Big Time Chunks, Little Time Chunks

SUMMARY: For most of my life, I’ve assumed that commitment to a project meant pouring lots of hours into an unbroken block of time. However, making a commitment of that magnitude is mentally very taxing; I’ll do it, but it feels like I’m laboring beneath a giant weight, and it takes a lot of support from other areas to keep my spirits up. What if, though, my assumption about the required size of the time block is wrong?

I just had an insight about my attitude toward time when it comes to the creative act, and this may be a prime source of procrastination. It’s this:

I have the subconscious expectation that making things will take a long time.

In my mind, I need to have at least 4 uninterrupted hours to just start to make something really cool. I know, through past time tracking, that the stand-alone creative pieces have taken, on average, about 30 hours to get there to a certain level of polish. I know it takes about the same amount of time to produce one minute of well-polished, original motion graphics that I can feel good about.

This may be a realistic assessment, but it also creates a lot of resistance and triggers a kind of melancholy in me. If I have a choice, as I do in pursuing my personal projects, between creating a lot of work for myself and watching a lot of Mythbusters on NetFlix, then I end up watching Adam and Jamie blow up things real good. And even for work projects, there’s the sense that I have to steel myself for an epic push to start the whole freight train moving. It takes a lot of supplemental energy, a running start, and an absolutely clear mind. Interruptions or meetings destroy my focus, and this builds frustration and impatience. I have to push myself with music, a ready supply of tea, and enforced isolation to keep my mind from wandering off until “focus lock” occurs and the process catches fire.

But now I’m wondering: does it really need to be like this?

Earlier this week, I tried adopting what seemed-to-me like an irresponsible attitude: I set a limit of one hour for up to two projects each day. The rest of the time, I would do whatever I wanted. The idea came from my friend Elise, who told me her method for practicing her flute when she isn’t really feeling like it. She makes a deal with herself that she has to practice for just 15 minutes, and if by that time she’s still not feeling it, she takes a long break. Apparently, it works for her, and why shouldn’t it work for me?

The reason it seems irresponsible, I think, is that I have this expectation of myself: When I say I’m on the job, I’m on the job for 8 hours and until it’s done. Deciding to “work” for only a couple of hours during the day seems like a BAD attitude. However, I know from past working experiences that once I get going on something, I tend to keep going. By committing just one hour a day per project, I am lowering the expectations by eliminating the need to make a Herculean commitment of time. Making that commitment makes me feel trapped and unhappy, a necessary evil that is the cost of being productive. By comparison, an hour is very doable. For one thing, I was raised by missionaries and church people, and boy do I know how to sit through an hour sermon! Because of this, it could be that the hour is my ideal productivity time unit, just because I’ve practiced sitting still for that long :-)

It’s too early to tell, but it does seem like it’s working. I scheduled an hour on a design project, and ended up spending about 3-4 hours on it because I lost track of time. I could see a system involving other small increments of time for making microprogress on my other personal projects. So long as progress is continually accruing, “small increments more frequently” may be preferable to “large increments made less frequently”, as far as my psychological makeup is concerned.

I thought I’d throw this out there, to see if anyone had any similar experiences. I think it has a similar psychological underpinning with the two-minute rule in GTD, where if the task that’s on your plate will take 2 minutes or less, you should just do it. My tasks always seem more complicated.