Breaking Down a Large Goal into Manageable Chunks

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“Everybody has their own Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.”

– Seth Godin

When I graduated high school, I set a goal for myself: to write a novel.  However, between moving to a new town, trying to find my place on a big campus, and my studies, it seemed an impossible task.  I would start a novel only to abandon it within a few weeks, and when I picked it back up again, I couldn’t remember what I wanted to write about.

It took me several years to figure out a system that helped me finish my goal.  I decided one day that I was going to write 3 pages every day, no matter what.  Breaking the daunting goal of writing a novel into this amount made it easier to tackle, and I finished a rough draft within a year.  I easily wrote the rough draft of another novel this same way.  I felt empowered by how I’d broken down this large goal into daily manageable chunks.

Since then, I have been meaning to revise the second novel into something I could send out to publishers.  But between starting a career, a divorce, and then starting a family with a new person, revising the novel fell by the wayside.  It would be too much work, I reasoned.  I don’t have the time.  And, most importantly, I didn’t have a system in place to make this mountain of work seem reasonable on a daily level.

But in the back of my mind, I knew this was one of those bucket list items I would regret if I didn’t do it.  I’m now a few months into revising the novel, and I feel like I have a system that allows me to make progress every day.  Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Just Make Time

If you don’t have the time, it’s never going to happen.  So the first thing I did was make sure I had dedicated time during my week to write.  Since I just finished a major consulting project, I decided not to look for new projects so I could use this time to work on the novel instead.

Step 2: Explore Options for Finishing the Task

I had no idea how to approach revising my novel.  So instead of jumping straight into my rough draft, I read a book about the art of good storytelling.  This got me thinking about my story from a new perspective: what things in my story worked and what needed revisions.  From there, I made a list of things that I wanted to tackle to strengthen my story.  Having this list of actionable items, instead of just a vague idea that I wanted to make it better, made it much easier to break down the mountain of work ahead when I started re-reading my draft.

Step 3: Make Daily/Weekly Mini-Goals

If you don’t feel like you’re making progress in the short-term, you may give up your long-term goal.  I decided early on to outline 2 chapters of my novel every day.  This gave me a sense of purpose and moved me closer to my end goal.  Once finished, I collected my outline notes to define more tasks, such as rewriting scenes or modifying characters.  This gives me many more mini-goals to complete without feeling overwhelmed by the remaining workload.

Step 4: Give Yourself Free Time to Explore

If you are embarking on a creative endeavor, you will find yourself needing time that does not necessarily lead to concrete results.  For example, I set aside 15-20 minutes each writing session to free thinking about my novel without looking at my notes or reading the text.  This gives me a chance to explore ideas to strengthen my base novel.  I write ideas down quickly and get back to “meditative mode” for more ideas.  Sometimes these idea-generating sessions lead nowhere, but more often than not, I have an “ah-ha” moment that leads to more tasks.  Give yourself permission to have free time to explore your goal, even if it’s not always productive.

Step 5: Maintain Momentum or Return to Step 1

You will feel it once you’re in the groove and making progress towards your goal.  Do what you can to protect your time and keep moving forward.  When (not if) you get stuck, take a step back and assess how things are.  Are your mini-goals still working?  Is your free time completely unproductive?  There comes a time in the process where you may have to try a different approach to get back on track with your original goal.

It may take me a while, but I’m going to revise this novel.  Share your stories of tackling a monumental life goal below.