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surveying

You’ve got at least one Big Project on your someday list, or at least in the back of your mind: that novel/painting/web start-up/symphony you’ve always wanted to tackle “when the time is right.” One day, you tell yourself, when there’s a nice long lull, you’ll get to it, but until then it’s nose-to-the-grindstone on more immediate concerns…

Face it: the only nice long lull most of us will ever see is dea…retirement.

To be clear, this is a project you would really like to do (or have done) but because it doesn’t directly affect your paycheck and it doesn’t have a real deadline, it keeps getting postponed.

Here’s a simple way to start making real daily progress on a daunting creative project no matter how busy you are.

The Art of Creative Triangulation

Stephen King once wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that creative ideas are there in your mind but buried, and it’s your job to dig them out of the sand. Think of Michelangelo chipping David out of the marble. He didn’t sculpt an arm, then another arm, then a torso, and so on, finally cobbling it all together. Instead, he chipped away at a complete shape, gradually honing in on it from different angles.

So, first of all, think of your idea as complete and whole, ready to be unearthed. Now, you just need to find it. Just as triangulation can determine the source of a signal, creative triangulation can find your idea by zeroing in on it from different angles.

  1. Shut out all external distractions: quit Outlook, close the door, shut off your cellphone, etc.
  2. Set out 3 index cards (or shorties).
  3. Set your trusty timer for 5 minutes.
  4. Make 3 choices about your project.
It’ll take a lot less than 5 minutes, but the timer’s to keep you from dithering around and staring into space.

The Only Enemy is Uncertainty

What kinds of choices? Any kind. From the color of a character’s hair to the key of your musical composition to the kind of paper you’ll be printing your illustrations on.

That’s all there is to it. For instance, if you’ve always wanted to do a large-scale mural, you might write:

  • canvas: 3′ tall by 7′ wide
  • 10 athletes engaging in different sports
  • sense of movement from left to right
That’s it. You’ve given yourself some good triangulation data and you’re that much closer to “finding” your creative goal.

The next day, you can triangulate from scratch, or expand an existing card with three more ideas in that same direction. If you’re writing a novel, one of your cards might reveal that your main character’s best friend is a plumber. The next day, you might name that character Bill, make him short and skinny, and add in that he’s delinquent on his taxes.

You’re Your Own Coach

Yes, this may seem like a slow way to make progress on a big project, but you’ll be surprised at how many important decisions get made in a short time.

Often, what keeps us procrastinating on creative projects are the unknowns. Once you have a thick stack of decisions, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable about laying them out, forming an outline, and getting to work for an hour.

Remember how much fun it was in art or English class when the teacher gave you a clear creative assignment? “Write a 3-page story set in a fishing village with three female characters,” or “Make an alien out of clay that could survive on a planet with no water.” You’d set right down and get to work filling in the blanks.

Creative triangulation is all about separating your creative selves, making the high-level decisions at once without getting bogged down, and then connecting the creative dots separately. It makes the going a whole lot easier.

photo by tom jervis.

7 Comments

  • Deborah

    gravatarFeb 26, 2008
    8:23 am

    Awesome idea! Definitely a little teak to getting going on projects that I haven’t heard before.

    Thanks for the fresh idea.

  • Summy

    gravatarFeb 26, 2008
    11:22 am

    that’s exactly what layering is about- break a project into small tasks and keep completing small chuncks…

  • Jol

    gravatarFeb 26, 2008
    3:51 pm

    This is a process that I use unconsciously, but laying it out like this can help move things along when you become blocked. Thanks.

  • Tim Wayne

    gravatarFeb 26, 2008
    7:31 pm

    This sounds like an interesting and effective approach to accomplishing huge projects. I am having a little trouble visualizing it in practice, though. Any chance you could post a photo of all the cards of one of your big projects?

  • Timothy Andrew

    gravatarFeb 27, 2008
    5:37 am

    I absolutely LOVE this concept. Thank you so much, this is very valuable. I’m planning on starting a blog, but I just inactively wait for inspiration to strike me. I guess this will help it on its way. Thanks again!

  • Darryl Heron

    gravatarFeb 28, 2008
    6:41 pm

    This is a great idea. I have dugg and stumbled your post.

  • Bertrand

    gravatarFeb 29, 2008
    1:17 am

    Ah well, I don’t use cards. I have this tiny notebook with removable sheets in my pocket all the time, and a cheap efficient pen. I usually use it to collect my thoughts, sometimes to do some project-thinking when I have nothing else to write on (too small for a comfortable mind mapping). Before reading this note, I had never used it to store a list of someday/maybe’s which could use some triangulation.

    I have several of them which fall in my category creativity/expression, like writing a scenario for a computer game, designing my garden… These projects can be triangulated (“learning Ruby” cannot, “save the planet” hardly). I use the ‘weird-time’ windows (waiting for the bus, sitting on the toilets) to triangulate. Or bi-angulate, or mono-angulate, whatever.

    I mean, I dont force myself to have 3 ideas about everything. What I do now -thanks to this post- is review as often as possible a category of someday/maybe projects and dump on my notebook some decisions about them. Not just thoughts which I would have to process, but decisions. And if I decide something stupid, well, I can always correct it later.