Early and small: my creative process

Chris Esh

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For any creative project, whether it’s writing, website design, or project planning, my preferred method is “early and small.” (Thanks to Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, for this term).

Early Jump

Instead trying to do it all in one stressful burst, I try to start way ahead of necessary and just spend 10 to 30 minutes jotting down some thoughts or sketching out some ideas. It breaks that nasty first inertia. This might be a note in Evernote or in a physical notebook.

I repeat these small doses a few times over the next week. Each wave usually brings new ideas seen through fresh eyes. These first bursts are fun and low-stress—I can brainstorm without feeling like I need to produce a deliverable.

Project Design

Next I outline all the small tasks required to complete the project. I like visual tools like Trello or Airtable for this. I list out everything that needs to be done, in bite-sized, actionable steps.

I intentionally do NOT do any of the actual work during this phase, otherwise I’ll get in the weeds and lose sight of the big picture. This is also a good place to delegate—decide what needs to be done by me, what can be done by my assistant, and what might make sense to delegate to a contractor.

Deep Work

WIth some good ideas down on paper and a clear plan of action, the once daunting project is now approachable. There are concrete first steps to take and a clear sense of direction. Now it’s time to schedule some good blocks of time to get it done without distraction.

At this phase, I prefer to work in time blocks of 90 minutes to 3 hours. I cut off the rest of the world and try to get into the deep flow state of focused work. If it’s a priority project I’ll dedicate my two prime blocks of the day towards deep work: 5:30-7am, then get the kids to school, check email to make sure there’s nothing urgent, then around 9:30-11:30am.

Use whatever time blocks fit with your life and energy patterns.

Finish, Then Revisit

Lastly, I try to completely finish the project one day before it’s actually due, to allow myself an extra day with a little bit of distance to review everything one more time. On the day of delivery, I do my review as soon as I get my coffee in the morning.

Sometimes by this stage, I’m hesitant to make any big changes, but it’s a fear worth overcoming. If I’m still feeling unsettled about a specific section of the project, it’s likely an issue worth tending to. It’s scary to start slashing stuff that I spent hours perfecting, but this critical editor’s eye is the difference between a meh project and something I love.

Key principles:

  • Detachment from the work – You might have spent hours on a component only to realize it doesn’t really fit with the larger project. Throw it out. The time you spent on it is irrelevant. Don’t change the course of the project just to protect your ego.
  • Less is more – Perfection is not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.
  • Play different roles through the course of the project – At the start of the project, be a whimsical artist with child-like curiosity. At the end, be a critical, dispassionate editor. Turn on the editor too early and you’ll never get out of the gate. Keep the carefree artist on through completion and you’ll likely overlook mistakes and fail to connect with your intended audience.
  • Trust the process – It takes time for good ideas to develop and come to fruition. You might fall flat on your first brainstorming session, but trust that as long as you keep showing up, the ideas you need will emerge in time.

Give yourself plenty of time, commit to putting in the work, and let things take their course.


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