The matron of the farm stood before about thirty assembled farmhands. Today was a day of choring, and there was a lot to do. Many tasks were spread around the hundred or so acres of land, each one taking different numbers of hands, different amounts of time, different tools, different instructions. Only the matron knew them all, and coordinating thirty people would mean a lot of lost time; the first three might finish baling the hay, but for lack of knowledge about what to do next, could be idle for an hour as the matron was making her rounds directing everyone else. That would be a lot of wasted manhours, which the matron wanted to avoid.
So, the first instruction she gave was to point to the wood pile: “There’s a mountain of logs over there that we’d never run out of, even if we all chopped all day and nothing else. So any time you finish a task, you come back here and start chopping and stacking wood. You just do that until I come find you and tell you to do something else.”
This way, the hands would never be idle; there would always be something to do, and the matron would never have to go find anyone. After starting each new task, she’d just come back to the wood pile and find hands a-chopping, and then she’d take who she needed off to the next task.
For any given “ongoing” project, something you wish to invest in over time, there will be several large, specific tasks. At certain milestones, there will be big things to do, but there will also be plenty of time when there’s nothing from the list that can be done right now because tasks are often time-dependent or need other things to be done or a whole host of other reasons.
So, for projects like that, you need a “chop wood” action. Something you can always do, that’s always productive, and takes any amount of time. Whether you have a spare 15 minutes or four hours, you can fill that time with this task without needing anything else to be done and get progress towards your goal.
It is absolutely worth spending the time at the beginning of a project to settle on a good “chop wood” process, even if it takes a little time to figure out or some front-loaded costs to make sure you can always do it. It will make your time on task that much more efficient, which will in turn motivate you more as you always see real progress. Momentum matters, so if you can’t think of anything else to do, chop wood.