How to dispel the unfinished side project curse

Author: Jérémy Bourhis

20th August 2015

Side projects usually start out with a ton of enthusiasm which can die off pretty rapidly. Before you know it, you’ve sent a dozen great ideas into a slow death with the promise to yourself that you’ll ‘come back to them later’, before promptly starting a whole new idea. Luckily, breaking the unfinished side project curse is rarely more involved than changing your mindset and organisation – read on to find out more.

Success

Work out what’s stopping you

Chances are it’s one or more of the following…

  • You don’t have enough time.
  • You don’t feel motivated.
  • You can’t remember where you got up to last or don’t know where to start.
  • You hit a brick wall with a particular problem.
  • You have doubts about an aspect of your work (or maybe even the whole project).

‘There aren’t enough hours in the day’

If you always have the intention of working on a side project but somehow never manage to get round to it, block out some specific time in your calendar. It can be as general as an evening or a weekend marked as ‘Working on side project’ or as detailed as a task list with deadlines, but either way, setting aside a block of time is the best way to make sure your spare time doesn’t get spent elsewhere. Try to pick a time where you can minimise interruptions and you can work at a reasonable level of productivity (i.e. not straight after your day job or not first thing in the morning if you’re a night owl).

Even if you can’t block out the same space in your calendar every week, putting something in there – if only twenty minutes to go through notes or websites – will help you keep the momentum going and ensure the work stays fresh in your mind. A productivity list app like Todoist or Wunderlist is key to helping you stay on track and remind you where you got to last.

‘I started off well, but somehow I just can’t get going again’

As well as blocking out free time, block out a specific physical space for your project. Whether your preferred place is Starbucks or your home office makes no difference as long as you’re comfortable working there. Setting aside a specific space (or even using different technology, such as a netbook instead of a desktop), will create a subtle but important psychological link and help get your thoughts and mindset in side project mode.

Productive

However, you also need to ensure that you create positive psychological links for a place, rather than seeing it as a space where you end up procrastinating or relaxing. Make it fun. Whatever it is that makes approaching your side project more likely, do it. It might be something as simple as getting a better chair or a great notebook or creating a new playlist or blocking social networks for a while or starting with a task you enjoy. Hell, it might even just be a case of sitting down and getting started.

‘I can’t remember what I did last and now I don’t know where to start’

This is particularly aggravating when you’re working on something complex or have left endless half-finished projects in your wake. Start by gathering together everything you have for a specific project (online and offline), and trashing everything useless/outdated. Make notes as you go along, and go back through everything you have rather than just the last few things you did.

From there, develop a set of stages that work for your project, e.g. ‘Debug’, ‘Decide promotional strategy’, ‘Do front-end work on website’, and then define smaller to dos for each stage. Set aside the other stages and concentrate on one at a time so it’s easy to remember what you’ve just finished and what you need to do next even if months go by without you having a chance to work on it.

If you’re working on multiple projects, or on a very complex project, use a clear folder system (virtual or physical) to organise everything. Chances are your emails, bookmarks, and other project components are all part of a big jumble of stuff rather than being physically separate, so organise them into folders and even print important notes if needed and keep them in separate binders. If it helps, just go through everything for one project and complete that before tackling the organisation of the next.

insight

‘I got stuck with an annoying problem’

When you’ve been struggling with the same problem for a while, it’s easy to quit out of sheer frustration. Sometimes just leaving it for a week or two and then coming back to it with a clear mind will help. Alternatively, there are countless communities and groups on the internet that will help you out if your problem is so unique that it hasn’t already been discussed. To speed things up, try engaging with an authority figure or website in that area, or meet/call a contact for advice. If it really isn’t working, ditch your approach to the task altogether and start fresh.

If you’re just coming back to a project you stopped working on for this reason, set frustrating tasks aside for now and focus on a small, rewarding job first so you’re motivated enough to carry on.

‘I’m not sure if this project is “right”‘

Start by determining what exactly it is that doesn’t feel right. Is it one aspect of how something works, or is it the entire thing? Then get a second opinion from someone else in your industry or a target user to see what they think. It’s better to get to the bottom of it now and decide whether to fix it or ditch it to avoid wasting your time.

If you still have doubts even your troubleshooting and second opinions, don’t worry about moving on to something else.

Use the right tools

There are thousands of options when it comes to scheduling, time management, to do list, and general productivity software combinations, so it’s essential to develop the right toolset. Make the first task of any side project developing a specific toolset to cater for your current situation rather than defaulting to your standard workflow. Although it’s an extra task, using new software can be great for motivation and you’re likely to find hidden gems to incorporate into your standard workflows too.

The best workflows are created from restricting yourself to vital tools that play well together, so identify any areas where you find yourself manually shifting from one program or app to another and incorporate any extensions, add-ons, recipes, plugins, bots, etc. that will reduce those manual tasks. If you’re an Evernote or Eventbrite user, our Evernote Calendar Connector and Eventbrite Calendar Connector could help with that 😉

Reject the idea of failure

So far we’ve covered ways to pick projects up again, but that’s not necessarily the right option. Side projects should be fun, and if they come to a natural end or you decide to move on to something else partway through, that’s not a bad thing. Think like Google – they start and end projects as needed; some stick around, some don’t. It’s built into their business as part of their evolution and there’s no ‘this has failed’ culture. So, don’t beat yourself up about half-finished or abandoned projects – just see them as another step in the journey. If you’ve learned something or had fun along the way, it’s been a good use of time.

Try

Know when to quit

If your project isn’t relevant or feasible any more, quitting is an easy enough decision to make. However, if you’re on the fence about whether or not to carry on, or you find yourself continually getting bored of projects very quickly, it’s harder to make a concrete decision. Deciding once and for all whether to quit a project means you can focus on the work that’s in front of you and ensure you don’t spread yourself too thin.

Once you have two or three unfinished projects, they can quickly become five or six, and decision paralysis kicks in. Keeping your list deliberately short and being ruthless about committing to new ideas until you’ve completed or completely discarded old ones makes it much more likely you’ll see a project through to the end.

The main question to ask yourself is whether you’re enjoying the project (or enjoying the idea of picking it back up). If your gut reaction is apathy, half-heartedness, or dread, it’s time to quit. Any other challenges can be worked out.

In conclusion…

Organisation and decision-making is at the heart of dispelling the unfinished side project curse. It’s okay to work on multiple projects, come back to a project months later, or quit a project. It’s not okay to leave a lot of maybes and mess in your wake. Plan your time and tasks, and optimise your working environment for best results.

What’s your approach to beating the side project curse? Tweet us with your tips!

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Jérémy Bourhis

Date: 20th August 2015 | Category: How To