Working on The Right Things

Personal projects are hard. On one hand we get to choose exactly what we want to work on (do we even know?). On the other hand, projects easily slip into becoming nothing more than elusive aspirations, resting with ample company in the New Year’s Resolution graveyard. Alongside with not actually making time to do the work, using that time on the wrong thing must be the Head Executioner of Personal Projects.

Why are personal projects hard?

The projects I'm talking about are no leisurely beings. They require time to finish. They demand more than a few sessions of deep effort and concentration. We invest our time in these projects because we envision we’ll end up with something worthwhile. The excitement is enough to get us working, but at some point these projects will inevitably feel like work. Boring, laborious work. This territory truly is The Danger Zone™. This is where it gets very easy to begin fantasizing of seeing other projects. It’s not you, it’s me.

Yet another project falls prey, cold and buried in the graveyard of fun ideas and aspirations.

Or … we can make an effort to make this project work. For me that means making sure the project is giving back to me as much as I am giving to it.

But a project is a project and not a human, so how can it “give back”?

Progress. Moving forward towards completion is a project’s way of giving back to you. Working for hours on end without seeing the needle move feels like furious defeat. Worse still, say you’ve put time towards something that ends up in the trash bin. Then the damn needle moves backwards. Lack of progress is a growing bed for project-contempt. But how can we get the ball rolling?

Choose the right things to work on

It sounds simple, but is deceptively difficult. There are so many things you could be doing. Pareto’s Principle states that only a small amount of the things we do has considerable effect on the outcome (it’s often called the 80–20 rule). Make it your point to relentlessly seek out and work on the few things that yield the coolest rewards. This skill is sometimes called “prioritizing” by fancy people with jobs and stuff. Call it whatever you need to call it—it’s the medicine we need.

In practice, prioritizing is done by knowing how to choose what’s most important. This is entirely up to you to decide. I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is to choose tasks that, when completed, show visible progress. Consider whether someone outside of the project would be able to see a difference. You may or may not be interested in blogging, but it’s not a bad idea to imagine what you would talk about in a project update. Are those seventeen-hour drop shadows really going to produce an interesting blog post? I’ll leave that up for you to decide (hey I don't know maybe you're working on an awesome drop shadow project thaticanteventunderstandhowgreatitis).

Progress = Motivation

When you have an idea of what would feel most like making progress for your project, then go all-in. Get it done. There are many sources of motivation, but finding it through the act of making progress is arguably the most rewarding. There has to be some small thing that would make you stoked to show off to your friends. Go do that thing. Because it’s easy to work on personal projects when you’re motivated.

And watch out for The Danger Zone™.