How To Tackle A Big Project (When You Get Off Track)

You can accomplish great things with the right strategies. These lessons will help you with big projects you encounter in the months ahead.

Photo: Elizabeth Grace Saunders; Source: Courtesy Photo

When you write a book about letting go of control, you have to expect you’ll learn a few lessons along the way. My writing definitely didn’t go according to schedule.

I turned in my manuscript in on time. I didn’t lose any sleep or stress about its completion, but I had planned to finish the initial draft of the book by December 25th of last year. In reality, that didn’t happen until January 17.

After dealing with a stomach flu and some difficult situations in my personal life the length of my final two chapters got in the way. What’s a time management coach to do when she isn’t exactly on target? Here are a few ways I coped:


1. Don’t self-criticize

When I lost the feeling of being completely “in control” or “on top” of things, I chose self-compassion instead of self-criticism. In the process of writing my most recent book, I reminded myself of the importance of gentleness–personally and with others. I need to value myself as a human being, not simply a mode of production.


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When you get off schedule, for whatever reason, accept yourself where you are in the moment. Then move into action based on the current reality. Self-criticism is a complete waste of time and energy.


2. Remember the margin

In my original plan, I aimed to finish four-to-five weeks ahead of the deadline. This would give me plenty of time for a final read-through. In reality, I finished two weeks ahead of the deadline. It was still enough time, but tighter than I originally hoped. I started out strong, but given unexpected issues that came up, I had to slow down in December.

When you’re tackling any large project, I highly recommend that you pad the schedule. In some cases, that will be by a few days. In other cases, particularly with ambiguous projects, it’s good to give yourself weeks or even months of extra time. This is one of the biggest keys to prevent deadline anxiety and stress.


3. Adjust to reality

I initially thought that I could accomplish my writing objectives on a schedule that included Wednesdays as book writing days. But when I realized that I was behind, I didn’t adamantly stick to my plan. I adjusted to reality.

For me, that meant blocking out both Tuesdays and Wednesdays over the last few weeks of the project. I also spent some Saturday afternoons in coffee shops. I typically don’t work on the weekends, but I recognized I needed the time and gave it to myself.


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Don’t get upset about reality, but also don’t ignore it. Reality always wins. If you notice you won’t complete your project on time, give it more time and make cuts to other areas or get help.


4. Give yourself breaks

Even though I worked extra hours, I still made sure to integrate fun into the process. I took off Sundays completely. I planned social activities even if I couldn’t stay for a long time. I also made time to text people or take the occasional call.

I’m a ambivert, an introvert-extrovert hybrid. So, blocking off entire days to write my book without scheduling coaching calls was pretty difficult for me. I needed the connection and encouragement along the way.

Even when you need to work harder, take time for things that give you joy. Otherwise, you can burn out and lose motivation. Try to keep sleep, exercise and social activities as part of the agenda. Leisure still matters.


5. Celebrate and recalibrate

I worked on my book for over a year and the manuscript for an additional five months. Once I turned it in, it was time to celebrate! I had multiple celebration dinners to take time and share the joy with my friends and family.


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It is so important to stop and savor a major milestones. It helps make all the work feel worth it. It’s also important to recalibrate. There’s always more work to do, but I chose to go back to my normal schedule (no work on the weekends) as soon as I turned in my book. I didn’t want a time-limited situation to turn into a bad habit.


Final thoughts

Don’t get so stuck in focus mode that you miss out on the joys of your accomplishments. Stop, savor, celebrate and get back to your normal as quickly as possible. For some, that will mean a little time off to regain perspective. For others, like me, it will simply mean reminding yourself of how you want to live on a regular basis and resisting the urge to stay in overdrive mode.

I hope that these lessons help you with whatever big projects you encounter in the months ahead. You can accomplish great things (with minimal stress) with the right strategies.


This article has been edited.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E, a time management coaching company and the author of Divine Time Management.


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