What’s your working style? Last night, talking to Karl about our myriad personal projects, I had a revelation about how I work.
Here’s the gist of it: When you’re feeling inspired, it’s so easy and immediately gratifying to start a new project. Maybe you’re a great starter, but the important distinction is between starting something and getting it off the ground.
This is the biggest problem in my work at home recently: My projects seem as hard to get off the ground as they are easy to start. To be nakedly honest: I’ve spent eight months with 4 free days per week and I’ve gotten nothing off the ground.
I think it has to do with the modes of thinking involved: starting mode and incubation mode. When I’m in starting mode, I start work after a cup of coffee and I think, “Holy shit, look at all these great resources I have. Today I’m going to do these 62,893 things.” So I experiment frenetically. I see a whole forest of possibilities and I jump from one to the next like a flying squirrel and it’s satisfying. It feels productive, and distraction is encouraged! What fun.
Once the caffeine wears off, I settle down and am staring at a deeply depressing question: “What the hell am I doing?” I have 62,893 cool projects that are going nowhere fast. The once-tasty bubblegum has lost its flavor, and now it’s preventing me from eating anything.
At this point, I need incubation mode. Incubation mode is more focused and contempative. It develops depth rather than breadth. When I’m in this mode, I cannot be distracted or my project will never come to fruition, let alone “finished.” I have to put the blinders on and push forward.
Sometimes I get into this mode for a day or two on one project and I make a little progress. But I can’t sustain incubation mode for some reason. My projects from the past eight months are still on the ground. Why? Here’s the revelation from last night: My projects are on the ground because for each project, I get too ambitious and want to construct an elegant, complete package before anyone would see it. I want to show myself in the best light to the world, but to do so would require much more self-dicipline than I can muster, especially when starting mode is waiting for me to get bored with what I’m doing and switch back.
To make progress at this point, I need a feedback loop: between myself and my audience, between myself and my collaborator, or between myself and myself. I need to be accountable to someone or something, even for the most exciting project.
So: I can get an audience (“I have an art opening on Sept 15th”), I can get a collaborator (“I promised Karl I’d have this part done by tomorrow”), or I can beat myself up, but I have to do these things toward the beginning of a project or it will fizz out.
Quickly getting a project done but not totally polished gives it a real chance to get off the ground. In computer science, this is called “the 80% solution.” The 80% solution to a problem is that which ideally meets the following conditions:
- It does just what it’s needs to do
- It offers no bells and whistles
- But it doesn’t break
- And it takes a lot less time, at least half the time in many cases, than the 100% solution
The nice thing about an 80% solution is that it allows for incremental improvements that move toward 100% now that the feedback loop is in place. This is especially true in my current job, where we have the luxury of making many smaller improvements to our service in real-time. It is so satisfying to read customer complaints and then complete the loop by making an incremental change that (I hope) addresses the complaint and curbs future complaints.
From today forward, my focus on personal projects will be about identifying that feedback loop earlier in the process and using it to get me off the ground. That’s the only way I can keep myself from getting distracted. Why did it take so long for me to put my finger on this?