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How to Start an Ambitious Personal Project

How to Start an Ambitious Personal Project
Published January 21, 2020 by Laura Entis

Whether it’s learning a language, starting a newsletter, or finally writing that novel, ambitious personal undertakings can be difficult to kick-start; the sheer scale of the project is both exhilarating and paralyzing. 

With that in mind, here are strategies for how to think about, plan for, and, yes, start a big, sweeping personal project without burning out before you begin. 


Ask yourself: what are my motivations? 

To be sustainable, a personal project typically demands a high level of both excitement and interest. It’s critical for this to extend to the process, not just the end result. 

Having published two books, the artist and writer Emily Spivack is frequently approached by people who want advice on crafting a book proposal or finding an agent. Her standard response: “Have you spent time with the project?” Writing a book is rarely a fast or lucrative proposition (characteristics that apply to a wide variety of creative endeavors). Without genuine interest, it’s unlikely that the process will be sustainable, much less enjoyable—the satisfaction of an amorphous end result is not enough. “You have to really love it and be ready to spend a ton of time with it,” she says. [Ed. note: we also love her advice on starting a project here.]

“When you find that thing you are just so excited to work on, it can sustain you.”

Loving something, of course, doesn’t make it fun or easy—at least not all the time. Most large-scale projects include periods of drudgery and insecurity. That was true for New York Times contributor Judi Ketteler when writing her latest book, Would I Lie to You: The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World That Lies. In these moments, her personal fascination with the topic served as fuel. “When you find that thing you are just so excited to work on, it can sustain you,” she says. 

Test the concept 

It’s often hard to know how much you actually care about something! What starts out as a creative obsession can burn hot and fast. To gauge a project’s long-term potential, try starting on a smaller scale.  

Would I Lie to You, for example, started as an article. After finishing the piece, Ketteler knew she had more to say. The article also provided “a starting point to be like, ‘This is how I am going to engage with [the topic].’”

Determine whether you have the time 

Starting a weekly newsletter sounds great—in theory. In reality, of course, it’s a commitment that requires a lot of time. For some people, devoting those hours is doable and worth it. For others, it’s a recipe for burnout. 

Before embarking on something big, Terri Bogue, co-author of the book Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery, recommends people audit pre-existing commitments, including work, sleep, family obligations, social activities, and leisure time. 

After accounting for the above, do you have enough space in your schedule to write a newsletter each week? Be realistic. If the hours don’t add up, or if the calculation is tight, you may want to reevaluate the project’s scope or make changes in other areas of your life to free up time

Break it down into manageable components

In addition to her full-time job as an editor at Fortune Magazine, Polina Marinova sends out a personal newsletter dedicated to the best in longform journalism every Sunday. Since starting the project in 2017, she’s gotten more efficient, in large part by dismantling the compilation and writing process into smaller, more manageable components. 

“I used to have a very structured regimen that required complete silence for several hours while I put it together,” she says. “Over time, I've learned to find the edges of time—on the subway, at a baseball game, if I'm waiting for someone—to start reading and brainstorming about what I want to write. It's easier to do it throughout the week in small chunks because it doesn't feel as daunting as it is to sit down and do it all at once.”

Solicit feedback 

Because creative personal projects are often solo endeavors, it’s easy to feel isolated when you get stuck. There’s no rule saying you can’t involve other people, however. “It’s really nice to have a person or a couple of people to check in with once a week or once a month,” Spivack says. Over the years, she’s debriefed with and solicited feedback from interns, fellow artists, friends, her husband—each person provides a unique perspective and, crucially, a layer of accountability. She’s found that documenting progress for another person makes it tangible. 

Be consistent 

When Marinova started her newsletter, she knew that consistency was key. If readers couldn’t rely on her to provide weekly content, she’d lose their trust. “Early on, I made a promise to myself that I would send it no matter what was going on in my life,” she says.

“No matter the end goal, find a way to incorporate the craft into your routine.”

Not all projects require such rigid output, but without getting in the habit of regularly working, it’s hard to make meaningful progress. No matter the end goal, find a way to incorporate the craft into your routine. For some people, this means reserving periods of time. For others, like Marinova, it means getting into the practice of working whenever an unexpected break emerges.

Make it part of your identity

Even the most exciting projects contain bouts of frustration, boredom, and uncertainty. When the stakes are personal, finding the motivation to push through the slush of mixed and negative emotions can be doubly challenging. 

It sometimes helps to raise the stakes, reframing the project not as a choice but as an identity. Ketteler practices this with running. She doesn’t just go on runs, she is a runner, a distinction that has kept her regularly hitting the pavement for the last 25 years, even during stretches when she hasn’t felt like carving out the time. Through this lens, running ceases to be a choice: “I tell myself, ‘You are a runner. This is who you are.’”

“It sometimes helps to raise the stakes, reframing the project not as a choice but as an identity.”

Ketteler took the same approach with Would I Lie to You. She loved the subject, but that didn’t protect her from days in which she felt lost, unable to capture her thoughts on the page. As with running, she never seriously considered throwing in the towel. Stopping wasn’t an option because the book helped define her. In addition to being a runner, she would tell herself: “I am a person who is writing a book about honesty.”

More about Laura Entis

Laura Entis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in FortuneThe Guardian, and GQ, among other publications.

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