Treat your projects as jigsaw puzzles, not monoliths

If you, like me, are an ecofrugal person who keeps starting new projects, or want to start new (big) projects, you might also be hit by project overwhelm. A project may seem so big and so daunting that you just never carve out the time to get it done or even get started. So, what can we do about that?

Embarrassingly enough, one of the solutions that has helped me over the past couple of months has been so simple as to almost not register as a “lifehack” at all. But it has really helped me when I tackle big projects, be it for work or in my free time. So maybe it will help you too, whatever ecofrugal venture you choose to focus your time one?

The past

I used to see projects as these big, intimidating monoliths that I just could not wrap my head around. I knew in theory that dividing the project into smaller pieces would help me focus on a single thing. But just how, exactly, could I do that?

I used to think that I needed to bust out a blogpost in a single sitting. All the way from draft and review, through to graphics, pinterest image and scheduling. Of course, I had that privilege of mindset because there are no children in our household, so I never had to learn the “any five minutes you can scrounge for yourself” mindset that I see is so necessary with my young mother friends.

But it was still a destructive attitude. A full blog post could take me anything from an hour (if I really, really knew what I wanted the post to look like and had all the resources/references at hand) to several hours. I could easily waste half an hour on the interwebs because it “wasn’t enough time” to finish anything.

But all those little snippets here and there add up, so…?

The glory of jigsaws

In these ye olde plague times, my husband and I have completed a fair few jigsaw puzzles, usually in the 1000 pieces range which we find a comfortable size. This analogy might not work as well if you are not a fan of jigsaw puzzles, but I hope you will bear with me.

When it comes to jigsaw puzzles (especially when they get bigger), you can’t just pour everything out on the table at once. Unless you have an amazingly big table, there usually isn’t the space to have every piece laid out and still have some semblance of overview for where to go next.

Typical jigsaw puzzle strategies include:

  • Sorting out the edge pieces and building the frame first.
  • Sorting pieces by color and/or pattern.
  • Starting with the most prominent/dominant feature of the puzzle.
  • Doing highly similar pieces (like a background sky) last, when there are other features in the puzzle to help you out.

Again, I don’t know if it was just the right time, or maybe how many puzzles we did in a relatively short time-frame, but in my head, something just clicked.

Projects are jigsaw puzzles

When I try to keep all the parts of a large project or report for work in my head at the same time, I am doing the mental equivalent of pouring all my puzzle pieces out on the table at once. My mental table gets overcrowded and I can’t see what I am doing at all.

By accepting that my mental capacity is limited and writing down ideas rather than try to remember all of them, I have started to find it much easier to “just get started” as motivational speakers so often like to harp on about.

If I don’t know anything about chapter five in my report yet, it is because I am currently focusing on the tiger stripes of the introduction or even chapter seven, if that is what is clearest in my head at the beginning.

PS: The revelation of allowing myself to work “out of sync” with the structure of a project (so, doing later chapters before earlier chapters, in this example) is so amazing. I don’t know about you, but I work in a field where reports are very standardized and structured. Starting with the later chapters will make it much easier to write the earlier ones, because they are all related.

Recognize what your background pieces are

Here is one that might take some practice, but parts of your project are going to be less important, even if they take up a significant amount of space.

They are your background pieces. And if we start off with them, we spend a lot of time on something that isn’t actually the most important, especially because we are lacking the structure that would make the background so much easier to puzzle. It’s like spending 80 % of your time writing an introduction to a post and 20 % of your time writing the actual post.

Don’t start with the background.

Allow yourself microfocus

Again, this is something I have been told so many times and I just couldn’t make it work. I found it really difficult to get started because the project was so big and vague and did I really know what I was doing anyway?

But now I allow myself to microfocus. By that I mean, if I want to start by making sure my word document has the right formatting, I do that. Often the momentum I build by doing something, anything, will make me just continue on to the harder parts almost without even realizing.

And I don’t have to do all the hard parts at once. In the analogy of our jigsaw puzzle, it is perfectly okay to leave the tiger mid-puzzle because something happened.

Yes, you might need a few moments to get back into it once you sit back down. But that doesn’t mean it is not a valid way to work. Especially when we know life is full of small distractions and any time we manage to work a tiny bit on that project we really want to work on, we win.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk. I hope you share your own analogies and productivity hacks in the comments down below. 😉 Perhaps a better ecofrugal analogy like a gardening related one? Although I must admit, the jigsaw analogy has helped me there too. Especially when it comes to realize and accept that things take time, and it will not be built in a season.

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