to figure out how to get those words out into the world, whether via traditional methods or indie. And while you’re trying to accomplish all of this, you have everyday life stuff to deal with too: jobs, family, chores—as well as non-everyday stuff, such as illnesses, vacations, bad mental health days, holidays . . . I could go on and on.

Of course, it helps to get organized by setting goals and deadlines—to mark on your calendar in bold when you want your first draft to be finished by, when you need to be done with the first round of edits, and so on. But when setting these longer deadlines, it’s easy to underestimate how long you’re really going to need.

I’ve made this mistake many times. I’ve tried to prevent it by calculating out how many words I need to write each day leading up to my deadline in order to reach it—making room for days when I know I’ll have less time to write. As long as I write the prescribed number of words each day, I’ll be perfectly fine, right? But then, life throws obstacles in my path, and soon I’m failing to meet my word counts and falling behind. The farther behind I fall, the more frustrated I get. I move my deadline out. I recalculate my word counts. Then I fall behind again. I get discouraged and overwhelmed over, and over, and I start to think I’ll never finish this darn thing.

Does this sound familiar?

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you do well with large goals and a daily word count system. Maybe that’s all you need in order to get things done. If so, that’s fantastic! It’s common advice, so it must work for a lot of writers, right? But if it’s not working for you, just as it hasn’t been working for me, I’d like to suggest a few things that have been working for me lately, in the hopes that you, too, will find them helpful.

Make 2-3 Bite-Sized Goals At A Time

I still plan out the large goals (finish draft, revise draft, edit draft.) But I’ve lessened their importance in favor of smaller, bite-sized goals (that, I must stress, aren’t word counts,) and I only plan out a few of these goals at a time. For instance, my goal this weekend was to re-examine my outline, because I’ve discovered I need to throw out some scenes and replace them with brand new ones. I wasn’t writing the scenes this weekend—just taking a look and deciding what I need those scenes to do. My next bite-sized goal will be to outline those scenes. The bite-sized goal after that will be to finally draft those scenes. And . . . that’s it. That’s as far ahead as I’ve planned. Obviously, I have an idea of what I’ll need to do after that, because I know that my ultimate goal is to finish revising this entire draft. But for now, I’m not going to worry about anything further than getting through these next few scenes.

Keeping my goals small and few in number helps me feel like I’m actually making progress. If I look at it in respect to the larger goal of finishing my revisions, it won’t feel like I’ve done much at all. I’ll feel like I’m moving at a snail’s pace, and I’ll get frustrated. So I don’t do that.

Only Work Under Your Best Working Conditions

Pay close attention to when and where you do your best work. Do you get more done in the morning? Then work in the morning and don’t try to squeeze more work out of yourself past that time (unless you absolutely must.) Do you have specific days when you’re less likely to be able to focus? Keep your expectations low on those days. I have a standing appointment every Tuesday morning that tends to throw off my concentration for the rest of the day. I’ve come to accept that if I do get any writing done on Tuesdays, it’s a bonus. I’m better off using Tuesdays to catch up on chores or other things that don’t require me to think too much. I’m having a harder time convincing myself that writing post-children’s bedtimes is also a lost cause. But it’s a fact that I’m usually too tired and brain-drained to do much of anything by then. My best times for focusing are late morning and early afternoon when the kids are at school, so that’s when I make myself sit down and work. I also pay attention to my energy level. If I try to work with my laptop on the couch, am I more likely to nap instead? If so, I’ll make myself a cup of coffee or tea, and work sitting up at my desk. Is my back bothering me to the point where sitting at my desk will make the pain worse and/or distract me? Then maybe the couch would be better after all.

Just Take a Mousey Nibble

Okay, this one probably needs some background. My oldest son is a very picky eater. Always has been. He has texture issues and we suspect he may also be a super taster, because he will often complain about things tasting “too strong.” There was a period when he was younger where he was so anxious about trying new foods, that he would burst into tears at the mere suggestion. That is until one day, he told us that maybe . . . maybe he could just try a mouse-sized bite. A little mousey nibble. A nearly microscopic taste that, like sticking a toe in the water, would help to alleviate some of his fear of the unknown. This still works with him. “Just take a mousey nibble, and if you don’t like it, that’s okay,” we tell him. And so he does. And then sometimes, all on his own, he will decide to take a larger taste afterward.

If, even with your bite-sized goals, you’re still feeling anxious about sitting down to work, or you’re not sure how to get started, or you’re just plain unmotivated, tell yourself that you only have to take a mousey nibble. Open your document and commit to five minutes. You don’t even have to type anything. You can use those five minutes to look over your last paragraph, or glance through your outline, or heck, just stare at the blank screen. Chances are though, once your timer goes off, you’ll be able to settle yourself into your task. And if you still can’t, that’s ok. Take a break and try another mousey nibble later. Maybe it’ll taste different next time.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Do you have any other tricks up your sleeve that help you get through large projects? Please share them with us in the comments.

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard, Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele, knitting, or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys and three mischievous cats. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

On Stepping Away

I’ve been an active Twitter user for about three years now, mostly involved in the writing community, though I do interact with some non-writers as well. I joined it for networking—for getting my name out there so that when I eventually do have a published book, people will know who I am and will be more likely to want to read it.

In joining that community, I’ve gained so much more than that. I’ve gained friendships—have even met several friends in person. One of them is local, and we meet up all the time, and are pretty much besties now. I’ve also learned so much about the craft and art of writing that would have taken me much longer to figure out (if at all) had I kept myself isolated from social media. Twitter has been a boon to my writing, is what I’m saying. I was even chosen as a mentee during last year’s Pitch Wars contest, which I never would have even known about, much less have been ready to enter, had I not been on Twitter. I wouldn’t be writing for this blog either. I was invited to join as a regular contributor by one of my CPs, Helen Boswell, who I also met via Twitter.

Unfortunately, social media has also had its negative effects. I’ve developed a habit of popping on whenever I get stuck for words, and will often stay on longer than intended, scrolling and replying—wasting precious writing time. I’ve also noticed a changing atmosphere lately, with a lot of negativity and anger and shouting about things, and less writerly support and general camaraderie. So many rules, so many “do this, don’t do that’s.” So much urgency to prove oneself as a writer, to have an agent, to be published, to have something to show for all the work you do. And that’s good! And also bad. Bad for creativity, that is. At least for me.

So a couple weeks ago, I did something drastic. I deactivated my account. It’s only temporary—I would like to have that account later when I do have something published and want to let people know about it. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the attitude I used to have for writing compared to the attitude I have now. It’s hard to explain, but I guess before, it was more about the magic and wonder of it, with less oh-my-goodness-I-need-to-hurry-and-produce-something-STAT, plus hyperventilating and an urgent need to puke. Basically, I needed to step away. Away, not just from social media, but from the community as a whole. (Again, only temporarily.)

And it was really, really hard.

But this is what happened: I started knitting again. I started reading again. I started cooking again, for fun, not just necessity. And best of all, I started writing again—not every day, but when I felt like it. When I feel like it. And that’s when my best writing occurs. I’m enjoying it again, wholeheartedly, with less stress, less need to hurry up and get something out there, less self-judgment, and much less fear. I do miss everyone, and as I said, I will come back, but I’m going to remember this experience and employ this method again whenever I start to slip back into that funnel of anxiety that I’ve slowly squeezed myself into over the last few years. I don’t even know if that metaphor makes sense, but I like how it sounds and I’m keeping it. See? Less self-judgment.

So if you can relate to what I’m saying, might I suggest you do the same? Just be sure and reactivate your account before 30 days are up or your Twitter life will be deleted completely. You might find a new way of thinking about things, and you might like it. A lot. You might love it. You might, may I be so bold, even wonder if you want to go back at all. (Do go back—just don’t log in as much maybe, but seriously go back, we’ll miss you). As for me, I will see you again on Twitter, bright and early, on October 1st. Probably. (Yes).

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.