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Habits & Routines

Start Small: Why Tinkerers Get Things Done

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when tackling a big project. The next time you find yourself procrastinating, start small. Your creativity and imagination will handle the rest.


It’s easy to feel intimidated at the thought of starting a big creative project. Whether it’s an ambitious commission from a client, a challenging assignment from your boss, or the book/album/movie/website you’ve challenged yourself to produce, you picture the whole thing like a huge monolith looming over you… and feel overwhelmed.

So you find all kinds of excuses to put it off: you need to do more research; you need to get the right equipment; you need to “warm up” with a smaller project first; you need to clear your desk, your inbox, or that cupboard under the sink… in short, Resistance has a field day, and you procrastinate as if your life depended on it.

But suppose you don’t actually need to start the project just yet. Well, not properly, anyway?

Suppose you just set up the equipment in your studio… or just create a folder on your hard drive… or just make a few notes or sketches… or just collect all the relevant books and papers into one place…

Because a funny thing often happens when you “just” start setting up and tinkering: you forget about the big, intimidating picture, and start taking small actions that will actually more the project forward. You begin by tweaking and tinkering, and before long, your imagination sparks into life and you’re happily absorbed in the work. You’ve started in earnest without even noticing it.

A funny thing happens when you “just” start tinkering: you forget about the big, intimidating picture.

As the oft-quoted Chinese proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The idea of walking a thousand miles is instantly exhausting – but it’s also a distortion of reality. Because no one ever had to walk a thousand miles instantaneously. All you ever have to do in the moment is take just one step, and before long you find you’ve got into your stride and you’re enjoying walking and looking at all the interesting sights and people you encounter along the way.

I’ve been using this little trick to get going on my new book. A few months ago I just created a file in my book writing software and laid out the chapter headings, and just started playing around and rearranging them. And each time an idea came to me during the day, I just added a quick note inside each chapter. Recently I’ve been opening up the doc in the mornings, just looking at the table of contents, and just adding a few more notes here and there. It’s a slow ramp up where I just tell myself to add a few things here and there, no pressure.

I’ve written 12,000 words this way. I haven’t really started writing it yet. And since I’ve not been officially working on the book, resistance and procrastination hasn’t shown up for work either. It’s been fun. 

How to start without really starting 

I originally got the idea from Mark Forster’s book Do It Tomorrow, in which he suggests tricking your mind by telling yourself the following:

I’m not really going to [the task] right now, but I’ll just do [its first step].

The trick is to make the first step so small and easy that it doesn’t create Resistance. The idea of “writing a novel” or “designing a brand identity” sounds so big and difficult it instantly creates Resistance. Your brain easily freezes up. But “just” opening up MS Word or Photoshop and creating a new file is so trivial there’s no Resistance. It’s the same reason saying “I want to learn another language” doesn’t inspire us to action. But saying “I’m just going to sign up for a once-a-week French class” does. The latter is the first step. It’s tangible. It excites us.

Once you get the idea, you don’t even need the full sentence – I find it works (ahem) just fine if you just use the word ‘just’: 

“I’ll just prime a canvas.”
“I’ll just play a few chords to warm up.”
“I’ll just write the characters’ names out.”
“I’ll just copy out the previous design.”
“I’ll just get the folder out of the filing cabinet.”

And so on. With the pressure off, feel free to just tinker as long as you like. You may be pleasantly surprised how much you get done.

Over to you…

Think of your next big creative project – the whole thing, all at once. What happens to your motivation?

Now imagine “just” doing some small insignificant task associated with the project. What difference does that make?

Comments (52)
  • Thiago Vieira

    This is a good point for personal projects. I’m planning a huge comics saga and using Bulett Journal aside. After about a month, I have four pages full of notes to guide me to create better stories. It’s a nice repository of ideas, to see which fit togheter to create a better puzzle plot. I don’t feel the presure to get it done, since nothing is “ready”; so I don’t feel any fear of doing something wrong.

    It’s a good idea for people that stick to habits, since this apply better for long term projects.

  • Mr. Theriault

    I do this with my blog all the time. I start with a title. Just getting the title right seems to set up everything else. Then I’ll create a folder for the pictures I’m going to use. Finding the right pictures is an important, but fun step. I crop them, edit them etc… Now all of a sudden I have a title and a bit of organization and vision of where I want to go and then I just pop in some music and start writing. Thank you for this entire website, I use it all the time as a thinker, learner, and teacher.

  • growthguided

    This brick by brick approach really makes large elephant size tasks seem more enjoyable to tackle!

    I think this was a great reminder for I lot of us!

    Thank you

  • http://manytruecallings.com/join-2 Christen

    This approach has saved me so many times! Whenever I’m stuck or overwhelmed, it’s because I’ve let myself get stressed over the big picture instead of thinking about the first step I could take. Thanks for the great post!

  • Elmarie Porthouse

    This is awesome! It will save a procrastinator like me from those constant guilt trips!

  • 2rbtsoffthehat

    This is just right. I ‘ll save it to read it later😉

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Just as long as you don’t forget.😉

  • faiz jayramie

    This thing here is amazing. The reason why we feel overwhelmed is simply because of false anticipation. Most of us here is mentally challenged by negative thoughts, thats why we always anticipate for the worst. This simple technique helps me to remove false anticipation and keeps me going forward with my business. Thanks dude!

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      “false anticipation” – I like that phrase, and you’re right!

  • http://thejoshcollins.com/ Josh Collins

    Really good stuff! Thanks Mark! Gonna come back to this often as well!

  • Dr. Pete

    Love this. Wish it hadn’t taken me 40 years to learn it.

  • http://sofiagarces.com/ Sofia Garcês

    This one is awesome, certainly something to keep in mind I’m sure it will help me get going with some of my big looming projects!

  • http://www.carloborja.com/ Carlo Borja

    Probably one of the best “brain hacks” I’ve ever learned. Thanks Mark. This is a very valuable knowledge.

  • Cezar Halmagean

    awesome, thank you

  • Lukemysse

    In my circle of design friends we always say “just open the file”.

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Heh, I like that.

  • William Masson

    Great post. It works, without a doubt. I’m an ace tinkerer and the approach, which I’d not thought about consciously until I read your post, helps me get big complex projects done.

  • Misslinj

    Thats exactly what happens to me. Once ive sorted out and written down all the tasks that need to be done, i kind of switch off! Totally overloaded and blocked! Im definitely going to try this, god know my new business needs this! Anymore suggestions for someone in the handmade industry, let me know!

    http://www.wonderandquestion.de

    Thanks!

  • Drew Paul Bell

    I have noticed this too! Sometimes I will “just” put on my running shoes or “just” open my sketchbook and draw a few lines. Then once I start, the momentum builds pretty quick!

    http://drewpaulbell.com/

  • One Smart Gal

    How about just this…I’ll just do one new thing today, just for now?

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Sounds good, see if it works…

  • Karimu

    A very good piece

  • serena

    The first step is the hardest one…..but after that everything just flows…..:D

  • Salvador Jimenez

    Unless the half of the effort of a task, work or project is to start it

  • Divya Varudhini

    Fantastic post!

  • Xopianoi

    The first paragraph totally nailed what I’ve been going through.. Resistance! Thank you for the reminder to take out the instruments and tinker🙂

  • Heather M Schiefer Design

    Yes. I experience this a lot and I find that this is exactly what I end up doing to jump start myself. I didn’t know it was actually “a thing” though.🙂 I must be a genius.

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Great minds…😉

  • J.D.

    What writing software do you use that allows you to easily organize your thoughts and notes like that?

    • Jay Stephens

      scrivener

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Jay’s right, it’s Scrivener. Life-changing software for writers!

  • Identity Served

    Great post. The key is “just start”. Don’t think, don’t strategize, just take one small step and it will pave way for the bigger stuff.

    • Sari Gordon

      I know this as just writing a shitty first draft. Works every time.

      • Identity Served

        Yes! When you have something shitty, anything that comes after it should be less shitty and that’s progress.

      • Sari Gordon

        And most of the time it’s really not that shitty!

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.