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 Giant 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 good enough 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:
- Active: 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.
- On Hold: 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.
- Completed: Self-explanatory.
- Dead: 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.
A Shuffled Project Isn’t Necessarily Closer to Done
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. This is displacement at work.
Shuffling projects around means you’ve worked on them more without being any closer to being done. (Tweet this.)
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 To-Do 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 may not need planners 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 so that you don’t end up losing an hour’s mojo for a two-minute task.
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. Give yourself a week to stay head-down in a project to finish it while you have inertia on the active project in question. A week isn’t so long that you’ll lose inertia on the on hold projects, but long enough that you can make meaningful progress on and potentially finish the one active project.
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 an 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 through the creative red zone. 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!
Mike Stankavich says
Yep, I resemble this article. Way too much. Immersion time losses compound from each context switch, no doubt about it. The most important point in this post is to not immediately give up if you’re stuck. As you say, the sticking point is often the key piece of the project that makes it all work and thus where the big value add comes from. No surprise that that is the hard part. And I’ll also agree with getting offline and doing something completely unrelated rather than hopping over to another project.
Suzanne @ vAssistant Services says
Seems a good time to tell you that your Productivity Planners are really helping me with this exact problem. I’m breathlessly awaiting your release of the planner for Freelancers, but in the meantime, I am using the Productivity Jumpstarter to capture those ideas that hit while I’m in the middle of something. That way, they’re down on paper, out of my head and not distracting or tempting me. Thanks!
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J.D. Meier says
I’m a fan of completing projects.
Results builds momentum. It’s also vital for credibility. When I do a project proposal, people bank on my track record more than just my vision of a compelling future.
I always have one flagship project and a few experiments in my portfolio. You can think of it as investing 10% in innovation. It gives me plenty of focus for my main impact, but lots of opportunity for potential game changes.
I agree having a place to shelve ideas is key. I use a “thought catcher.” By thinking about value-delivered over backlog burndown, I can cherry pick the “next best thing” to work on.
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This describes me pretty well. Sometimes I think multitasking was a word made up by someone with a short attention span so they could feel better about themselves for losing focus.
I also run into a problem where I think of something mid project, look it up on Google, and then find myself on Wikipedia one hour later looking at the history of the Roman Empire or some other random topic. Am I alone on that?
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Liz Huggins-Thompson says
HAHA. That’s how I ended up here on Productive Flourishing.
LMAO… and four (or six) years later, that’s PRECISELY the path of “right-click”, “open in new tab” switchbacks that led me to virtually stumble upon Productive Flourishing as well! Except that here, I have begun to stick around. Hey! That’s ONE great thing that’s resulted from my ridiculously unproductive personal recipe of “shuffling + researching/ my previous research ~ Project #1.A.1a.iv(b) ver. 2.1 — SHINY OBJECT!!! [need to buy more windex/where’s my shopping list? (list + list)^2] + 2 (found BEST To Do List Template ever, must make 10 copies NOW)(3.14) + that reminds me of the PC LOAD LETTER scene in Office Space, HA! Michael Bolton!” = I need you, Productive Flourishing. What was all that about? = shameguiltREPEAT_PROCESS
You make an excellent point. This is one of my weakest points — starting project after project (which feels like perpetual motion), only to notice that they are all incomplete…perpetually.
Thanks for posting this article at this time of year. Though it seems silly to only do big resolutions at the end of the calendar year, it’s as good a time as any.
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LifeMadeGreat | Juliet says
I make a note of new ideas as I am working, but often find that they do tend to “go cold”. I don’t believe that it is because they aren’t good ideas, but, somehow the spark has gone from my heart. Your article has made me think about how to maintain the “spark” so that I can return to them and develop them.
I’m particularly interested in your “idea garden” concept.
“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.”
Perhaps I need to look at adding more to the brief notes that I make.
Thank you for addressing this topic. I think it will be useful for me.
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Sounds so easy when you explain it and it makes total sense. However, more difficult to put into action. Breaking that habit of flitting from project to project is very hard. I am thinking that, for me, it is more fear that keeps me from making forward movement on one project at a time. It is a bit pacifying to “move on” to the next project or idea as the tension around publishing the current project builds.
I think I understand it. Now I just have to make myself stop the flitting and become productive!
Andre Kibbe says
The way I distinguish tasks and projects, where tasks are the components of projects, I consider task switching to be more of a threat to getting things done than switching projects. As long as you’ve properly “bookmarked” your current task on each project, it should be relatively simple to juggle multiple projects and pick up where you left off on each of them.
Momentum is a good thing, but when people rely too heavily on momentum to finish a project at all, it’s a sign that they’re relying too much on their memory to manage a project — they’re trying to finish tasks before they forget where they left off. This is characteristic of Type-A bustlers who frantically switch between tasks while they’re still in mind.
If you’re reviewing your projects regularly (e.g. weekly), you always have this opportunity to make executive decisions on the next step to take with each of them. For instance, I have a programming project that I had to shelve toward the end of December, due to a January 1 writing deadline than I had to hit. Because the programming project was identified and externalized on my project list, I had no way to “forget” about it, since I would see the list at the end of the week; I had to made an explicit decision to cancel or defer the project. So I simply put “Resume Outlier” [the programming project] on my calendar for January 2. I didn’t worry about losing momentum, because I wasn’t using momentum to keep my attention fixed on a project overshadowed by a higher priority.
Get everything out of your head, review it regularly, and make sure you have an explicitly physical task for each project.
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@Mike: I get my best ideas while pulling weeds and shoveling snow. It’s not too uncommon that I’ll go running in before I lose the idea. Of course, tracking mud and snow in the house isn’t quite seen as a necessary byproduct of idea formulation.:p
@Suzanne: I’m working on the Freelancer planners. I’ll have to remember to send it out to you prior to releasing it to everyone for feedback. Thanks for motivating me to get them done!
@J.D.: Value-delivered is huge, especially since it fits with the reality of how we work. Having the track record of projects done frees us up to remember that we’ve gotten things done, rather than the aimless hoping that we can sometimes get into.
@Rich: You are so not alone. I would mention random topics that I’ve spent hours researching on Wikipedia, but then we’d both go and spend more hours on Wikipedia.
@Zoe: You’re right – every day is a great day to recreate ourselves. Yet we tend to batch it all at the beginning of the year once the yuletide has come and gone. So the goal: make perpetual motion perpetual completion.
@Juliet: I’d like to see how you’re doing it – is it too much information with your notes, or too little? Or is the spark time just too great between projects?
@Tamara: The biggest trick for you, I think, will be to learn to do less and relax afterwards. We’ve talked about this, though – so I have an unfair advantage. But you’re now about to the point that all you have left to do is create. Isn’t it terrifying and exhilarating at the same time?
@Andre: Great insights, Andre. I think our alternative perspectives arise out of the way we think about projects – we’ve had discussions about the difference between types of creative work.
I think, for instance, that it’s easier to bookmark coding tasks, because the rigidity of the tasks is such that you really can get it out of your head. “Finish chorus” – in the context of songmaking – doesn’t hold the same grip – there’s so much batched in your creative short term memory that creative momentum really matters.
Sure, you can right down the chord progression and try to get it back, but it never really does come back to you. So there is a balance between having a trusty system and using creative momentum, and a lot of that balance depends on the type of project and the context in which the work gets done.
Reginald Reglus says
This is so true. I have experienced this myself. What I have come to realize is that there are switching costs in moving to another project while I am working to complete my current project. These switching costs ,which can be quite high, can be emotional, mental or logistical cost. No matter which category they fall in, the cost of switching from back and forth between projects can be quite detrimental to your project. Thanks for this post.
Heidi Passey says
I am completely guilty of this. I find myself working on several projects at one time and it can really become overwhelming. I find that I get less done when I have more than one project on my mind.