A project starts. You imagine how exciting this project is going to be. You push to get it moving. You see a couple of quick, immediate results. You maybe even encounter an early challenge that you overcome by sheer determination and elbow grease. Your brain is slurping up the dopamine that comes from seeing early results and dreaming of an amazing future.
But at some point it stops. The enjoyment you derive from that initial start ceases to be as enjoyable to your brain anymore.
That’s when you (and I!) switch to something else. The unfinished project is left behind — deprioritized — and we’re off to something new.
So, what is that point that we simply stop caring about the project that we once stayed up all night for?
I think there are two potential areas where this scenario arises; I’m developing this hypothesis based on my experience:
- I’ve seen this deprioritization happen when I face a problem that seems huge and whose resolution seems more costly than the potential reward I’ll achieve on the project.
- I’ve seen this deprioritization happen when I get into the mundane, routine “slogging”… the point in the project where I have to show up and do the arduous, detail-oriented work day-in and day-out for what feels like a long time without any noticeable results.
THE PROBLEM OF INSURMOUNTABLE CHALLENGES
Projects are full of challenges; it doesn’t matter what the project is. In the early days, smaller challenges don’t feel like they are a big deal and you are motivated enough to push through. But as the project continues, the challenges mount. They get bigger and more frequent. One project I started seemed exciting and I navigated the challenges easily… until one challenge was something I simply couldn’t figure out how to fix. I did some research. I invested in a resolution that didn’t work. I made more changes. I invested in another resolution that didn’t work. And then I simply ran out of ideas… and time to make any more changes. What was supposed to be a simple project turned out to be a big hassle and the challenge I faced seemed insurmountable. I’m sure it’s not insurmountable but I haven’t figured out how to invest any more time into the project without completely erasing the potential reward from the project.
What’s interesting is how the challenges I faced at the beginning the project didn’t seem to be that big while the challenges I faced part way through the project did seem bigger. In retrospect, I don’t think they were necessarily bigger but after attempting several costly resolutions that didn’t work, the wind disappeared from my sails.
To fix this, I think I need to do the following things in my projects:
- Start smaller projects.
- Do a better job of estimating the time and resources a project will require.
- Build intentional rewards and milestones all the way through the project.
- Do better contingency planning before the project starts.
This isn’t going to eliminate the challenges a project will face but I think it will help to reduce the perceived “cost” of a problem and it will help me to have options to solve a problem long before I have the problem.
THE PROBLEM OF ROUTINE
This one was a little harder to detect as a problem but I think it’s a pretty big problem when you know it’s a problem. I suspect this situation is probably what early explorers faced: They left port highly energized to discover what was just beyond the horizon… Only to learn that the land they sought to explore was not JUST over the horizon but was actually WEEKS away… and those weeks were filled with mind-numbing routine.
Although some of my projects fizzle out early because I encounter problems, I think that a lot of my projects end early because that mind-numbing routine becomes boring. My brain gets bored of doing the same thing over and over and longs for that hit of dopamine on a new project.
To fix this, I think I need to do the following things:
- Create more milestones so that I see interim results even when the overall project isn’t yet delivering the big results I want.
- Keep the big picture in mind: I will feel a huge sense of satisfaction when the project is over. So I need to push through to that end.
- I need to do a better job of enjoying routine. It feels funny to write that but I think it’s true. I do well when I get into a routine that I enjoy (such as exercise or blogging) so I need to somehow transfer that same thinking to the routine of my projects.
In my experience, more projects fizzle because of this routine problem than fizzle because of those big challenges. So if I fix this, I think I solve a majority of my fizzling issues.
MAKING CHANGES TODAY
I want to make this super-applicable to me right now. So I’m going to sit down and look at my projects and figure out what regular tasks need to be done on them to keep them moving. Some of my projects are new so this isn’t a big deal (yet) but some of my projects are fizzling or almost fizzling because I am not showing up every day to do the work that needs to be done on them. So I’m identifying those projects and listing them with little daily milestones to work on.