Is the advice to work slow and steady and get a bit done every day better advice than doing a lot of work all at once?
by Susan McCarthy
I talk a lot about making change in small ways – instead of waiting for a “free” weekend that you can devote to decluttering, consider the benefits of working through the clutter 15-minutes a day. And almost any big, multi-step project (personal or for work) can be broken down into small action steps. But is this the best way to approach all projects? And how do you know what’s going to work for you?
A few months back, I took on the role of editor of my town’s Garden Club. When I met with the previous editor, she handed me a box of three binders with the past 25 years of issues. One of my first thoughts was, “these are the only copies of the earlier issues!” (Okay, my first thought was, “Ack! Someone else’s stuff to find space for.” Really, it’s one small box, the size that would hold a dozen bottles of wine.)
My professional organizer-Spidey senses kicked in now that I was now responsible for this record of the earlier years of the club. While I spent a few months getting used to producing the new issues, I knew there was something else I wanted to do. Scan and assemble digital copies of the pre-digital newsletters.
I’d still hold onto the originals, but I wanted there to be backup copies of the Garden Club’s history. So, I emailed the co-presidents and offered to digitize the newsletters.
My original thought was that I would spend a half hour each evening scanning and assembling … I wasn’t certain how many pages I could get done this time, but it seemed like a way to make progress without getting caught up in this bit of volunteerism and having it take over a day (or numerous days).
But this wasn’t really the way I wanted to spend my evenings. If I wasn’t teaching or participating in a class or meeting, I liked to crochet. I wanted to do the newsletter project, and it wouldn’t require that much effort. However, it seemed as if I’d just get into the flow of scanning and assembling the pages into individual documents and the half hour would be up.
I considered working for an hour instead of thirty minutes, but by the end of the day, I was tired (most of what I do is write – emails, articles, PowerPoint slide shows for presentations, which for me requires a mental break or I get cranky.)
While it made sense to work in short segments, it wasn’t appealing, and I wasn’t putting in the daily effort. So, I switched to three- or four-hour blocks on Saturdays. If I worked thirty minutes six days a week, I’d do three hours, so I wasn’t working more or less time, just in leaps.
So, how to plan out one’s projects, whether it’s decluttering, organizing digital files, or revamping your LinkedIn profile to include information about your budding tutoring business? This isn’t about setting a goal so much as figuring out the best way to do the work that will help you accomplish your goal.
One - Experiment with your time and effort
This was my first option with the newsletter project. I tried working in small bits of time but realized my effort felt too disjointed. If you’re doing something you haven’t done in the past and don’t have the experience to know what the best way will be to work, try out both methods and see which is more productive and satisfying.
In retrospect, I would have measured how many pages I scanned and assembled in 30 minutes and then compared it to my efforts working three hours to see which way was more productive overall. But since I discovered I didn’t like trying to work 30-minutes every evening, it didn’t really matter.
Two - Notice when you feel a sense of accomplishment
If taking small steps leave you feeling like you’re just getting started when it’s time to stop working, then you aren’t going to feel as if you’re getting anything done. Your frustration could translate into procrastination.
However, if the idea of working for multiple hours on a task is overwhelming, you again risk procrastination. (Ah, procrastination, it’s such a multipurpose tool.)
Don’t assume that because taking small steps worked with a previous project that it’s the solution for the current tasks at hand. And vice versa. It may have been satisfying to clear out your garage over a weekend, but it may be too draining to do intellectual work under the same timeline.
Don't confuse goals with the tasks that get you there
Finish Line Goals involve projects with a deadline. These are the types of projects identified by SMART goals that are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and timebound. These projects involve multiple steps, some which may involve doing the same or similar actions during some of those steps.
These are the goals where you can experiment with how you do the work. Are you going to feel a greater sense of accomplishment making slow and steady progress or do you need to work for longer periods of time to see progress? (Or will it depend on the task?)
On the other hand, Forever Goals are habit-based. These are the small actions that you’ll be doing everyday until the habit no longer matches your goals. In this case, working longer or putting in more effort might get you to your goal, but it won’t be in a sustainable way. (And the way to develop a habit is to do the habit.)
For example, if you want to declutter your home, you could take a week off from work and push yourself to toss or donate as many items as possible so your home was neat. But, you won't form the habits that will maintain long-term change.
When slow and steady is the way to get things done
Small steps are the way to go for developing Forever Goals. However, if you’re tackling the multiple steps of a Finish Line Goal, be willing to experiment and see what works for you.
While it might be nice to be told, do this task this way for maximum effectiveness, we all work in different ways. It’s when we try to squeeze our actions into someone else’s guidelines (or even our own expectations of what will make sense), that we can hamper our productivity.
So, if a project will take a while, experiment with taking small steps. And if that becomes frustrating or boring, work for longer, more focused periods and discover which is best for you and that project.
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