How To Complete an Overwhelming Project

Last week I announced the 12/12/12 Project and with it, an invitation for you to join me in committing to your own life altering decision. On December 12, 2012, together, we’ll start the next phase of our lives.

A life altering commitment is pretty heavy. A 12/12/12 Project is overwhelming by definition. So, how in the world do we approach such a thing? How do we accomplish, quite possibly, one of the most important decisions of our lives?

This week, I want to show you a simple way to get started.

Develop a Plan.

As architects, we’re good at developing plans. So, let’s start with a plan. Map out your project, step by step from beginning to end.

In his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey writes about  Habit 2; Begin With The End in Mind. What do you want your project to look like when it’s finished?

My family and I live in Westchester County, New York. Our little cottage in the woods sits upon a one-acre lot. Dozens of tall deciduous trees stand side by side from property line to property line. Every autumn we are blessed with a colorful spectacle of orange, amber and red. That wonderland quickly turns into a layer of dried brown leaves covering every inch of our parcel. It’s rather overwhelming, knowing that I am solely responsible for removing each and every leaf.

It’s a very big project.

What do I want the property to look like when I am done? Clean and organized.

How do I accomplish that? I follow my plan.

Break it down into small sections accomplished over multiple days.

I deconstruct the overwhelming project into smaller, more manageable sections, to be accomplished over multiple days. “The Front”, “The Hill”, “The Garden”, “The Patio”… Looking at the project as several small tasks makes the massive amount of work appear much more manageable, and even quite surmountable.


No project has ever been completed by standing there and looking at it. You need to actually start. Sometimes starting is the hardest part, but trust me, starting is critical to the success of the project.

Use the right tool for the job at hand.

I pull out my trusted orange gas-powered leaf blower, fill it will fuel, pull the cord and get to work. Yes. It’s noisy and a bit smelly, but its the right tool for the job. Leaf removal is no game. We are talking major amounts of organic material, accumulated, probably weighing hundreds of pounds. A plastic rake isn’t going to get me very far. A plug-in electric blower with not much more power than my wife’s hair dryer? I’d rather pick up each leaf by hand.

Begin with the section having the heaviest impact.

So many leaves. So many sections. Where to begin? Begin with the section having the heaviest impact. I start with “The Front” section. When the front of the house looks maintained and tidy, the whole property looks better. The project starts to look much more manageable when the front of the house is in order. A sense of motivation to carry on with the project sets in as I move on to the each consecutive section.

Work down hill with the wind at your back.

Trying to blow leaves uphill and against the wind just doesn’t work. In fact, you’ll often end up with more of a mess than when you started. Work down hill with the wind at your back. Leaves also move easier over the smooth driveway surface than over the pachysandra bed.

Scope out the path of least resistance and work to move the leaves in that direction toward a central location.

First pass, push through and collect as much as possible.

Once you’ve gathered all the leaves in a central location, its time to move them to their permanent home, the mulch pile. After 30+ years of moving leaves (it was my job as a kid as well), I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade.

To move a large pile of leaves as efficiently as possible, you should proceed through the big pile blowing full throttle, in one brutal push, collecting as much as possible as you move forward.

Don’t attempt to push the entire pile in one pass. If you do, you will find that it is more difficult to move the leaves and much of the pile will remain uncollected. You will quickly tire, putting the entire project in jeopardy.

The most important thing is to move from the front of the pile and all the way through to the back of the pile without stopping. You may even use your feet to push more leaves forward as you go. Move as much as possible with each push forward.

After each pass, back track over and push more forward as you move back.

After each pass through the pile, back track and continue to push more leaves forward as you move back to collect more of the pile you left behind on the preceding pass.

After the final pass, collect the small stuff

After several passes through the pile, you will have efficiently moved the entire pile to where you want it to be. With a final pass you will collect the small stones, twigs and debris.

Leave nothing behind.

Use a different tool for the fine detail work

In some areas, a leaf blower is not the proper tool to do the job. It is far too powerful and may damage the delicate plantings in the garden and among the stone ledge. For fine detail work, you will need a small rigid rake.

Remember from above. Use the right tool for the job at hand.

Repeat until complete. Then move on.

Complete one pile in the section. Then move to the next. Repeat this process until the section is clean, organized and looking its very best.

Then move on to the next section.

Repeat the entire process until the project is complete.

See? It wasn’t that bad. An overwhelming project… completed.

Maintain every week

In order to keep the property looking its very best all year long, I do simple maintenance, weekly, throughout the year. I pick up the small sticks that fall in wind storms and rake up random leaves that find their way back onto the property.

If I maintain the property each week, it stays healthy and always looks its best.

Perform a major clean up 4 times per year

Every season requires a different approach and a separate cleaning. Every three months, I reevaluate the condition of the property and address the areas needing my attention.

Revisit each year

Each year, the cycle of seasons finds its way back to autumn and the leaves fall again. Each year, I pull out my trusted orange leaf blower and get to work.

Cleaning the yard is not my favorite project, but all the hard work results in a great looking property. The gardens fall into their winter slumber and wait, prepared for spring to arrive once again. My wife is happy that her gardens are cared for, which, of course, makes me happy.

I look forward to the day when I will finally delegate this annual chore to the next generation of leaf blowers. With a 10 year old son, an 8 year old son and a 5 year old daughter already asking to take over, it may not be long before my leaf removal days are finally over.

When that time comes, I will pass the lessons I learned on to them and move to more productive uses of my time. There are waterfalls to complete, stone walls to stack and garden sheds to build.

The list of overwhelming projects is never-ending.


photo credit: Micky** via photopin cc


4 Responses to “How To Complete an Overwhelming Project”

  1. 1 Frank Marshall November 20, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    I like your metaphor of “leaf raking” for tackling an overwhelming project.
    However, I personally use the “leaf raking” metaphor for the economic “law of diminishing returns”. When you say, “leave nothing behind” …I would argue that the effort to get those last few leaves produces less return than the massive amount of leaves raked at the beginning of the job.
    Besides, why not leave some leaves to mulch in the yard?

    P.S. I also appreciate the wisdom of Steven Covey. I will miss him.

  2. 2 Mark R. LePage, AIA, LEED AP November 20, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    Excellent point Frank… and THAT my friend, is why I write these posts.

    I guess there could be two schools of leaf-raking thought; 1. Those perfectionists that leave no stone unturned (get it? – leave… stone), no detail unaddressed (say, Steve Jobs), and 2. Those who want to get the most done as quickly as possible in order to dominate the leaf-raking universe (say, Google). Both legit approaches. Both will get the overwhelming Project complete.

    Covey was the best. Not sure he will ever be replaced.

    If you like EntreArchitect, please join us at the Linkedin Group and on Twitter Wednesdays 9PM EST for #EntreArchitectChat.

    Spread the word… and thanks for the comment.

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