2016/09/18

Too Many Failures

Too many side projects from my past self, from friends, from colleagues and strangers on the web fall to the side, or wither away. Some burn so brightly that they expire their energy and momentum before they even begin. Other times their potential is so massive that the shadow eclipses motivation suffocating any hope for completion.

This however doesn't have to be the case, over the last two years I've completed and released over 20 side projects and only dropped 2. You can make these happen successfully as well.

Ideation

For many this will be the easiest step. The heart of it is to just come up with cool ideas, ideally writing them all down. Every detail, every thought in words as close as possible to what you want to make, never limited by genre or form of output.

Never be limited by genre or form of output.

As you think more and reflect on the (multiple) things you want to build try to visualize what it is you are creating. This often comes in the form of a foggy mental image that we mistake for being clear. But it's more similar to remembering the face of a loved one. You know what they look like and could identify them, but if asked to sketch them (especially without looking) you would have a difficult if not impossible time.

Tip: Focus on what you want to make, explore or play with, NOT what is viable to others. This will help you stay passionate when it comes time to execute.

Articulating Your Intent

Once you have you mental image you must describe it to yourself and to others ideally in writing. If you are building something that informs design or art, still stick to writing (even if you are a more visual thinker). Having a clear way to articulate what it is you are trying to make is critical, and I advise to do this before you even sketch.

This could be something like

"A painting with a vertical gradient background,
the Windows 98 tool bar across the bottom,
and half of a 3D paper mache diamond
(the type you see on a paying card)
painted grey and adhered to the center."

Or

"An application that a user inputs their current outfit
into daily that keeps track of what combinations they wear,
warning them of they wore an outfit too recently
and suggesting new combinations of items from their wardrobe."

Regardless of what you are building it needs to be clear enough for others to understand your intent. If not then most likely it is not clearly defined for yourself to fully understand it either.

Resist the urge to begin creating and be satisfied to just have this blurb, or if you have multiple ideas have multiple of these. As you practice and over time this step will merge with (idealize/visualize) and the notes you write about what you want to build will be with this same clarity.

TIP: Never feel obligated to start on any of these ideas. Some will, overtime, merge with others and change direction. Or you may realize you weren't that invested in the concept to begin with.

Breaking Down Ideas

You can not refine or manage an unknown scope!

You know what you are building now but you need to break it down. More than lack of clarify I believe the greatest cause of a dropped project is from things going beyond a reasonable, personal scope.

And you can not refine or manage an unknown scope!

We want to make things cool and great and awesome! But if we spend too long not finishing we lose stamina and get fatigued. The energy boost from completing a project is amazing! You made something! You made a thing! Wrote a thing! Baked things! Cooked an awesome meal! Literally whatever! It just feels great!

That positive energy feeds right back in to more the desire to create more and create more often. You need to seek that reward.

If you have never heard of scrum it may be worth glancing at the Wikipedia article, but one common thing to many agile methodologies is maintaining a prioritized backlog of stories.

Stories are like features, in a way you already have a backlog of unrefined stories (the list of well written ideas we were working on earlier). Now though you need to take just one idea and break it out into all the features or tasks you will need to do in order to make it real. We will break from Scrum as this is for your personal side projects and say you should give a time estimate to each one of these tasks individually.

Example from the painting description earlier:

  • Prime Canvas (20 minutes)
  • Paint Background Gradient (30 minutes)
  • Paint Toolbar (1.5 hours)
  • Construct paper mache geometric diamond (3 hours)
  • Paint paper mache diamond (15 minutes)
  • Adhere diamond to canvas (5 minutes)

Total Time: 5 hours 40 minutes (plus time between coats)

Making Ideas Realistically Executable

Now that you have a good idea of everything you need to do for what you want to build, you get to pick 4 hours of work. That's it. If you aren't used to finishing side projects the most important thing is to start completing them. Four hours on a weeknight or weekend morning should be pretty doable and you get to end with having made something new.

This most likely means you will need to sacrifice a great deal of your original vision. If you aren't willing to do that then pick and refine a different project that you are okay with doing that for. You must get in the habit of having completable projects.

TIP: You can trim down time by using pre-made materials. In the painting described in the last section, we can significantly reduce time but buying a pre-made paper mache diamond instead of making one ourselves.

As you start work on your four-hour endeavor you can pivot change direction etc, but you only have four hours. If an hour is spent on something and you decide to restart because you don't like the direction, you only have three hours left. This may mean cutting out even more.

If you run out of time and cant finish, take that failure and turn it around. I promise you would've learned something from it, start a new project immediately and make it a blog post about what you did, and what you learned. Share your findings.

Embrace cutting features, changing mediums, and simplification.

Chances are, to start, you are going to end up with something pretty simple. From the example of the wardrobe tracker I gave before it may drop down to just a way to catalog what you own in a list, or could even scale as far back as just being a series of photographs of all this items changing medium entirely. Embrace cutting features, changing mediums, and simplification.

To really make the point stick. The most important thing here is to finish!

Quality Does(n't) Count

At this point you may be thinking that you could do better, and with such constraints this is not your best work. You are probably right. I'm very proud of the things I complete on the side, but I could definitely have done them all just a bit better.

I'm very proud of the things I complete on the side, but I could definitely have done them all just a bit better.

Over time as you build a routine of finishing what you start you can start extending the time period (really stick to the 4 hours at first though and see how you do). This may mean you still make projects the same size as your 4 hour ones even if you are investing double the time. They just become more refined.

Or it may mean you maintain the previous quality and increase scale. Having something mediocre and viewable/shareable/finished is better than having nothing at all. You may need to take some hard critiques and some hits to your ego but you will have made something!

Broadcast Your Efforts

Now it's real! Maybe you feel a bit of shame or a bit awkward but you should share what you have done nonetheless.

Twitter, Patreon, Instagram, and Pinterest are great places to show off what you've done. In addition to those it's great to have a gallery of you work as well such as a personal website.

Cataloging on a Website

At first having a website just for your side projects will seem silly. Especially if you only have one that's complete, it will feel blank empty and unnecessary. Use that as motivation to build the website into a catalog of your efforts. In addition to the satisfaction of realizing your ideas you will get an extra boost by filling in those proverbial blank pages.

You don't need to make your own website, you can use a portfolio service or whatever. Regardless of what you choose though make sure it's flexible. I also recommend that you link out to where your work lives most ideally instead of trying to have it all fit into your website. Otherwise if you ever lose that site update/etc it will be a hassle. Also if you need to format things or images specifically whenever you share it may discourage you from even starting projects in the first place.

This is what I did for this very website. You can get a better idea of what I mean, by going to the homepage http://williamanderson.io

Receiving Feedback

This is the last section, I promise. People will give you feedback: some may even be constructive. Filter out mentally what's useful and what is not, but always be receptive. If someone is talking to you about what you made it means I has caught their interest in some way. You should feel proud.

If you made something with code, a more senior engineer may have really critical valuable feedback for you. Internalize it and reflect on it, but I recommend you do NOT act on it.

Do not refactor or modify work based on feedback.

Remember back to how it's fine for a project to have flaws, what's important is that you delivered. Now take those learnings and the learnings from the feedback and use them to inform the next thing you make. Keep making.

Want to read more? Check out:

Microservices All the Way Down.

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