See if this is about right for you:
You start your day working on one project. An idea hits you, so you start working with that idea. While working with that idea, another idea hits you and you start working with it. At the end of the day, you’ve got a slew of open idea loops – but you still never actually finished the first one you started with. You frantically write down all of the ideas on your ToDo list and unplug, defeated. The next day you start the process all over again.
Ain’t being a creative grand?!
Project Statuses and Shuffle Overhead
Let’s change that habit today. From here on out, I want you to make a commitment to drive a particular creative project to the shareable stage before you start working on another one. This will be hard, but I’ll explain why it’s important that you do so.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to call ideas that need some work to make them shareable “projects” – let’s not get too wrapped up into whether they require multiple actions or ten minutes or anything like that. There are only a few statuses that projects can be in:
Projects that you are actively pursuing at the moment. An active project is one in which the only thing that’s keeping it from being done is you, for whatever reason that may be.
These projects are waiting on something else. It could be somebody, some resource (i.e. money), or just the fact that it’s a project that has stalled to a certain point for whatever reason.
Why have a dead category? Because some projects are neither completed, on hold, nor active. A perfect example is a project that you’ve decided to abandon. It’s important to know what’s in your project graveyard so you don’t keep trying to work on it. This category gives you hard edges; hard edges can save your sanity.
Let’s return to the problem of project shifting. What happens when you shift projects is that you move the current project from the “Active” category to the “On Hold” category. The only way you can complete the now “On Hold” project is to switch it back again to the “Active” project, at the expense of the other project. Note that neither project is necessarily closer to completed or dead – they’ve just been shuffled.
What you may not directly realize is the amount of cognitive overhead this shuffling causes. Each new project adds a bit of overhead, and at a certain point, you spend more time and effort on the overhead than you do on the actual working on the projects. A symptom of this is unclear ToDo lists, actionable emails that have lost meaning, and plans that no longer grip or relate to the actual active projects you’re working on.
Project shuffling really gets bad when you think about…
Project inertia is much like physical inertia – a project in motion remains in motion unless acted on by an outside force, and a project at rest remains at rest unless acted on by an outside force.
As you work on a project, you start building momentum. The ideas flow, the design completes itself, the words write themselves, etc. During these periods, you don’t need a planned structure or a productivity system to keep you working on it – this is the play state that produces that creative euphoria that we yearn for everyday.
What keeps the project going is the amount of energy you put into it. The second you switch projects, though, the project loses momentum. If you can get back to it quickly, the loss is insignificant. But the longer you wait to get back to it, the harder it is to get the project going again.
This is why it’s so hard to pick up that half-finished creative project after you’ve left it lay fallow for a while. You don’t get to pick it up where you left off - you get to pick it up near the beginning and have to get it going all over again. This process takes far more energy than it would’ve taken to keep pushing that half-done project to completion while it had momentum.
Releasing Ideas, Keeping Momentum
Given project overhead and inertia, the worst thing that you can do is work on projects until they’re over the hump and then put them on hold. You’ll have to invest a lot more time and energy recovering those half-done projects than if you would have stalled them earlier in the process.
But the reality of creative work is that you’ll run into a lot of ideas while working on a particular project. Some of the ideas will be really valuable, and others won’t pan out – but the point is that you’ll need to capture them one way or the other before they start causing you to lose focus. You need to dump them and get back to what you were doing.
This is where idea gardens come in – they allow you to have a safe place to quickly put ideas without the idea running off to whatever place lost ideas go. The trick is to dump the idea with enough information that you can return to it but not so much that it draws you away from your active project. Using our categories above, you want to shove it into the “On Hold” category as quickly as possible so you can get back to your active project.
(For those familiar with GTD, this is nothing new: it’s just an Inbox.)
Releasing ideas this way allows you to safely capture your thoughts while retaining momentum on the project you’re working on. The suggestion to give yourself a week to complete the creative project helps you use the inertia you’ve built on your active project without letting so much time go by that you’ve let your other ideas die in fallow fields.
You may need more time per creative drive or you may need less. The time isn’t that important – it’s the balance of inertia that’s doing the work. I suspect that as you get better at this, the time you’ll need to push a project through will become shorter; anecdotally, I’ve been honing this process myself and have noted shorter “discovery to share” periods.
What About Creative Illumination?
There are times when you’re wrestling with a particular idea and can’t get it out right. It seems that my suggestion to drive a project to completion goes against the creative grain, as it were – sometimes you just can’t push past a particular point with an idea.
When you reach that point, the best thing to do is to step away from it and put the project on hold. Let your subconscious mind work it out, and in the mean time, do something unrelated to that idea. Exercise, meditate, learn a new skill, or just pick up another project that’s different enough from the blocked project.
After a certain point, you’ll have a Eureka! moment – when that happens, make that project active and drive it to done. That moment comes with enough energy that you’ll be able to get the inertia going all over again.
Realistically, though, every idea is not like this. Most just require pushing. Cherish those ideas that cause you to wrestle – they’re the ones that are the most valuable. Understand that they may take more time to percolate and let it happen. This is another benefit of closing project loops as quickly as possible – you gain more clarity and mental energy such that the hard ideas work themselves out faster.
Inertia and the Holidays
You’ve no doubt lost some project inertia during the holiday season – you can fight it and beat yourself up, or you can go with it. This is a great opportunity to choose the project you’re going to kick out the door and which you’re going to drop or put on hold.
Make a commitment to drive one project to a certain shareable point in a week’s time and do it. At that point, pick another and do it again. Seriously take a second to think about how much better things would be for you if you got one semi-major creative project done and out the door a week rather than twenty-something half-done in that amount of time.
A bird in hand is better than two in the bush, after all. Get those ideas out of the bushes of your mind and into the hands of the people waiting to see what you’ve created!