Wednesday, January 1, 2014

7 things I learned about getting things done on a long project

In December 2012, I shared pictures via social media to commemorate two important anniversaries in aerospace history: the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. These were one-off, spur-of-the-moment shares, but they got me thinking: what if I could share something like that every day of the year? It seemed like a fun challenge to take up, and it also seemed that sharing a lifelong passion was at least as worthy a thing to do with access to a global computer network as many of the other purposes social media channels get used for. So, with January 1 just around the corner, I set up a spreadsheet and started collecting dates.

There's a whole story around the creation and revision of my inclusion criteria for anniversaries. but the real challenge was keeping up the writing and publishing every day for a year. I was determined that every day should get at least one anniversary, and it soon became clear that some days should get more than one. I don't have a final total yet, but I'm sure I must have published something like 500 individual stories.

They started short enough — I wanted to reuse the same text between Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, so early entries were short enough to tweet. That went on until April until a friend called me out over omitting the parts of a particular incident that they found most interesting. From then on, I published longer pieces: around 100 words per event.

This schedule became punishing. How long could it take to research and write up such an incident? Well, I ended up spending an hour or two on this project every morning for 2013. The writing challenge was to stay concise and yet cover all the main points of a (sometimes complex) event, and still remain engaging for an general audience.

Then, the pictures. Sometimes, these were easy to source. Other events were very hard to find an iconic picture for. In some cases, I ended up creating an image (for example, for the birthdays of aircraft manufacturing companies, where I wanted the image to reflect their major products over the years, or where no image exists of a particular incident). Scouring the net for reasonable-quality images was frequently time-consuming, and creating images was always very expensive.

I did plan ahead: I gradually added to my spreadsheet of events until I had a pretty good roadmap of at least the next few weeks’ worth of posts. It wasn’t until late November until I had all the blanks filled though. Very occasionally, when I set to writing a day’s update, I discovered that I was wrong about a particular event: that a particular flight hadn’t been the fastest or furthest or a particular aviator or aircraft hadn’t been the first to do something.  Occasions where I had to find last-minute replacements for events while the clock ticked were the most stressful part of this project.

But, I did it. Every morning for 365 days. All up, I figure there's probably something like 700 hours’ work invested here. Here's what I learned about what helped me to complete this challenge:

  1. A little bit every day adds up. I've probably written 70,000 words of aerospace history this year, which seems daunting in a way that a couple of hundred words a day does not.
  2. Make a regular time for the activity where I know I won’t be interrupted.  This was the single most important key to pulling this off. For me, 2013 brought some very substantial family demands and, towards the end of the year, some crazy work demands. So, to get these posts done, I made my regular starting time 3AM. That way, even on a day with multiple anniversaries or where I needed time for image work, I could still publish by 6:30AM as I generally aimed to. It didn’t always work out, and on weekends or when I was especially tired, I was sometimes less strict about the 3AM start, but it was that schedule that got the heavy lifting done.
  3. Realise and accept that other projects will suffer. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn over the last few years is that my time and energy are finite. Choosing to complete this project meant consciously choosing not to work on two or three other projects that I had intended to in 2013. I found that consciously de-prioritising other projects left me feeling happier than just letting them die of stagnation.
  4. Realise and accept that sometimes “good enough” will have to do. Not all days are equally rich in anniversaries of interesting or noteworthy things in the annals of air and space. There were a couple of days where I just had to make do with the most interesting story I could find (in at least one instance, this was assisted by at least having a cool photo for a not-so-significant event). Other times, I was just rushed for one reason or another and couldn’t get as good a photo as I wanted, or where I wasn’t happy with the text I’d created. But as the household came to life and the necessity to get ready and head in to work loomed, sometimes I just had to go with what I had. This is the “JFDI” lesson.
  5. Accept no excuses. I published daily no matter how tired I was, no matter how sick, no matter how otherwise busy. No compromise.
  6. I feel that the daily schedule helped; doing something every day builds a pretty solid habit, where a longer period might not have.
  7. When things get tough, focus on the end. Especially from September onwards, it really helped me to think about how far I had come and how (relatively) few days remained until I could take a break!
It was a hell of a ride! This year, I have another long-term project planned, but, notwithstanding point 6 above, one without a daily publication schedule. I expect this will be a bit harder.

And what now? I plan to compile my posts; flesh out the pre-April ones a little; clear, replace, or remove the images; and publish them in an ebook. That was never the aim, but as the year wore on, I thought it made sense to capitalise on this effort.

The economics are depressing though: I’d need to make $11,459 in gross profit to equal minimum wage here in Australia for that 700 hours’ work, and around $22,165 to be commensurate with Australia’s median income!

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