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How to start that big project (or how to get the camel to stick his nose under your tent)

Do you have a big project waiting in the wings that you can’t get started?

Maybe it’s de-cluttering part of your house, writing a proposal, redesigning your website, or fixing that piece of equipment that’s been out of commission for two years.

But when you contemplate starting, all you can say is “Ugh!”

Remember that proverb, “Don’t let the camel stick his nose under the tent.” The idea is that once the camel gets his nose in, he’s going to keep coming in.

Although this is usually spoken about as something NOT to do, it might be a GREAT idea if you want a camel in your tent.

Using similar logic, perhaps we can stick our noses into our big project a bit at a time until we find our groove with it.

Big projects can be daunting.

Sometimes our brains resist “big.” We may need to trick them to get started.

In an interview in CU Boulder Today  Colorado University professor of psychology and neuroscience Randall O’Reilly, was quoted as saying:

“The brain is wired to be very cautious and conservative in starting big projects, because once you do start, it takes over your brain.

The brain, researchers think, is wired to track progress towards whatever it is you’ve decided to do, like spring cleaning, which is hard work. You have to make a lot of difficult decisions and the outcome is uncertain.

Your brain recognizes that and says, ‘Maybe I won’t start on that project after all.’

It’s an adaptive property of the brain.”

In other words, your brain smells something BIG and, as a result, puts up a natural defense.

Which is probably why I have found it so hard to get started weeding my mammoth garden.

There’s an alternative: Start small.

Recently, I’ve been contemplating the art of taking very small steps. I invent ways to use the breaks and cracks in my schedule, rather than waiting for the perfect moment when I have time to tackle a project that I’ve tried to ignore.

I tell myself, “you can do this,” and take a bite of work – for maybe ten or twenty minutes. Once I’ve faced the project and begun to chew on it, I’ll probably discover it isn’t as distasteful as I thought.

Think small bites.

At the Pacific Northwest’s famous Bite of Seattle, local restaurants lure you with petite servings you can purchase from their food trucks. They hope that a taste will entice you to try their fuller fare.

In starting your project, ask yourself what you can do to gather momentum so that your brain can relax its defenses, you can earn a little dopamine (feel-good) booster for having achieved something,  and you end up wanting to do more.

In my garden, I gave myself the assignment to  “Go outside and weed for ten or twenty minutes, max.”

In that time, I could only do one thing, so I chose to weed the front walkway. I stayed focused on the weeds that had grown between the bricks, rather than on the jillion other tasks awaiting me in the garden.

It was very satisfying.

I neither exhausted my body nor overwhelmed my spirit.

Ten-minute projects

I’ve become curious about what can be done (or at least started) in the small chinks in my schedule.

I can begin a writing project by composing a few paragraphs, even if I trash them later. With the proposal waiting for me, I can open the document and read the requirements (done in ten minutes!).  With de-cluttering my bedroom, I can start with one drawer. (Yes, I know that some organizers like Marie Kondo want you to tackle a whole area of your house at once…but that can come later.)

I’ve begun to make a cool list of things I can do in ten minutes as I lure myself from avoidance into action.

Now to go find that wandering camel and invite him to put his moist and furry nose under the corner of my tent.

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