Overwhelmed by your projects? Leveraging these two principles of creative project design will help.

Project Breakdown Full

How to draw an owl.

One of my favorite internet memes of all time is “How to Draw an Owl”. It is the perfect example of how way too many people approach education, goal setting, and project design.

How to Draw an Owl

You are taught to set ambitious, specific goals and objectives (the picture on the right) and then given the picture on the left (if we are lucky) and told good luck! Just put in the work, stay focused, do not get distracted, keep your head down and you will someday have an owl like everybody else’s owl.

If you end up with a different-looking owl then you obviously did something wrong or do not have what it takes.

This is a terrible way to approach closing the gap between where you are and where you want to be creatively and professionally.

If you seriously want to move forward in alignment with your intentions, then you need to learn how to bridge the gap between your aspirations (the finished owl) and where you are right now (the circles). The most effective way to do this is through intentional and effective project design.

I appreciate the fact that saying “do intentional and effective project design” is essentially saying “draw the rest of the owl” but in this article, I will discuss an excellent way to approach that daunting and pesky gap between “draw two circles” and “draw the rest of the owl” using our third and fourth principles of project design.

Previously on Project Design for Creatives!

Simply acknowledging that designing good projects will move you forward is a great start. Understanding that your projects need to be aligned with your intentions and have an objective outcome (the first two principles of effective project design) is an even better start but still only a start.

How do you take a large ambitious objective like “Draw: An Owl” and design a project in a way that will move you towards completing that objective without breaking the 1 Rule of project design (DO NOT SPEND MORE TIME AND RESOURCES PLANNING YOUR PROJECTS THAN EXECUTING THEM!)?

The answer lies in what I describe as the 3rd and 4th principles of project design.

Just as a reminder the 3rd and 4th principles from the previous articles are:

Keep your projects small and flexible

– Prioritize action over planning

To leverage these principles, we will be borrowing an important element of design thinking called the divergence and convergence cycle.

The creative design cycle – Divergence and Convergence

It sounds complicated but you have probably performed a divergence/convergence cycle before without knowing it.

If you have ever sketched out ideas for a piece of work and then created that work, you have done a divergence/convergence cycle.

Divergence Convergence

Divergence in this context means coming up with multiple ideas connected to finishing your objective (think brainstorming or ideation).

Convergence means taking that pool of ideas and converging on the most valuable, most relevant ones so that you can act on them.

Avoid overwhelm through divergence

Let us suppose you want to design a portfolio website. Designing a portfolio website is a perfectly valid project.

It follows the first two principles of project design because:

  1. It can easily be aligned with an intention like “Increase the visibility of my work”.
  2. It has an objective outcome (is the website published?)
  3. It has a deliverable (the website).

Using the framework I recommended in a previous article you might title it “Design: Portfolio Website”.

Great start.

At this point, tension arises because “Design: Portfolio Website” is potentially larger and more complicated than you realized.

Overwhelm starts to surface when you start asking

What should I do first?

Do you buy a tool? Do you need to learn HTML and CSS? Do you need to research portfolio platforms like WIX or Behance? Do you need to learn WordPress? Do you need to make new digital images of your work? Do you need to research a URL? Do you need to learn what “URL” means? How do you know? How do you learn what you need to do and just as importantly what you do not need to do?

For many, this complexity causes so much anxiety and resistance that they do not bother to start. Worse, sometimes they start arbitrarily by picking one subproject, start, get overwhelmed, and then just quit having spent time and resources with little to no results.

To avoid this resistance and overwhelm you need to break up large projects into smaller, actionable pieces (divergence).

How to break down projects into actionable pieces

Transforming your large complex projects into smaller, simpler ones is one of the more creative and fun parts of project design. We will be brainstorming every possible requirement that will be necessary to achieve our project’s objective (this is one reason that you need a clear objective).

At this stage do not edit yourself, do not worry about sequencing or that you may miss some required step or action. Your list is just a hypothesis that steps A, B, and C will lead to the completion of objective X. Just write down everything you can think of that might contribute to the completion of the objective of your project.

Using the “Design: Portfolio Website” example your list might look like:

  • Research: HTML Course
  • Complete: JavaScript course
  • Research: available URL
  • Research: Webhosting services
  • Complete: WordPress Course
  • Research: Online Portfolio Platforms
  • Research: the cost and process of hiring a web designer.
  • Create: Digital Images of Work
  • Complete: Jeff Tyack’s amazing course on taking digital images of your art.

Do not worry if the list is starting to seem overwhelming (do you really need to learn JavaScript?). We will be curating and breaking things up soon.

Focus on what is valuable through convergence

Now that we have a good list of sub-projects, we need to start making some decisions about what to focus on (this is convergence).

You will begin eliminating possibilities to clarify priorities and get closer to acting.

As we look at our list of potential actions or sub-projects, we want to start asking a series of questions.

  1. What sub-project is most valuable as we try to complete our objective?
  2. Why is it valuable and to whom?
  3. Are there any actions that will eliminate the necessity of other actions?

The definition of “valuable” can vary but think in terms of activity that will move you farthest, fastest in alignment with your intentions. Do not worry about finding a perfect answer. Sometimes it will be obvious, other times it will not. Use your intuition, your experience, and your knowledge to create a hypothesis. We will be testing that hypothesis soon.

Project Breakdown Phase 1

Using the “Design: Portfolio Website” example you might choose the subproject “Research: Online Portfolio Platforms” as your most valuable next action.

If you can find a great third-party platform then you will make a huge leap towards achieving your objective while also eliminating the necessity of many of the subprojects on your list.

Once you have chosen your most valuable subproject then repeat the divergence/convergence cycle.

Diverge, converge, repeat to find your most valuable first action

Now that you have increased clarity about what the most valuable sub-project will be, we need to repeat the process. We need to repeat because “Research: Online Portfolio Platforms” is still a rather large and multifaceted project.

First thing first. You want to define your objective for this subproject and make sure it is still in alignment with our intentions. This is where writing down a small project brief might come in handy to keep things straight.


Project Title: “Research: Online Portfolio Platforms”

Project Objective: Understand the strengths and weaknesses of third-party portfolio platforms as well as which platform might be the best fit given specific price range and needs.

Project Deliverable: A small article or journal entry answering the question of why third-party portfolio platforms are great or terrible with a list of the top services.

Is this project in alignment with the parent project and your intentions? – Yes

Brainstorm actionable pieces (divergence):

  • Read: 3 articles on third party portfolio platforms
  • Ask: Current Twitter and Instagram followers if they use a third-party platform, why, and which one.
  • Write: List of all known portfolio platforms
  • Ask: Personal network if they use a third-party platform, why, and which one.

Decide which action will be most valuable (convergence):

  1. What sub-project is most valuable as we try to complete our objective? – “Ask: Personal network if they use a third-party platform, why and which one.”
  2. Why is it valuable and to whom? It is valuable because the experiences of your peers is valuable and can help you make more informed decisions.
  3. Are there any actions that will eliminate the necessity of other actions? If someone in your personal network has a perfect suggestion then the other activities become unnecessary.
Project Breakdown Full

Congratulations! You have just successfully broken down a large complicated project into small, flexible parts. If you are asking,

Wait! Don’t we have to go through the cycle again?

The answer is, maybe. This is where you will use your instinct and experience to start deciding when it is time to leverage the 4th principle of effective project design.

Prioritize action over planning

It is possible and quite easy to go through this process way past the point of usefulness. This is where the 4th principle starts to become important. It enforces our rule about not taking more time planning than doing.

A good guideline to follow is:

When a subproject has a clarity of what needs to be done next and should not take more than a few hours to complete, then it is time to shift from planning to acting.

At this stage, I start to use the term “action” instead of project or sub-project to signify that it is time to focus on acting (some call them tasks).

“Projects” can contain many actions. “Actions” do not contain projects. If you think you are dealing with an action and then realize there are 34 parts to it and it may take a week to do then you are dealing with a project. Go through the divergence/convergence cycle again until you feel like you are dealing with actions.

Our goal is to find the most valuable first action, act on it, then find the next most valuable first action.

Do not plan for the other actions. Do not start three actions at once because you are not confident which one is most valuable. Commit to finishing your choice of the most valuable first action and then finish it.

Repeat this process until your project objective is complete. Once your project objective is complete then move on to the next most valuable project using your convergence/divergence cycle.

Keep learning as you are doing

As you complete actions and projects you will learn, circumstances will change, and your hypothesis about what is necessary to complete your objectives will be tested.

Using this approach to project design your work will remain responsive to you and the world around you. You will better balance what you think needs to be done and what actually needs to be done to move forward while simultaneously creating actual meaningful artifacts that can be shared with the world or leveraged in future opportunities.

How do we start to incorporate this learning back into our projects in order to make them stronger, more relevant, and more powerful at moving us along our intentions?

This is where the 5th and 6th principles of effective project design start to come into play.

Just as a reminder they are:

Do not be afraid to change your actions, timeframes, or outcomes

Use consistent reflection and review during the project.

In the next article, I will cover why these principles are important and how to leverage them as you keep your projects flexible, relevant, and aligned with your intentions through a system of review and iteration.

Your next first action

If you have been following along in this article series you should have a clear intention, a valuable project aligned with that intention, an objective outcome (with deliverable) attached to that project, and a title for the project.

Your task, for now, is to go ahead and break down your project using the divergence/convergence cycle until you feel you have defined a most valuable first action.