To Do Big Things, Take on Microprojects


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, 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 or doing) is more effective than passive learning (listening to a lecture
or 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 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. 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. 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. Take a drawing from your early sketchbook
and add more details. Pull up an old essay and make it snappier. Find a piece of code you wrote years ago and
optimize it. 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.

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13 thoughts on “To Do Big Things, Take on Microprojects

  1. For those of you that may have missed it, I add links to many related articles/additional info, including details of all the books mentioned in every video description.

    The author, Herbert Lui, also has a Best of Books newsletter you can access here:  http://herbertlui.net/best-of-books/

  2. It's definitely easier to see your progression when you tackle smaller goals! Keeps you more motivated!!

    I love these videos and they inspired me to start my own channel! Please come check it out and let me know what you think!!

  3. Totally agree! This method is the only way that I don’t get overwhelmed. Awesome video! 😊✨✨

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