Kick-Your-Own-Ass Guide to Finishing “Impossible” Projects

I recently got real with myself and performed an honest to goodness fault analysis. Among the myriad flaws I was finally straight with myself about, one in particular stood out from the rest: I leave a lot of things unfinished. Ask my roommate and I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to tell you about the many, many unfinished canvases scattered around the apartment. And let’s not forget about all the various remnants from ideas fully concocted but never fully realized.

This is a common occurrence among anyone with a creative streak. It is inevitable. Some projects will be left on the cutting room floor; not every idea is a good one. Pursuing bad ideas is a waste of time and the most obvious way to evoke the square peg round hole analogy I can think of.

Regardless, having half-finished ideas constantly swirling around you like the rings of Saturn CAN become a bit depressing. It also eventually begins to warp how other’s perceive you, and how you perceive yourself: you become someone who creates a lot of motion, but never has much to show for it. No one wants to be that person.

I recently launched the alpha build of TellMeItSucks.com, a website created to provide critique resources for designers who don’t have a creative department to solicit feedback from. Throughout the process, I discovered three powerful concepts for finishing projects: 1) Strictly Limiting Focus, 2) Leveraging Momentum, and 3) Bucking Perfection.

1) Strict Focus

Having a lot of great and exciting ideas is awesome. Having too many great and exciting ideas is overwhelming. I’ve often been excited by one idea only to get halfway through it and become distracted by some new pursuit. I know I’m not the only one like this. I usually won’t give up on the previous idea either, I’ll just try to work on two projects at the same time, or three… or 13.

Working on more than one infant idea at a time is counter productive. Your endeavors won’t necessarily fail, but with time and attention spread too thinly, there’s no way they can succeed.

Imagine you have a rope tied around your waste and someone is pulling on it from your left. Depending on how hard they’re pulling, you’ll move a certain distance to your left. Now tie on another rope and get pulled forward as well. Now you’re moving diagonally. Strap on another rope and apply force from the right. Now you’re not really moving so much. The forces are competing. Attach a few more ropes (projects) and pull in every which way and you come to a complete standstill.

Don’t let your great ideas compete against each other. Decide which one idea or project is most important to you now, and ONLY pursue that one. That’s not to say you can’t pursue other projects in the near future, but with your entire effort focused on one goal, that project will either fail in record time (because maybe it just wasn’t THAT good to begin with) or it will mature enough so that it can be automated or otherwise require less, active attention. Only then is it safe to turn your focus on a new project.

A properly focused magnifying glass can only light one ant on fire at a time right? Excuse the metaphor, but I think it’s appropriate.

2) Leverage Momentum

Nothing rings the project funeral bells like boredom. Nothing causes boredom better than a stale or stagnant project. There will always be periods in the production process that take longer than others. You must consistently move forward and celebrate the small victories when they come – make sure they come often.

It’s easy to set milestones, realistic or otherwise. The trick is to find milestones that actually excite you. Treat them like stepping stones and celebrate every time you gain sure footing on a new one. Finally finished the design document? Awesome! Go have a beer with a buddy. Actually received an email back (maybe even a rejection) from the editor of an independent fiction rag? Sweet! Treat yourself to some sushi.

Developing this habit will keep you excited about every step, even those that are more mundane than the rest. Constantly rewarding progress (even for failure) is a surefire way to keep a project moving forward.

3) F@ck Perfection

Articles about Perfection Paralysis abound on the web (thought I coined the phrase, guess not). I could probably write a whole post just about this. The lions share of blame for projects not being completed should be firmly placed on the idea that something needs to be perfect before it can be released. Let go of this silly concept.

When I first started working on TellMeItSucks I made lists of feature sets for the website. I made a lot of these lists. In fact, all I did for a very long time was make lists. I wanted to make sure the features were just right – harmonious even. As if getting it right would open up the gates of heaven and angels would sing… Eventually I filled up my poor notebook with lists, and really had nothing to show for it. So, I started designing the 50+ pages of the site that would accommodate all of these “brilliant” features.. Of course I needed another notebook just for the thumbnail sketches that had to also be perfect before moving on.

After a month or so of spinning my wheels and having nothing to show but notebooks full of chicken scratch, I decided something needed to change. I gave myself a 10 hour limit to finish up a design document and get it in front of my developer.

I had to ruthlessly triage my sacred feature sets down to the bare minimum that would allow someone to make use of the site. I also decided that I wouldn’t really “design” the site or logo, as self-initiated design projects are endlessly deep rabbit holes for a graphic designer – to the point of cliché.

Yes, I left a lot of ideas I was really excited about out of the design document. However, this also allowed me to build a simpler site, which required less start-up capital, and will allow me to test my features on early users.

Since a project’s (painting, short story, website, business or otherwise) success or failure will be largely determined by how it is received by the public, you will benefit by releasing it in multiple, unfinished iterations. This will let the public decide the polish, and ultimately yield something they more-thoroughly relate to.

Case in point, the story “Alice in Wonderland” has been published under at least 5 different titles (not counting translations) and was “improved upon” in each iteration.

Obviously you don’t want to release something that is crap, so how do you decide what is “good enough”? The goal is to get whatever you’re working on to the point where you’re intended audience can interact with it in its intended fashion. That is the only goal. If you want to open a gym, all you really need are some free weights in a garage. Don’t feel like you need to get it “just right” the first time out – it won’t happen. There is no way to prevent screw ups, and if you don’t get over them early and quickly, they’ll happen down the line and threaten to wreck what you’ve invested thousands of hours and dollars into.

One last metaphor to illustrate my point. Human beings are incredibly complex organisms, and if you subscribe to the theory of evolution, which I do, our species is a product of billions of years of trial and error testing. Yet we still have a million and one flaws Our species is a 3.5 billion year old prototype! Don’t be afraid of releasing a project that “isn’t quite right yet”, because that’s exactly what you and I are.

It’s my most sincere hope that putting into practice the above three concepts will help you finish whatever you’re working on. They made a world of difference for me.

Sound off: What are you working on, and where are you stuck?

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2 Comments on “Kick-Your-Own-Ass Guide to Finishing “Impossible” Projects”

  1. prestonsart Says:

    Hey this really helped sort things out for me, so many ideas come in and you get excited and then over whelmed lol cool stuff man – riley

    • danwalsh Says:

      Awesome man! Glad it helped. I agree, it’s SOOOO easy to get overwhelmed by too many ideas. Stay cool and focus.


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