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
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