Staying motivated can be tough, especially on longer projects. Recently a professional acquaintance told me about a 3-year-long client project. This is an extreme case, but long projects are not uncommon in the tech industry. In fact, I’m working on a personal side project right now that I expect will take about 1.5 years. How do you keep going once the initial rush of a new idea has faded? Through trial and error, I’ve found a few techniques that work for me, and I hope that by sharing them you can stay motivated too.
Be the Boss
Nearly every company will use deadlines to motivate employees. Sometimes there’s rewards attached, such as a raise for good performance. However, if you’re trying to retrain for a new career or if you work for yourself, it can feel like there’s no pressure to get anything done. This is purely an illusion created by our own poor perception of large time scales. Nobody is going to tell you what to do.
Rarely are there short term consequences for moving at a humdrum pace on a client project or procrastinating on learning a new technology. Over longer periods, it means missed opportunities. These might be new projects you’re not ready to accept or dream jobs that come and go because you’re not ready to apply. Worse yet, your job could be made redundant and you might not have any new skills to fall back on.
This is where you have to be your own boss and your own employee. If you’re not able to stay motivated by the long-term consequences (like me), here’s something to try:
- Choose a vice that you enjoy, like watching movies or playing video games
- Choose a task to accomplish and a reasonable amount of time to get it done
- Only allow yourself to indulge if you finish your work in the allotted time
The first few times I tried this, I failed, because I was used to a slower pace. The key to making this work is to not give in. Don’t reward yourself if you haven’t performed well. Eventually, you’ll start finding efficiencies and using your time more wisely (like not surfing the web or checking email) because you’ll be hungry for your vice. Then when you successfully hit a timebox, you’ll feel like you’ve really earned the reward. For me, this has sparked a potent cycle of work and reward.
Seek critique: It rhymes so it must be right. Right?
The longer you work on a project, the more difficult it is to think objectively. This is where critique can be very helpful. Find some trusted colleagues or a friend that will give you honest feedback. If you’re working on a personal project and you feel comfortable posting your work to a public forum, even better.
Other people will typically find obvious flaws immediately. There might be major problems with your work that are right in front of your face, but you might not notice them because you’ve learned to ignore them. It’s a common human flaw to spend a lot of time on unimportant details, but a fresh pair of eyes can help you refocus. Don’t fall into the trap of working hard on the wrong problem.
I try to share my latest progress with close friends and family members as often as I can (without driving them crazy, of course). Most of them have little familiarity or emotional attachment to the project, so their first impressions are pretty accurate. The feedback often will clarify the next action you should take, which will also help keep you motivated.
Whether a project is small or large, I think it’s important to continue learning every day. Any time I learn an exciting new technique, I want to try it right away. This is a great way to get excited about an aging project.
Learning can also help you find new efficiencies. Even if you’re timeboxing yourself, using some of that time to learn might uncover a small tip that saves hours. Repeating this process every day builds on itself, because the next time you encounter the same problem, you’ll already know the best way to handle it.
I use sites like Pinterest and Imgur to create a “motivation gallery” for myself. When I first start a project, I’ll generally use these like a mood board. I’ll find pictures that capture the essence of the project so that I remember the original emotions I had when I first started. Never forget why you started, or you’ll never be motivated to finish.
Later on in the project, I’ll start to fill a “progress gallery” with screenshots. I keep them in chronological order so that I can see what the project looked like at the beginning, how it progressed, and what it looks like now. In moments when a project feels like it’s moving slow, I check out the progress gallery. As soon as I see the first image and then start to scroll through the pictures, I realize how far I’ve come. This creates a powerful feedback loop, because the more the gallery grows, the more you’ll want to add to it and watch the project evolve.
A project will morph and change throughout its development, making it difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps you started a project with a nice looking mockup or some great sketches, but those ideas might be out of date with reality. Whenever I start to feel like I’ve drifted away from the original vision, I don’t attempt any course corrections. Instead, I reconcile by reimagining what the finished project will look like based on the present. In other words, I imagine my current work in a finished state, rather than referring to my first thoughts.
Spending a little bit of time daydreaming can help recapture the magic of a fresh idea. This isn’t always possible on client projects that have strict specifications, but it’s critically important on projects with flexible guidelines. Having vision doesn’t mean sticking to your original vision. Find the fun, over and over again.
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This article only contains my own techniques for staying motivated, and they won’t work for everyone or every situation.