Focus on that big project by breaking it down into small chunks, signing a contract with yourself and telling someone about it.
My coaching client had a big, hairy project ahead of her. She’s a freelancer, and she needed to pull together a portfolio to show off her work.
She kept putting it off.
“I’ll sit down to work on my portfolio, and then I’ll look around my messy house and spend the time doing dishes and vacuuming instead,” said my client, a capable and experienced creative professional.
“I never miss a deadline or work I’ve contracted to do, but I can’t seem to get my own big projects done,” she said. The exasperation with herself was evident in her voice.
Her comment about contracts got me thinking. James Clear in “Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results” tells the story of a friend who signed a contract with his wife and personal trainer committing to losing weight.
“My initial reaction was that a contract like this seemed overly formal and unnecessary, especially the signatures,” Clear writes. “But [my friend] convinced me that signing the contract was an indication of seriousness.”
I wondered whether a contract would help my client focus and prioritize spending time on her portfolio. “This project is important, right?” I asked. “You’ll feel proud of yourself when it’s done?”
“I’ve wanted to have a portfolio to show off for years,” she said. “I want to showcase my work. I’m letting myself down by not getting it done.”
1. Break the project into small chunks
My client seemed overwhelmed by the project. “Let’s break it down into manageable chunks,” I suggested. “What are all the steps to get this done?”
She listed off eight distinct tasks, which I wrote out on a sheet of paper.
“When do you want to finish this project?” I asked her.
She came up with a date, working around other projects and commitments, eight weeks out.
“Funny how you’ve got eight chunks of work and eight weeks to do it,” I laughed. “Is it possible to do one chunk per week?”
She agreed that it was entirely feasible for her to do that, and I listed a due date next to each step.
2. Write a contract
I drew a line on the page, then printed her name and the date underneath.
“OK, now sign,” I told her. “This matters. You are signing a contract with yourself; you are committing to getting this done.”
She signed with a flourish.
“Why have I never thought to do this before?” she asked. “It’s so easy and obvious to write a contract.”
“It’s a matter of thinking about what motivates you,” I said. “You respect deadlines and you respect your signature on a contract. We’re using that.”
3. Set up accountability
We then scheduled her next coaching session for the week following the last deadline; she agreed she’d arrive with portfolio in hand.
I was acting as her “accountability partner,” but a friend or colleague would serve just as well as a coach. “Knowing that someone else is watching you can be a powerful motivator,” Clear writes.
Two months later, she showed up in my office, proud to show me her gorgeous, glamorous portfolio.
“It can be hard to focus, with so many great ideas that I want to jump on — and a perennially messy house,” my client said. “The contract really distilled what was important, what I needed to prioritize each week.”
Now that she’s finished her portfolio, she can catch up on two months of dishes.