The Smallest Way ForwardSeptember 15, 2012
Momentum is the key to creative endeavors and side projects, especially solo ones. How do you build and maintain momentum when your deadline is your own and your paycheck is elsewhere?
Most likely, this isn’t even a question at the beginning. If you’ve embarked on creating something new during the hours of the day when your time is your own, when you could be doing anything you like with whoever you like, you’re probably filled with ideas and obsessed with bringing them to life. The only thing holding you back is the number of hours in the day.
That doesn’t always last, though.
After the rush of brainstorming names for your app, book or company and the effortless outline, feature list, or first sentence, things can suddenly grow very still. The first wave of encouragement and congratulations wears off and you realize it will be a few weeks before anybody will wonder why you haven’t shown off the progress you’ve made.
So, you take a little break. It’s important to pace yourself, after all. Then maybe you take a couple of days to look for inspiration.
At this point, your confidence begins to fade and your motivation starts to shift from the thrill of creating something new to guilt about your lack of progress. Some people produce great work under those circumstances, but I find it demoralizing. Days of little progress turn into weeks and eventually I need a fresh dose of inspiration and determination to dive in again.
I’ve learned to find the smallest way forward each day and take it.
This may sound obvious, but it goes against the emphasis on prioritization that dominates our school and work lives. Normally the goal is to determine what is the next most important thing on your to do list and then work on it.
In the case of a creative project like a novel, the most important thing to do is to write another page. It will be that way every day until it is finished. To be successful, though, you have to allow for other ways to make progress. Pauses are healthy, but it’s important to pause a specific task like writing the next chapter or implementing payment processing, without pausing the project itself.
It’s not the most important thing each day; it’s anything that moves you forward, that brings this new thing a little closer to being a real thing.
I’ve been working on Uncommon intensely since June. The project list is overflowing with ideas. There is a lot of real work to be done and the next priority is usually very clear.
If that next priority was my only way forward, though, progress would’ve have stalled many times. The next priority may be very time intensive or require skills I’m only just learning. It might demand a level of focus I’m not capable of on a short night after a long day.
Instead, I look for the smallest way forward. What else could push Uncommon closer to reality? It could be a quick email to get feedback on the idea or the latest expression of it. A feature might need to be planned out, print shops contacted, or some DNS records updated. It might be as simple as sending a thank you note to one of the many people who have invested their time and talent into Uncommon.
No matter how small the way forward is, the progress and momentum are invaluable. The next day, I do it again.
If you’re trying to bring something new into the world, thank you. Your time and frustration, your talent and hopes, are enormously valuable. We need new things, whatever they are, to learn and improve and tell our story in unique ways.
Find the smallest way forward for you and your project today, then take it.