The dreaded backlogged project–now less overwhelming!

I’m big on gentle accountability. So I’m a fan of Cairene Macdonald’s monthly Bite the Candy sessions. You spend the morning working on a backlogged project, with moral support (via phone check-ins) from Cairene and your fellow project-doers before and during your work session, and celebration after.

My project for last week’s Bite the Candy was to reorganize a file drawer of materials from some of the business writing workshops I’ve led. There’s good information in those files, but it’s been jumbled. I need to be able to get my hands on what’s in there, quickly—especially exercises and examples that I can adapt for future workshops.

Just thinking about reorganizing all that information made me tired. My typical pattern, when I go through files, is to get caught up in looking at every page, evaluating whether to toss or keep it, and if I keep it, whether it should be moved and where. (I’m a detail nut and a reading junkie—what can I say?) It takes hours just to go through a few folders. I love dumping the castoffs into the recycling bin, but I don’t get to enjoy a feeling of accomplishment because so much more remains to be done. Plus I know this is not a great use of my time. So I’d been avoiding these workshop files.

Yet I got the job done in one morning! Here’s what was different. I pre-planned how to manage the project so it wouldn’t drive me crazy…and so that if I stopped before I finished, I’d be able to pick it up again without wasting time figuring out where I’d left off.

I also asked myself—important—what would be the simplest way to approach it, involving the least amount of work.

The two-part solution: 

  • I got out a plastic file crate, so that I could pull from the drawer just the files I wanted to work on, and put them in the crate.
  • For the few hours I devoted to the project, I made it my task just to locate the various writing exercises and examples, wherever they were in their different folders. I didn’t have to revamp all my workshop files. I only needed to find out what was there.

The crate meant that I could easily come back to the project if I didn’t complete it that day. It also put a comforting physical frame around the task.

Limiting my goal to identifying the exercises and examples meant I didn’t have to study each piece of paper. It was enough to glance at a page, and if it was what I was looking for, to mark it quickly, with a sticky note or by turning it sideways.

I didn’t create (as I’d previously thought about doing) a new filing system that was topic- or function-based rather than client-based. I just left the pages in whatever client folders I’d found them in—but I clipped the examples together and put them in the very front of those folders. Now I can search by client and find the examples pretty quickly.

On a separate piece of paper—bright pink so it will be easy to find, and in its own folder in front of everything else—I scribbled the names of every client file that contains useable examples. It’s a decent workaround and a good-enough solution for what I need.

For the first time in recent memory, I finished a filing-related project in a couple of hours. Whew.

If you have a project to tackle and don’t want to wait until the next Bite the Candy session, set up a joint accountability day with a friend. Email each other at the beginning of the day about what you’ll be working on, then report on your progress (and cheer each other on) throughout the day.

Before you begin, ask yourself: What’s the least I can do that will give me a feeling of accomplishment?

In fact, why not ask yourself that question about any project you’ve been avoiding? Post your answer in the comments if you like, or send me an email: janet [at] janetbailey[dot]com. I’d love to hear how you’re simplifying your projects.


  1. JoVE says:

    That workaround is so sensible. I get stuck in files, too. And figuring out exactly what you need to find and making it easy to find again is an excellent idea.

    I am also learning the value of brightly coloured paper.

  2. Cairene says:

    I’m so glad you shared this. It’s such an awesome accomplishment and smart approach. Said it before, but worth saying again: yay!

  3. Janet Bailey says:

    @JoVE, @Cairene – Yay for just-enough! Slowly building that muscle…

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