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Facing Dreaded Projects (How to Make a Mole Hill Out of a Mountain)
By: Marylie W. Gerson, PhD

Facing Big Projects

Facing Big ProjectsWe’ve all had to face that project that we’ve dreaded.  A paper, a speech, preparing an event.  Maybe we don’t feel that we have enough background or the skills needed to do the project well or even to do it at all.  Or maybe it’s just that it’s so big—like a mountain we’ll have to climb, with its peak so tall that it’s obscured by the clouds.  Or maybe both—we’ll have to climb it barefoot and it could erupt with lava at any moment… Clearly, I have personal experience with such trepidations.

To be efficient in tackling such projects, we need to consider both the emotions that may be involved and how to tackle the project in a problem-solving mode.

Diffusing or Managing the Emotions

Over a century of research shows that it’s really hard to think and plan when our emotions are intense.  Some degree of anxiety can be motivating, but when we’re too aroused, our minds shut down (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908).  Even trauma research supports the importance of moving beyond an emotion-focused coping style to one that works on problem solving (Penley, Tomaka, & Wiebe, 2002). 

Plan A: Consider what you might be so worried about.  What meanings do the project, its accomplishment, or its failure have for you?  They may be as simple as concerns about increased expectations for the future or not wanting to appear foolish to one’s peers.  Sometimes the meanings are less apparent.  In helping doctoral students, I’ve been struck by the number of times a student couldn’t complete their dissertation until a revered parent passed away.  Only then did it become clear that the resistance had been rooted in less obvious fears, stemming from prohibitions against competing with the parent, anxiety about incurring the parent’s envy, or symbolically becoming an independent adult

If you’re stumped about the meanings, it may be helpful to ask yourself the question immediately before going to sleep: “What meanings does this project have for me?”  I’m a big believer in our problem-solving abilities during sleep.  With the decreased censoring by the prefrontal cortex during sleep, you may gain some insights (Barrett, 1993).  Hopefully, you’ll discover some meanings that you can recognize as survivable and so will no longer be incapacitating. 

But if you can’t figure the meanings out or otherwise diffuse them, go to Plan B: work around them by delving full-force into the next step.  

Tackling the Problem

From here, no more keeping things in your head—put everything on paper (or its technological equivalent).  This will not only help with constructing a reasonable plan and monitoring its progress, but can also reduce the emotionality of the task.

Get out or access a calendar.  When must you reach the top of the mountain?  How much time does that give you?  Be very concrete — “3 weeks,” rather than “frighteningly little.” 

Say you have 3 weeks.  Is there an event (e.g., Thanksgiving, your daughter’s 16th birthday, etc.) that will interfere?  How many days does that now leave?  How much can you reasonably expect yourself to accomplish each week?  Each day?

Now, chop the project up into do-able pieces.  Small pieces–pieces that can be accomplished within no more than 1-2 hours each.  Do you need to consult with someone for guidance to help you know what all of the pieces are?  Include that as a piece.  Don’t freeze in fear; problem-solve.

List all of the pieces in an order.  If some must follow others, number these (1, 2, 3, …).  If some are interchangeable, follow their numbers by letters (e.g., 1a, 1b, 1c, …).  Allow yourself to move between the letters.  For example, if you don’t feel like working on 1a at the moment, you can start with 1c.  I find that this flexibility helps give at least an illusion of choice.  You may not have a choice about whether to do the project, but you may have some in freedom in how to proceed from hour to hour.  This can relieve boredom (and any rebellion that may be lurking in the wings).

All aspects of your life probably can’t be put on hold during this period.  Make a list of any other noteworthy things that must also get done during this period—appointments to keep, classes to teach or attend, bills to pay.  Put off nonessentials until after the 3 weeks are over (or do them during breaks of non-thinking down-time)—polishing shoes, looking into new window treatments or car detailing, a monthly call to Aunt Sue, bills not due for a while, etc.

Consider what windows of time may be least disruptive to your life and/or best for a clear mind.  Early morning before others are awake?  Late at night when things are quiet?

Also consider how you work best.  Short bursts interspersed by other activities?  Long, uninterrupted periods of focus?  Schedule your day so it works most efficiently for you. 

But, however you plan your day, be sure to schedule periods of sacred time dedicated only to the project.  Do NOT just tell yourself that you’ll “work some time in” for the project—chances are, other obligations will edge it out.  Years ago, a colleague said something that had, oddly, never occurred to me but has worked out well—a person can always get up earlier.  I was never an “early bird,” but I’m also not a “night owl” (if you are, this may not work for you).  But I find it best for me to hobble over to my desk every morning, before I’m awake enough to talk myself out of it, to put some time into a project I’m needing to accomplish.  Of course, my desk must be ready for me so I can plunge right in (Achor, 2011).

Each morning (or evening), reevaluate your schedule, check the number of remaining days, and modify your list accordingly.  Modifications are part of the process. 

Happy mountain climbing!


 Achor, S. (2011). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. Virgin Books. ISBN-13:9780753539477

Barrett, D. (1993). The “committee of sleep”: A study of dream incubation for problem-solving.  Dreaming, 3(2), 115-123.

Penley, J. A., Tomaka, J., & Wiebe, J. S. (2002). The association of coping to physical and psychological health outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 25(6), 551-603.

Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology18, 459–482. doi:10.1002/cne.920180503.

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