Keep A Projects Wishlist
A suggestion for prioritising new ideas and finishing what you start
The biggest predictor of whether any project I start goes well or whether I can complete any goal I set myself is almost always whether I’m able to keep working on it until it’s done, or whether I get excited about something new and jump into starting that.
Letting unfinished projects you were once enthusiastic about pile up is a bad idea for a few reasons.
- If you only work on things during the initial burst of energy and novelty, you don’t strengthen the skill of persevering to the end. You don’t practice continuing to work on something even when you don’t like it or feel certain it’s terrible.
- You end up running in place, never feeling like you’re getting anywhere. You keep working on stuff, but you never have anything to show for it and you miss out on the satisfaction of finishing something.
- All those unfinished projects linger in your mind, becoming a source of guilt and frustration. Those feelings get tangled up with the project itself, making the chances of it ever seeing the light of day even smaller.
The problem is that new ideas are energising. An abstract idea always seems far more complete, original, and achievable than the thing itself does once you start trying to translate it into reality. If whatever you’re doing now feels difficult or stale, moving on is even more enticing.
I’ve struggled with this a lot lately when trying to publish blog posts. Every few days, or at least once per week, I think of something to write about and scribble down a rough draft. Then I lose confidence in the idea, can’t imagine ever editing into something complete, and run out of momentum. When another idea comes along, I feel sure I’m certain enough about it to see it to the end. And the cycle repeats. The longer I go without finishing anything challenging, the more it seems like the next thing I do manage to complete needs to be good.
A solution I’ve adopted, which has been helpful in other areas and is starting to be helpful here, is to keep a projects wishlist.
One ubiquitous piece of advice given to anyone trying to avoid impulse spending is to write down non-essential things you feel the urge to buy, then wait between a week and a month before reassessing if you still want it. The same technique works (for me) for avoiding impulsive project starting.
Keep a list of non-essential projects you’d like to start, then wait some time before reassessing if you still want to do them. In full that means:
- When you think of a project you’d like to start, write it down.
- Make sure it’s somewhere you can find it later, not on a random post-it note or crammed in the margin of a to-do list.
- Record the idea without making a decision about whether it’s good or not
- (You might want to be quite detailed and specific, to avoid not remembering what you meant. Far too often, I revisit a vague, cryptic note and have no idea what it was about.)
- Go through the list once you finish an existing project or find yourself with space for an additional one.
- Remove anything that is no longer relevant or too unrealistic or unnecessary or otherwise not worthwhile.
- Choose the idea that feels most appropriate.
Why it works
As with keeping a wishlist for purchases, the logic behind a project wishlist is simple.
If you write down ideas, they’re out of your head but you know you won’t forget about them. This part probably requires knowing when you will review the wishlist, or planning when to do this.
By waiting at least a few days, you get a more accurate gauge of whether they’re worth pursuing. A good idea will still seem good later on. A bad one probably won’t. You can amass a number of ideas and evaluate which is best.
Another potential benefit of waiting before starting new projects is that your unconscious mind may continue mulling over the idea and making new connections. I often return to ideas to find that something I encountered after recording them is relevant.
Waiting before adding projects to your plate means whatever you’re working on now has a better chance of getting finished without a loss of focus. You continue with whatever you previously deemed important. Even tiny extras add up.
It’s a bit like another common piece of advice: don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. Don’t make ambitious plans or start time-consuming projects when you’re on a high of motivation.
Seeing as specific examples seem to go down well in this type of post, here’s the precise system I use! My note-taking app of choice is Bear.
I keep a note called Whenever Projects and look at it at least once per month. It is what it sounds like: projects or tasks to consider doing at some point.
Seeing as I try to record without filtering myself, it’s a disorganised mixture of types of ideas. Some are unrealistic, though not impossible. Some require a large time commitment, some are small things I didn’t want to stop and do at the time. Some are boring yet would confer a meaningful benefit. Some are ideas for skills to learn or new tools to try.
Right now, my Whenever Projects include: fix all broken links on my website, try Beeminder again, learn basic (cooking) knife skills, research first aid courses, and sew tiny satin roses on the lapels of my winter coat.
Every month, I try to set myself a few goals, challenges, or time-limited projects. The finite duration helps with committing to them because there’s a finish line in sight. Only planning this type of thing at the start of each month keeps me from getting distracted by something new, but I still have a lot of spare ideas for 30-day projects.
So I also keep a wishlist for short experiments, then review it at the end of each month.
Right now that list includes items to consider doing for 30 days such as: track all word counts, only consume media in German, contribute to Wikipedia, keep the Sabbath, and edit a picture each day.
Then there’s a list of courses I’d like to take, one for topics I to study for a short time, one for writing project topics, and one for work projects. It sounds like a lot written down, but they’re all well integrated into the area they cover.
A potential pitfall
One big counterpoint to the idea of keeping a projects wishlist is that it’s often easiest to start something when you first think of it. Waiting a while might make you lose interest, whereas the initial motivation could carry you all the way to finishing it.
So there are two situations where I don’t put project ideas on a wishlist:
- If I can realistically complete it right away without disrupting something else. It’s tiny or my hands are not full at the moment.
- If I’m in a good flow with finishing stuff at that time and feel confident I’ll return to whatever is ongoing. And I’m not doing it to escape doing something difficult.
In general, the benefits of letting ideas percolate and not interrupting unfinished projects seem to outweigh any loss of motivation that comes from waiting before beginning something new.
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