The Anatomy of a Creative Project: Organizing Your To-Dos
When bringing a creative project to life, the first thing I do is dissect its anatomy. As in: what is it made out of? What is essential to its existence as a self-sustaining thing? What does it need in order to go out into the world and connect with other people?
By understanding the structural composition of a project, you’re doing a couple of things: first, you’re disentangling your ego. You’re taking the cool, detached perspective of an engineer or scientist— asking critically, how does this thing work? — rather than that of the birth mother/father, who is brimming with hopes, dreams, and fears. As I wrote in a post about creative paralysis, sometimes messy feelings can get in the way of actually making the project happen.
You’re also razor focusing in what needs to be done, and in what order. You’re able to create a realistic plan of execution because you’ve taken the holistic, big-picture perspective, instead of getting tangled in the weeds. When you understand the anatomy of a project, you’ll know how to distribute your energy in the most efficient, effective way possible.
So what is in the anatomy of a creative project? Here are the 5 components:
The bare bones
Black boxes & bottlenecks
I’ll walk through an example of this process: starting a blog.
Define the goal for version 1.0
The first thing you need to do is think in terms of iterations— concretely define what your goals are for version 1.0 of your project. If it helps, you might give yourself a deadline for version 1.0; it could be a week, or a month. Keep your expectations modest— version 1.0 is simply your foundation for eventually building something more grand.
Launch version 1.0 of a blog, publishing weekly posts on something I’m really passionate about.
Then, you'd organize all of your to-dos in terms of what how it fits into the project as a whole:
The bare bones
First, identify what the core essence of this project is. The bare bones is the very minimum you need to make this project happen, without which it couldn’t exist. What are its most fundamental, defining characteristics?
In order to start a blog, I need blog posts, readers, and a place to publish them. That may seem self-explanatory. Then, I’ll rewrite these elements into actionable items:
Narrow in on a blog topic.
Decide on my target reader.
Write 5 blog posts for that reader.
Publish my posts online.
I’m not worrying about the name of my blog, where it will be hosted, how I’m going to promote it, or what its logo will look like. All that stuff is important, but it’s not necessary in order for my blog to be considered a blog. If you're trying to build momentum for a project, the first step is to get the bare bones in place.
After you have the bare bones, you know its structure. You know, roughly, what kind of animal this project is, because you have its framework down. The next layer is understanding its form and substance— what makes this project work, what components help it live, communicate, and sustain itself in the long term.
Here I’ll think about the brand and content planning of the blog, where it will live on the internet, what it would look like, and how I’ll promote it.
Create a bank of blog post topics I’ll draw from.
Decide on and install a template for my blog design.
Create a logo for my blog.
Decide on the blog name.
Refine my process for writing, editing, and publishing the posts.
Up to this point, if all you have are the bare bones, then you just have an ugly blog with a standard template, no name, no logo, just the blog posts. After you've created the "meat" of the project, then you've created a future for your blog. This blog is now something you can share with other people.
The dressing (I prefer "the icing," but it doesn't fit with this metaphor) is what makes this project more delightful and unique. This also includes anything that is unnecessary to reach your pre-defined goal for Version 1.0. The problem is that some creators start from the dressing, focusing on it too much before they even have the bare bones down.
Decide on my tagline.
Start a FB page and invite all my friends to follow my blog.
Create a newsletter for my (yet to exist) blog readers.
Create an attention-grabbing animation on my about page.
All of these items are great, but not crucial to Version 1.0 of my brand new blog, in which the goal is to simply “launch a blog publishing biweekly posts.”
However it's all relative, and depend on what your goals are. If my project goal was “promote my blog so that it gets X visitors per week, and X subscribers,” then items #3 and #4 wouldn’t be considered the dressing; they may be part of the bare bones or the meat of the project.
Black boxes & bottlenecks
Part of understanding the anatomy of a project is anticipating where you’re likely to get stuck. It’s not so much about fighting your natural impulses as much as making space for them, and not letting them dominate you.
Black boxes - The Unknowns
In engineering, you draw black boxes around things that are unknown, and you move on, assuming that it’s there, and focusing instead on its inputs and outputs.
Decide on a name
Decide on a blog design
Bottlenecks - Decisions
While you can have a functioning system (up to a certain point) without defining what’s in the black box, bottlenecks are decision-points that will prevent you from moving forward at all.
Decide what to write about
Decide where to host the blog
The best way to deal with black boxes and bottlenecks is to first identify which of these are also part of the “bare bones” of the project (in this case, it’s deciding what you want to write about). Then, circumscribe a chunk of time to dedicate to this task, and give yourself a firm deadline. Do what you can to keep moving. Do this methodically and calmly for all of your black box and bottleneck tasks, but don’t forget to do it in this order: bare bones first, then meat of the project, then the dressing.
I’m a tactile person, so what I like to do is dump all my little to-dos on little pieces of paper, then organize them in accordance to this system.
It means that I pick up each task and think critically: is this absolutely necessary to the existence of this project? Or does this belong in version 2.0? Version 3.0?