April 6, 2009
At a recent tech event, I ended up having a conversation with Wendy Kincade and Colleen Dick about how we sometimes let critical projects slide. Wendy said a very wise thing, which is that when people are avoiding a project, it’s most often because they don’t think they’ll reach a successful outcome. In some sense it becomes a vicious cycle: we know we really should be making progress on that big project, but yet we somehow always find other things to be working on that allow us to avoid it. Of course, the longer we avoid it, the less time we have to complete the project and it only becomes bigger and scarier as a result of the shrinking time window.
I’ve certainly come to recognize this behavior in myself. It’s much more comfortable to spend your days doing small, tactical tasks that have short completion times and satisfying outcomes. It’s a huge leap of faith to set out to tackle and enormous project when you’re not sure if you have all the skills necessary to accomplish the task, where the end of the project is not clearly in sight, and where the cost of failure may be high. It gives me an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, not unlike the feeling you get when contemplating stepping off from a great height.
When I recognize this feeling in myself, I immediately take steps to start tackling the project, because I know from previous experience that if I let it linger the situation is only going to get worse. Here are some tactics that I’ve developed for getting over the hump:
1. Break it up: Vast monolithic projects are daunting, so break the project up into a set of deliverables, milestones, and dependencies. Then outline the steps necessary to reach each component of the project. You don’t have to create a formal project plan– in fact, I’ve seen people spend all their time grooming a plan in MS Project, just to avoid getting started on the actual work. A simple outline format is fine.
2. Pick an easy one: Once you’ve got a notion of the individual tasks you need to accomplish to finish your project, pick one of the tasks that you think you can complete quickly and get it done. During our conversation, Colleen commented, “I know that if I can just knock one thing down, that gives me energy to push further into the project.”
3. Make it fun: What motivates you? I really enjoy figuring out and mastering new technology. So if there’s a component of the project that requires me to do a bunch of research to figure something out, I’ll tend to do that first plus give myself leeway to spend extra time really getting mastery of that subject. While I need to be careful to prevent turning the research into an avoidance exercise in and of itself, I also know that any mastery I acquire will be useful at some point in the future, even if it’s not directly relevant to the project at hand. Some people reward themselves after completing a particular part of the project– take a break to play your favorite video game, hang out with friends, go for a hike, whatever.
4. Consider past success: Reflect on the fact that you’ve accomplished difficult tasks in the past. Remember the satisfaction you felt when you finally shipped those projects. Use these feelings to reinforce your belief that you’ll be successful at the project you’re currently embarking on.
While I’ve come to know my own avoidance behaviors and learned to take steps to work around them, I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely free of them. I think it’s just a natural human risk aversion response. However, I also recognize that one has to take risks to accomplish great things. I have a quote from the explorer Magellan on the wall in my office and I look at it often:
Unlike the mediocre, the intrepid spirits seek victory over those things that seem impossible… They embark on the most daring of all endeavors… to meet the shadowy future without fear and conquer the unknown.