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To Do Big Things, Take on Microprojects
The power of consistently creating small bits of work
Author Seth Godin writes a blog post every day. Karen X. Cheng, the founder of the creative agency Waffle, danced every day for a year — at work, at bus stops, in line at the grocery store. Kanye West, before he won dozens of Grammys, made five beats a day for three summers.
People like to tout “quality over quantity,” a phrase that sets up quantity and quality as two separate choices — in order to have more of one, we must compromise on the other. But quantity and quality are actually intricately connected. Making and releasing a high quantity of work is a reliable path to improving its quality.
In each of the examples above, we can see how small, consistent practices — or, microprojects, if you will — became part of a larger body of work. Godin turned his best blog posts into bestselling books. Cheng produced a timelapse video of her dance mini-sessions, and it raked in 12 million views. Kanye became Kanye.
Research has shown that active learning (interacting, participating, doing) is more effective than passive learning (listening to a lecture, reading). In a paper published in Teaching of Psychology, for example, students absorbed material more thoroughly with ungraded five-minute writing assignments than in five minutes of thinking time. And the process of turning an idea into a reality is one of the most active ways of learning there is.
In addition to lessening the mental load of things we need to remember to do, completing a project can also be emotionally rewarding. It’s nerve-wracking but thrilling to put your work out there, creating a sort of positive loop that makes you want to learn and do even more. Also, constantly “shipping” your work — declaring it done with and moving on to the next thing — can prevent what psychologists call “fixation,” the mental block that prevents you from discovering any valuable insight. When you’re able to show others what you’ve created, you escape the often-myopic trap of your own brain.
Microprojects allow you to reap these benefits more frequently. And when you create something small and release it into the world, you gain the momentum that propels you to do it again. And again. Here’s how to come up with a simple, focused idea to execute.
Get your ideas down quickly
Get your ideas out of your head and out into the world, no matter how imperfect they are. In her now-classic writing guide Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott explains: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down.”
Author Danielle Steel, who has written over 179 books, recommended a similar tactic in an interview with Glamour earlier this year. “The more you shy away from the material, the worse it gets,” she said. “You’re better off pushing through and ending up with 30 dead pages you can correct later than just sitting there with nothing.”
This often means lowering the fidelity — the quality and level of detail — of what you’re making. For example, some product designers choose not to start their work on the computer. Instead, they fiddle around with ideas in a notebook, or they make paper prototypes. This not only taps into a different part of their brain, but also gets their vision out faster so they can get their team’s feedback on it much sooner.
Don’t be too precious
LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman has said, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” He recommends making something and putting it out there as quickly as possible, so you can learn from people’s responses and reactions. By delaying your launch, you’re wasting valuable time that could have been used to learn about how to improve your work.
In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey recalls a lesson she learned from her mentor, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” Tight deadlines can be a blessing — relentlessly releasing small projects enables you to learn through constant execution.
Improve on something, just by a little bit
One type of microproject you can do is copy someone else’s work and improve on it. “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere,” writes author Austin Kleon in Steal Like An Artist. “All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.” And copying, he believes, is how we learn.
In his lecture at Harvard, Virgil Abloh speaks about his “3% approach.” The idea is to create a new design by slightly modifying an original one. If you don’t want to use other people’s work as a starting point, you can also modify your own old projects a little bit to create something new. (Consider Childish Gambino’s 2008 song, Love Is Crazy, and his 2014 song, Retro.) Take a drawing from your early sketchbook and add more details (just as author and comedian Sarah Cooper did when creating her viral blog post “10 Tricks to Appear Smart During Meetings”). Pull up an old essay and make it snappier. Find a piece of code you wrote years ago and optimize it.
Keep it simple
The common thread in all of these points is to keep everything small and simple. When the creative process begins, the vision often starts changing, expanding from all the excitement. Start a simple hand-lettering project on Instagram and watch how quickly someone suggests, “You should start a hand-lettering business!” In Bossypants, Fey writes that she noticed this at SNL: “You would think that as a producer, your job would be to churn up creativity, but mostly your job is to police enthusiasm.”
Don’t get so caught up in what you could be doing that you distract yourself from the task at hand. The lesson is to think small — and then even smaller. It’s the fastest way to creating something big.