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Re: One big, one little

Earlier this month I had a week and a half in between jobs. What I would usually do when suddenly presented with a large chunk of free personal time is:

  1. Panic about all the side projects I don’t usually have time + energy for
  2. Try to do too many of these projects
  3. End up with some combination of 1) not taking sufficient time to rest, and 2) not achieving much at all, due to flitting around like a butterfly between ideas

I finally got smart this time and listened to Cousin Dave and his “One big, one little” strategy:

If I artificially limit myself to having one major and one minor active side project at a time, my agility goes up because I’m not doing ten projects at once, I’m doing one or two. When one project finishes, I move to the next best idea that fits the available slot. I will never be taking on too much and it’s easier to say “no” to new distractions if I have to substitute projects.

I’d recommend giving his full blog post a read. In any case…

Spoiler alert: it worked for me

I followed this principal of “one big, one little” project during my break, and it really worked for me. I’ve been learning blackletter calligraphy, and had decided to do a self-initiated “capstone” project wherein I wrote the original 151 Pokemon in the Textura Quadrata style:

Video description
  • Visuals: my hand flipping through a paperback-sized gridded journal. On each page are the names of 10 original Pokemon rendered in blackletter calligraphy. Half of the pages use red ink, half use blue ink, and the name Pikachu is written in sparkly yellow ink.
  • Audio: the only audio is the crinkly page-turning sound.

The only reason I had the satisfaction of finishing this within my break is because I was able to say “no” to the siren call of other projects. I could say to myself, “that idea looks fun, but I’m focused on calligraphy right now. I’ll turn to that after I finish penning the word ‘Mew’.”

Taking the T out of SMART goals

Not only did this system help me during an unusual quiet period, it also provided me with a healthy mental shift around timelines and non-required goals. Any productivity guru will tell you SMART goals are where it’s at. Your goals must be time-bound in order to apply the pressure you need to complete the necessary work.

Everyone’s brain works differently though, and for me, designating a quarterly and/or monthly personal project was a recipe for disappointment. If I needed just a little more time to finish my February project in March, that carry-over felt like failure. Conversely, limiting myself to a particular focus for a quarter also felt confining. And by the way, none of these personal projects are required for me to be a good employee, partner, or human being—they are literally meant to enrich my life. Not. Worth. The anxiety.

With this “one big, one little” system, personal projects are on a sushi conveyer belt. I can focus on the current project at hand, work it as my energy/interest/schedule allows, and pick up the next one whenever I’m ready. It’s the tiniest framing shift that is felt seismically within my noggin.

Adjustments I’m making

Dave described allowing himself “one big, one little” in 3 life areas: work, personal, and family. I’ve found that I have similar distinct zones of time in my own weekly schedule.

In the “personal” bucket, I’m also allowing myself an optional/additional “XL” project, i.e. a knitting or weaving project. For me, this type of project:

  • Is so large that it needs to be broken up with “smaller” large projects
  • Typically doesn’t take a lot of mental power, except at new-to-me steps
  • Is usually portable, enabling me to have a project to work on while watching TV (I can’t sit still!!) or at crafting meetups

For work, I’m figuring out what type of throughput is considered desirable at my new employer; I’m a product manager, so most things I’m doing at work are a team sport. I might interpret this bucket more like “personal career development”. Or I might try to hold separate, limited slots for discovery, execution, and personal development. Happily, the org I just joined seems to value doing fewer things simultaneously—for quality and velocity—over peanut buttering.

Can’t wait to make more things!

So far, this philosophy has helped me chill out about personal projects and get more things done for my husband, our friends, and I. I’m looking forward to seeing where experimenting with “one big, one little” takes me. Big thank you to Dave for sharing!

— Signed, person who just completed a “little”: the blog post you’re reading!


  1. Not my actual cousin


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  • Reply from Sameera on

    @melanie @davatron5000 Oh yay! So glad it worked! I remember you telling me you were gonna try it!
  • Reply from Dave Rupert on

    @melanie Cousin! I’m so happy it worked for you. I’m still mostly on it although I’ve had One Enormous background project show up that is occupying a lot of brain RAM. Hopefully that wraps up soon tho.
  • Reply from Melanie Richards on

    @davatron5000 sometimes it do be like that! Hope The Enormity wraps up soon ????
  • Reply from Luke Dorny on

    @melanie hadn’t seen his post yet but thanks to your writing it and sharing I’ve found more methods to deal with my day to day and week to week and moment to moment. Thanks, Melanie.
  • Reply from Amadeus Maximilian on

    @melanie @davatron5000 I should give this a shot! Thanks for sharing, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with all my side projects lately, so this could come in handy. ????