‘Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.’ Saul Bellow
Creating legacy is done chunk-by-chunk
There is a secret that experienced legacy creators know and novices don’t: creating legacy is accomplished by chunking things up. What to write the next Lord of the Rings trilogy? Chunk things up. Want to compose the next No. 1 music album? Chunk things up. Want to…? You get the idea.
Whenever you want to accomplish anything big, anything so remarkable and daring it seems impossible for one human to achieve, chunk it up, then start by working on the first chunk; keep going at it; and hey presto – a few years down the line, or a few decades down the line, it’s done.
The problem with big projects
Our brains are pre-programmed to avoid getting started on anything that feels really big. It’s a common-sense survival mechanism. If it feels big, it will most likely take years to complete; you’re therefore likely not to complete it; so all the time you’ve invested into it up until the point of abandoning it has been wasted.
The result is that whenever the brain is faced with a big project, it resists getting started. But while it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, creating legacy is mostly done through taking on big, daring projects. Because these projects take forever, they are also rare – hence more valuable, remarkable, and most of all memorable. People can’t stop talking about them, because they can’t understand how one person could achieve something so grand.
How chunking provides the solution
The answer, of course, is chunking. Our brains resist if you tell them ‘today I’m going to start writing the next Lord of the Rings trilogy’. But if you tell them ‘today I’m going to write two pages’, i.e. today I’m going to complete one tiny chunk, you’ll find your brain being a whole lot more cooperative.
This is how I wrote my PhD thesis, for example. The thought of writing 80,000 words was really scary, so I postponed starting for as long as I possibly could. But one day, I realised that the time was flying by and I was getting nothing done. And then I realised why I was having such big problems starting: because I hadn’t chunked things up.
So instead of thinking of the total number of words I had to write, I decided on the chapters I wanted to have in the thesis. Then I thought in-depth about each chapter, and came up with a list of sections. Then I matched the data I had to the appropriate section; and gave myself a target of writing one section per day. I ended up finishing the first draft of the thesis in about 6 weeks. Magic!
The sections of course didn’t stay the same and nor did the chapters, but after I had my first draft it became a whole lot easier to get the thesis completed. Had I constantly thought of the thesis as this big monster, as I did at the beginning, I would never have been able to get started. But focusing on small chunks provided the solution: it helped push myself out of panic and denial into building up a healthy momentum.
Chunking can help with other tasks too
Chunking, by the way, is really helpful with all sorts of tasks. I use it for example to memorise lines for acting class; a lengthy monologue is a lot quicker to memorise once you split it into chunks of 1-2 sentences. Boring admin tasks such as doing accounts or filling in grant applications are also done a lot more efficiently through chunking.
As a rule of thumb, whenever you are faced with something that feels big to you but that you have to get done, see if you can chunk it up. No task is too boring if you think you will only have to work on it for five minutes, until the first tiny chunk is complete. And once you get the first chunk done, the rest tends to come a lot easier.
What about you?
How do you get started on big projects? Do you use chunking to get your projects off the ground? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section.
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