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The entire Navigate the Chaos collection of all 365 blog posts is now available in a paperback entitled Navigate the Chaos (795 pages for $24.99). A smaller collection of thoughts from the Navigate the Chaos collection is available in paperback entitled Wonder (94 pages for $4.99)

How often do you work on multiple projects at the same time?

Today is March 12 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you do work on multiple projects at the same time?" Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well often involves managing multiple projects at the same time. Do note, however, this balancing of projects is a vastly different from multi-tasking. A good analogy here is a four-top stove where you have two front burners and two back burners. Moving projects around on the proverbial productivity stove is driven by financing, resources, and personnel, as well as many other external factors out of one’s control. What is in your control is the ability to have more than one project going on at the same time.

As multidisciplinary artist Shaun Silfer said in an interview “The best artists have shit on their shoes. They’re running around in the middle of everything, they can’t settle down, they can’t shut up and they can’t quit fidgeting with everything.” When you study the world’s most prolific creators, they all work the same way. They are masters at working on multiple projects simultaneously. Do you have shit on your shoes from running around all the time? Can you settle down? Do you fidget with everything to create something?

There is even academic research on this concept of working on multiple projects simultaneously. Albert Bandura is one of the most frequently cited and influential psychologists of all time. He originated the theoretical construct of self-efficacy, which is the belief in your own ability to succeed and achieve the goals you set for yourself. In his research on the cognitive functioning of creative thinkers he observed “People’s creative efforts are more productively deployed when they pursue multiple projects simultaneously, at varying stages of completion, shifting among them as circumstances dictate. In doing so, they’re less likely to succumb to the impediments, false starts, inevitable delays and distractions of the creative process, and more likely to experience greater productivity and goal attainment.” The story of how director Darren Aronofsky translated Black Swan from thought to the screen over a decade is just one example of working on multiple projects simultaneously.

Following his early success with the modestly budgeted Pi (1998) and the highly regarded Requiem for a Dream (2000), Aronofsky met 20-year-old actress Natalie Portman at the Howard Johnson’s coffee shop in New York’s Times Square in 2000. Both were attracted to a movie set in the ballet world but Aronofksy had no script. As Christy Grosz wrote in "Anatomy of a Contender: Making of Black Swan," in a November 2010 article “Over coffee, the two discussed Aronofsky’s initial idea of exploring the relationship between artist and ego, and how having an inflated ego without a strong sense of self can wreak havoc on one’s mental state.”

Aronofsky had previously turned down the Andres Heinz’s spec script The Understudy, which Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures had offered to him shortly after he completed Pi. Aronofsky went on to other projects after turning down Understudy, but he and Phoenix continued to look for scripts on which they could work together. In fall 2006, six years after Aronofsky and Portman met for coffee, the conversation again turned to the spooky understudy story. Haunted by the genre-twisting story, Aronofsky and Medavoy, who had retained rights to Understudy, took it to Universal, where Aronofsky had a first-look deal. Universal hired another writer, John McLaughlin (Man of the House), to rework the project, setting it in a ballet company. But when his first draft arrived in late 2006, it still lacked cohesion. With the screenplay in progress, Aronofsky turned his attention to another film with its share of problems: The Wrestler. There, he faced the challenge of securing backers who would commit only if the movie starred Nicolas Cage, rather than Mickey Rourke, whom Aronofsky was determined to cast.

As he worked on Wrestler, he continued to develop other projects, signing to work on Phoenix’s Robocop reboot in June 2008. That very-different movie, ironically, put Swan back at center stage for the director. When Robocop stalled because of financial problems, Aronofsky decided to pursue the ballet script as his next helming project. At about the same time, Mark Heyman, a principal at Aronofsky’s production company Protozoa, began tinkering with the ballet script — still known as The Understudy — using the black swan/white swan metaphor from Swan Lake as a narrative device. Protozoa and Phoenix acquired rights back from Universal, and with Portman attached, Aronofsky returned to developing the film.

Wrestler had been completed by then, and Aronofsky — and Rourke — were drawing the best reviews of their careers. While promoting that picture on the awards circuit in early 2009, Aronofsky kicked Swan into life. As Wrestler gathered momentum, earning Rourke an Oscar nomination, so did work on the Swan script, going through 20-25 more drafts before Aronofsky was satisfied. He would have to jump over a few more obstacles but eventually Aronofsky released Black Swan in 2010 to critical acclaim. It would take ten years from initial conversation to release and during that time Aronofsky worked on multiple projects.

  • How often are you working on more than one project at a time?

  • Are you working on short-term projects as you take a break from a long-term project?

  • Who or what is preventing you from working on multiple projects?


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