How to Start a Project When You Have No Direction

How to Start a Project When You Have No Direction

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Productivity

Last year, I decided to try public speaking. It was a good opportunity to promote my book, but I had also been curious about professional speaking ever since I took a debate class in high school. Back then, I loved picking a random topic, writing an argument for it, then publicly stating my case in front of a panel of judges.

For most people, this probably sounds like a nightmare—I was surprised that I enjoyed it, too. After all, I was a fairly shy student who didn’t like talking to most people. But the controlled environment of a debate tournament gave me a chance to use my voice. 

As an adult, I always wondered what it would be like to do this professionally. So when my publisher told me they booked a conference for me, and I would be leading a workshop in front of hundreds of attendees, I was giddy. There was just one problem: I had no idea how to do this.

Being a multipotentialite is exciting because you get to try new things and pursue your hobbies and interests on a whim. But it’s also intimidating to start a new project from scratch. You want to start brewing beer or narrating books or teaching, but you have no idea where to begin. How do you dig in? What do you start first? What do you need to know?

During that introductory phase, we’re in danger of allowing our fear get the best of us, causing us to give up altogether. A few habits have made it easier for me to jump into new projects—maybe they’ll help you, too.

One bite at a time.

You might have heard the proverb: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

While I don’t condone elephant burgers, I think you get the idea. When faced with an overwhelming project, focus less on the whole task and more on taking one simple step toward mastering it. If you want to brew beer, for instance, you don’t need to memorize all the jargon and order all the equipment at once. You can start with a small, at-home brewing kit and focus on completing the instructions that come with it.

This is also a smart way to approach a project because—you never know—you might end up hating beer brewing! In which case, you’ve just spent $50 on a brewing kit, instead of $500 on a whole backyard setup, kegerator and all. Instead of going all in, taking things one step at a time allows you to experiment with your projects.

Focus on micromastery instead.

This is similar to a concept that author Robert Twigger calls micromastery. Micromastery is defined as “the practice of developing expertise and learning many small skills instead of aiming to become an expert in one area.” On his blog, Twigger writes:

“A micromastery can be anything from spinning a basketball on your finger, doing an eskimo roll, or making a perfect daiquiri—it is a small, contained and perfectable thing, an activity in a box that nevertheless points to greater masteries out there.”

However, micromastery is a bit different than the “one bite at a time” approach. Instead of focusing on small steps to reach a large goal, you’re focused on becoming really good at one very specific skill. In my public speaking example, I focused on delivering a really good joke at the start of my workshop—and I nailed it every time. It gave me the confidence to keep going and the motivation to learn more.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s best to jump right into the project. When I wanted to learn how to write professionally, I surrounded myself with knowledge. I took a creative writing course, I read nonstop, and I joined a writing workshop at my local bookstore  — I immersed myself in the craft of writing.

Puttylike editor Claire Nyles Suer calls this The Immersive Approach and describes the experience of participating in National Novel Writing Month. (If writing 50,000 words in a month is not immersive, I don’t know what is!) Claire Nyles writes:

“That experience was totally transformative for me–not just as a writer, but also as someone who wants to drive their career experience, rather than smush myself into a series of molds for other people. Yes, in front of me I had a 95%-finished first draft of a novel (what Anne Lamott calls the necessary “shitty first draft”). But I also had a new sense of confidence about my ability to achieve and to hold myself accountable, even with creative endeavors. Being a published author, for example, was suddenly a number of steps away, instead of a hazy daydream.”

It’s a learning style that’s different from micromastery in that you are plunging yourself into the project feet first. However, maybe you can use both techniques simultaneously. Write the novel, for instance, but focus on mastering the dialogue.

Immersing yourself can also help with networking. You can find a supportive group of peers who can walk you through your project, or maybe even a mentor who’s willing to guide you and ask you questions. 

Give yourself some structure.

When you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re headed with a project, structure can help. Claire Nyles lists some guidelines for getting started with the Immersive Approach. You could also use built-in guidelines by joining a course on a platform like Masterclass or Coursera. 

When I wanted to learn photography, for instance, I joined a course that included weekly homework assignments with due dates. It was like being back in college, and that structure was incredibly useful. Instead of telling myself I’d learn a little photography in my free time—ha!—the time was already built into my schedule. This made me much more likely to take the time to learn the skill, and in a few weeks, I learned some basic technical photography skills.

The best thing about being a multipod is that we don’t seem to care how intimidating something is—eventually, we will find a way to eat that elephant. Of course, our determination doesn’t mean we won’t feel scared or intimidated or confused in the process. But with a little direction and some framework, we find a way to push through it and get to our happy place.

Your Turn

These are just a few ways that I’ve found direction when starting a new project. What’s worked for you? Share your tips and ideas below in the comments.

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.


  1. Danilo says:

    Thank you for this enlightening post.
    Unfortunately I still haven’t found a way to seriously organize and carry out any of my interests.
    Very often, indeed practically always, I do not start with my idea because I consider that there are greater problems out there to solve, especially in Italy and this blocks me.
    Thank you again for your words

  2. Rafa says:

    That’s pretty useful advice! I tend to dive head first in about anything and am over it before I know it… I’ve spent 200$ on an oil painting set that is still collecting dust and I feel awful about it because it’s something I really want to try, but it feels overwhelming. -_- Now, I’m trying to break down projects into small manageable size (not really second nature for me). Although it doesn’t solve all problems, it makes it easier somehow. :) I started micromastery too (without knowing it). I started picking watercolor and try to master painting flowers. When I picked on drawing years ago, I mastered drawing faces and, to start developing an appreciation for cooking, I’m trying to perfect the art of baking scones (simple and delicious!). Once perfecting one small piece of great project is done to your liking, you can add them up and who knows where it will lead you. :) Small steps toward a goal are steps nontheless!

  3. My motto is: think big, do small and start together. I’m just going to experiment with my new interests in my family or, for example, at an association. I try to combine the new insight with my existing talents and passion for innovation and co-creation to learn from it together.

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