Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Conquer Big Creative Projects Using Past, Present, and Future Focus

In the past 25 days, I have written five chapters for my first book, which currently stands at 35,554 words of text. This writing has happened around also taking three out-of-town trips, working with clients, writing my newsletter, completing guest posts, giving virtual training courses, keeping in touch with family and friends, and still sleeping an average of 6.5 hours a night (the amount I need to be at my prime).

At first, I feared that I might lose my typically peaceful approach to work because of the enormity of the project and the tight publisher’s deadline. But by using the techniques described below, I’ve found it possible to manage a huge increase in my workload without becoming frantic.Here are my secrets to using past, present, and future focus to tackle a large creative project with a fixed deadline:

Past Focus: When to Look Back

Big Picture: Looking backward plays a critical role in making your overall project plan. Before you begin, take some time to review any similar creative work. For example, if you were an illustrator taking on a new commission to illustrate a brochure, you might think back to a previous project in which you had to generate a similar volume of work. Then, based on the hard numbers from this past experience, you can estimate about how long you think it will take you to complete your current project and block out the time accordingly.

Day-to-Day: Once you have your overall plan in place, assess your actual versus estimated progress on a daily or weekly basis and adjust the plan accordingly. For instance, you could make a goal of finishing 1 of 10 illustrations this week and set aside 8 hours to do so based on your previous experience. If you get to the end of the week and haven’t gotten the work done even though you put in 8 hours, you can decide how to allocate your hours the following week to finish the first drawing and keep on schedule for the other 9.

Looking backward plays a critical role in making your overall project plan.

Present Focus: When to Get Lost in the Work

Big Picture: If you need to fit a huge project into a short timeframe, you can’t just manage your time efficiently, you have to choose to invest it in your current top priorities. That usually means saying, “No,” to anything other than must-do activities. I know this can be challenging so I’m using myself as an example to show it is possible: Although I have kept on top of all the essential items to keep my business running, I said, “No,” to an offer of a monthly retainer to write for someone else’s newsletter and, “No,” to putting on a time management training that fell too close to my book deadline. My present focus helped me to avoid taking on anything that would divert my energy from what’s truly most important now.

Day-to-Day: While it’s important to discipline yourself to set boundaries around outside distractions, you must also ensure that your focus doesn’t stray from your present work by self-generated ideas. If you’re a graphic designer with a client website to finish, you’ll need to choose not to make that optional update to your personal web portfolio right now, instead putting a reminder in your calendar to do it after your current deadline. 
Or maybe you’re a musician on deadline to lay down album tracks, but you keep daydreaming about your release party. Try starting a document where you capture your ideas for the party but don’t actually execute on the details until you have the music done.

You can’t just manage your time efficiently, you have to choose to invest it in your top priorities.

Future Focus: When to Build a Bridge

Big Picture: Having a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow plays an absolutely essential role in keeping you motivated when you’re having a really tough day, For me, one future-focus energy giver involves remembering my higher goal for the book, which is to empower more people to take back control of how they invest their time. Also, I’ve planned a REAL vacation, i.e. not working AT ALL, for the week after I turn in my manuscript. This highly satisfying and rejuvenating payoff immediately following my deadline provides an extra boost and gives me the psychological freedom to honestly tell my brain that there is a clear end in sight.

Day-to-Day: On a micro-level, you can use future focus when you notice that you’re hesitating to wrap up and move on to the next portion of your work. If finishing seems like closing off options, you want to start to build the bridge before you’ve arrived at the precipice. Let’s say you’ve just finished producing a conference, but there are a lot of loose ends to tie up. On a practical level, “building a bridge” might mean giving yourself permission to start to brainstorm potential speakers for the next conference before you’ve wrapped up all of the mundane details for this year’s event. After doing this simple exercise, you usually have a greater capability to circle back and finish up your present work and flow effortlessly onto the next step.

Share Your Secrets…

How have you learned to stay calm when you have a huge creative project — with a deadline?

More insights on: Focus, Time Management

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at
load comments (20)
  • Sofia Garcês

    Great post, I struggle with scheduling a lot specially when I have several projects in my hand between my nine to five my blog ( and my illustrations I feel overwhelmed sometimes just thinking on what to do next.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad that you enjoyed it! I’ve found that this focus shifting has made a huge difference.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Chris

    Prioritizing is key, and is so important when convincing yourself that small distractions (twitter, facebook… even TV) potentially come at a price of you not achieving your goal.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Absolutely. I have to constantly remind myself that many things can wait until the book is written.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Devang

    I write weekly status reports for myself on Friday. One paragraph on what I did and 2nd paragraph on what I will do next week. This exercise immensely helps me stay focused in my startup journey.

  • Gwen Hill

    I empty my mind by creating a task list for each project plus another for outstanding errands/details. Next, I put alerts on my calendars for deadlines I can’t miss without repercussions. Then, I put on some Pachelbel and work in a state of relaxed immersion, which gives birth to a highly productive, creative FLOW. YaY!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Perfect! Beautiful, simple routine that works.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Way to Gwen! You’ve got a great system for making sure you can get lost in the present.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Francis Mwangi

    You touched three key areas that make up ones life: Past, Present & Future. Not bad! Thanks.

  • Kurt L Hanson

    Drive a NYC taxi twelve hours a day. Five workdays a week it’s sleep first thing after arriving home. Remaining constantly focused on the urban driving environment taxes the brain. My brain revitalizes/recuperates and my mind is then ready to cognate creatively after six to ten EXTRA hours of light sleep on the first of two days off a week. Thirty-six hours of time a week my mind is able to invest in creative thought. That’s it. All my other time my head is focused and attentive on the dangers of the battlefield of avenues and streets.

    You guys are lucky to have jobs that don’t tax the mind as such.

    With what I have to be creative about I wouldn’t trade my situation for anyones though.

    ‘Tis life.

  • Bharat KV

    I generally have a trip planned at the end of a hectic schedule… Which really motivates me to finish work faster… It was nice to see you mention similar stuff… And again prioritizing and overcoming distractions (like running a facebook page, personal artworks etc) is the biggest hurdle.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    This is a great way to give yourself a firm deadline and also a sense of a reward at the end of the work.

    It sounds like you’re on exactly the right track.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Thiet ke logo

    Yeah, it motivates me running

  • Monesh

    Something i needed at a perfect time.. Thanks. Superb…

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    So glad you found the article of value. Strengthening your mental game not only makes you more productive but also makes the whole process much more enjoyable.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Lee

    I think of it this way… If it’s not paying me money then it isn’t a priority. The first thing to go is social media. Next to go; updating my personal portfolio, blogs. While they are important, they’re not paying money so just leave them until you’re free. Lastly, ignore your email and phone – it CAN wait.

    I find the best way is to prioritise my work in order of deadline (simple as that) and don’t dip into other jobs while you’re working on others. It amazes me how many creative people wander off (physically and metaphorically) while working – stay focussed, and stay working until you’re finished.

    To make it less of a pain, I always do the worst part of any job first – that way, when I’m on the home strait I’m doing the good stuff and it’s more enjoyable.

    Most important for me is to not panic. If you start flapping about you’ll get nothing done.

  • BebopDesigner

    Brilliant advise from heaven… at this time I’m up to my chin in projects, photo editing to finish and school just got started. Hopefully this will help me Zen my way through. Thanks so much :D
    Oh, and not touching Facebook helps loads.


    Thank-you for this advice. I have recently been receiving numerous new projects and I did not know how tackle them.

  • Stephen Randall

    Here’s what I’ve found: The pressure and anxiety associated with deadlines are not features built into time, not ‘facts of life’ that we have to put up with. It’s how we handle deadlines that determines our stress level. You can actually increase your energy and confidence under a deadline, but only if you know how to work with time, rather than struggle or race against it. If we can learn how to directly transform time pressure, we can realize significant gains in both productivity and well-being.

    Where’s the Pressure Come From? The primary factor is not what most of us would guess: our typical way of experiencing time flowing from moment to moment. The ordinary, yet relentless flow of time sets up the trap for deadline pressure. The trap is sprung by a triggering emotion, like fear of damaging one’s reputation by not finishing something on time. The emotion intensifies the ‘normal’ sense of time passing so it usually feels that time’s passing more quickly and the deadline is closing in on us. If we can become aware of such emotions, we can easily relieve a lot of the pressure.

    But no matter what the particular triggering feeling is, deadline pressure is simply an intense and constricted version of our usual perception of time flowing. Most people don’t think it’s possible to change the feeling of time’s flow. However, we can change it, and anything we do to loosen it up will serve to relieve some of the pressure that is always with us, and actually prevent strong pressures from ever getting established!

    After identifying these essential factors, I developed a workshop to relieve pressure and improve productivity and well-being at the same time. See

    Steve Randall

  • Jack Peterson

    I use this tool to really help me focus on the big picture

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