On incremental progress

How to tackle large projects without getting overwhelmed or lost

Image via Pexels

I’ve been driving to NSW over the past few days, taking my time to get to my destination: stopping, resting, eating, then getting back on the road. Incremental progress. It makes me think about the way I work. I break up large projects into a series of smaller tasks and I slot them into my digital calendar. So each day in my calendar there’s a series of tasks of several hours or pages (ie. ‘40 pages of x’) each, and those days lead up to the deadline. If a project does not have a deadline, I give it one – keeping the end in sight helps to get each day’s work done.

I work steadily and incrementally this way, and if something does unexpectedly come up, or change, all I have to do is move those small tasks to new slots within the timeframe of the deadline. (Because of this, it is often good to leave some blank spots in the calendar, just in case!)

When people ask me how I manage to juggle so much, this is the answer! Big projects become less intimidating when you break each one down into smaller chunks. When I’m offered a job with a fast turnaround, I can try it out in the calendar, seeing how many pages I need to work on each day to get it done, and this helps me to understand whether I should say ‘yes’ in the first place.

Every kind of project can be completed by breaking the work down into a series of smaller tasks. To complete a first draft of a manuscript of 70,000 words in one year, that’s just 1,346 words per week. To complete it in two years, that’s only 673 words. You could draft a novel in a year or two by putting aside just one lunch break per week.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

If you need to research your novel first, you could set yourself a deadline of, say, six months ahead, and then schedule one hour per week to get into the research. After a couple of months you’ll already be able to see how much you’ve figured out and how much more time you may need. You could then shift the deadline accordingly.

The trick is to respect and honour that time you’ve carved out for the small, incremental tasks. To help with this, make sure that timeslot is realistic from the very beginning. Don’t put it on Sundays if you always end up having a family commitment on Sundays. Don’t make it first thing in the morning if you’re terrible at getting up early. Find the slot that you will honour and stick to.

Some of you might think: this is freakish, I absolutely cannot work like that. Certainly, I know people who are capable of smashing out writing or work tasks at the last minute. Good for them! But I also know a lot of people who want to write, or write more, or get better at writing, or finish a project, or shape up a manuscript they did smash out… and become paralysed by the enormity of the task.

This year has been overwhelming for so many of us. If you’re like me, writing is necessary to feeling whole among the chaos. At the same time, it’s been harder to feel up to the task, or feel that anything you’re getting down is adequate in speaking to the enormity of… existence! But I have continued to write, slowly – and inadequately, maybe – but bit by bit, making incremental progress.

Remember, if you’re looking for a Christmas gift that also raises money for a great cause (Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy), I have an essay on the beautiful spotted harrier (aka ‘smoke hawk’) that visited my parents’ property after the fires in the book Animals Make Us HumanIt has an incredible line-up of contributors writing about, and photographing, Australian wildlife.

Opportunity of the month

Black Inc. has opened submissions for Growing Up in Country Australia, a new anthology, edited by Rick Morton, which will explore the diverse experiences of Australians growing up outside cities and large regional centres. Read more here.

And for something different: The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts is looking for "compressed creative arts." They accept fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, mixed media, visual arts, and even kitchen sinks, if they are compressed in some way. They pay $50. Have a look.


Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,

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