In thinking about all the projects I’ve started over the years – anything from essays, to musical compositions, to house cleaning efforts, to travel plans – I wonder if there’s a common reason why some of them got done and others didn’t.
The projects I have in mind are my own solo projects – efforts that I undertook by myself – but to understand why these projects succeeded or failed, it’s helpful to consider why a group project might succeed or fail.
When a whole team of people succeeds or fails at achieving a goal and you want to figure out why, you can look at how well they got along, how motivated they were, how clearly they understood their mission, and so on, but perhaps the first question to ask is whether they had a good leader or project manager. Was there someone on the team who took it as their primary responsibility to steer the project to completion? And how skillful was this person in a managerial capacity, whether they called themselves a manager or not?
When you undertake a solo project, of course, you play many roles at once: you’re the person who comes up with the ideas, you’re the person who edits and refines the ideas, you’re the person who executes the ideas, and you’re the person who makes sure that all of these things happen within the time and resource constraints at hand. But you might not put the same effort into each of these roles.
What I realize in considering the history of my solo projects is that there have been some where I accepted the responsibility of “project manager” from the get-go and others where I avoided it. Some projects literally started with my thinking “I’ve got to get this done – how can I get it done?” and others started with my thinking “Let’s explore some possibilities and see how it all turns out.” I’m going to venture to say that the projects where I took on the responsibility of “project manager” are the ones that succeeded, and the ones where I avoided that responsibility… you guessed it. But all of this can be phrased in a way that doesn’t use the term “project manager” at all.
The projects that got finished are the ones where I made finishing a priority from the outset. They’re the ones where I started thinking about how to finish from the very moment I began work. They’re the ones where I constantly returned to the goal of finishing at each step, weighing any choice I might make according to whether it would move me closer to finishing, or further away.
The projects that got abandoned are the ones where I didn’t make an early commitment to finishing. They’re the ones where I started out with a goal like exploring or experimenting or testing the waters, but not necessarily finishing. They’re the ones where I assumed that if I just spent enough time and put in enough effort and gathered enough material, finishing would happen naturally. They’re the ones where I didn’t become concerned with finishing until late in the game, and even then, my commitment was conditional, not absolute: “I’ll finish this if…”
The difference boils down to an active versus a passive view of finishing.
The active view is that you’ve got to work at finishing all the time. Finishing is part of the project, it’s one of the things you grapple with, just like you grapple with the project’s content – the sentences in the essay, the notes in the musical composition. If you’re making art, then finishing is part of the art. A way to finish is part of what you’re creating.
The passive view is that finishing comes about naturally once you’ve put in sufficient time and effort. Finishing isn’t something that you consider or worry about per se; rather, it’s the end state that you reach as a matter of course. If you simply work hard enough on the content of the project, eventually you’ll finish.
Here are some thought patterns and behaviors that typically arise when you take an active view of finishing:
You remain open to the possibility that you’ve already finished. You periodically ask “Can I release this right now, just as it is?” If you can’t release it right now, then what can you do right now so that if you had to release it tomorrow, it would be releasable?
You try to get simple things out of the way as early as possible. For example, if you need a title and you can choose it now, you choose it now.
When you hit a roadblock, you don’t stop or use this as an excuse to slow down; either you keep trying to overcome the roadblock or you shift to working on some other part of the project that’s not blocked.
You always try to make things easier for yourself. You constantly ask “How can I set myself up for success?” rather than asking “How can I identify obstacles that will provide a good justification for why I couldn’t succeed?”
You make the most of the tools you have at hand, rather than wishing you had a fancier shovel. If your shovel’s broken, of course, you fix it, or get a new one, but what if your shovel works fine? You’ve heard of another one that could make you 20% more efficient — do you upgrade? When finishing is a priority, you find a way to decide quickly and move on, with a bias to keeping what already works; when finishing is not a priority, then weighing the pros and cons of any potential upgrade becomes a new project of its own.
When you experience doubt or anxiety, you take it as your job as a creator or a doer to move past the anxiety. If you’re worried about your abilities or about the project’s worthiness, you realize that this worry is an obstacle to finishing, just like any other obstacle, and it’s your mission to get past whatever obstacles come up, including those of the mind. Finding ways to diffuse or defang your anxieties, rather than giving them more airtime and a chance to grow, is part of what you signed up for when you signed up to finish. Finding ways to stay motivated — to tap into available sources of optimism — is part of the duty you assumed.
It can seem mystifying how the same person can be so effective in completing one project but so ineffective in completing another. But the mystery recedes if you look at the strength of that person’s commitment to finishing. If they were committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably spent time throughout the project managing themselves: taking stock of their progress and re-calibrating their efforts to give themselves the best chance of reaching the goal. If they weren’t really committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably didn’t do any of that until the project had already gone on for a while, maybe spiraling out of control. In both cases, they may have worked very, very hard — it might have felt to them that they were doing their absolute best, working as hard they possibly could. It’s just that in one case, the work was aimed at finishing and in the other case, it wasn’t.
Should you commit to finishing every project? What if you’re not sure the project’s a good one? What if you’re just trying something out to see if it might be worth pursuing? What if it’s a hopeless project that you’d be best to get away from? What if it’s a delightful project that you wish would never end?
You don’t have to finish every project you start, and you probably shouldn’t. Quitting can be virtuous. If you didn’t finish a project, be kind to yourself about it; don’t second-guess the choice.
But I bet you’ll learn more from the projects you finish. In my own experience, even if the project is just a private experiment, and even if I feel at the midway point that I’ve already learned what I wanted to learn, I usually learn more if I push across the finish line. Often there are things I can only learn if I’ve created a complete product to look back on — a complete essay or a complete piece of music — no matter whether it’s good.
I’ve started writing this essay a bunch of times over the years but my earlier attempts never got beyond rough drafts. Since I didn’t finish them, I didn’t publish them anywhere, so I eventually lost track of them. It’s probably true that those incomplete efforts — where I jotted down some notes and began to sort out my thoughts — were educational in some way. But I know I’ll take away the most from this attempt, the first one I committed to finishing.