Overcome procrastination and complete your side projects by watching your progress

A cool workspace I found on https://www.pexels.com/ (they’re great and don’t even require attribution!)

One of the downsides of working alone for 90% of the time is that it’s hard for me to measure how good my workflow is. Because of that it’s hard for me to find ways in what I can improve (as I have nothing to compare to).

I decided to try to learn more about other people workflows, and my primary source of content was Youtube. I kept watching some videos about the daily routines of some freelancers and I found the ThinMatrix channel.

You’re the definition of work ethic. — John Ny about ThinMatrix

ThinMatrix is an indie game developer, and right now he is working on a game called Equilinox.

He shares weekly behind the scenes about the development of the game, and it’s pretty good to watch them! And to my surprise I found that by watching the videos, my productivity started to get higher. I felt a sense of wanting to accomplish more things, which is a great feeling.

But what can we learn from ThinMatrix and how can you overcome procrastination and start to take your side projects from paper?

The Power of Small Wins

It turns out that one of the single most important things to boost motivation (and thus overcome procrastination) is making progress in meaningful work. Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer talk about it in this fascinating HBR article.

They use and anecdote from the James Watson’s 1968 memoir about discovering the structure of DNA to exemplify the importance of making progress (not that we aim to earn a Nobel Prize with our side projects, but who knows right?):

After the excitement of their first attempt to build a DNA model, Watson and Crick noticed some serious flaws. According to Watson, “Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous.” Later that evening, “a shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits.” But when they showed their “breakthrough” to colleagues, they found that their model would not work. Dark days of doubt and ebbing motivation followed. When the duo finally had their bona fide breakthrough, and their colleagues found no fault with it, Watson wrote, “My morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle.” Watson and Crick were so driven by this success that they practically lived in the lab, trying to complete the work. Throughout these episodes, Watson and Crick’s progress — or lack thereof — ruled their reactions. — Source

Teresa and Steven asked members of project teams to respond individually to an end-of-day email survey for over four months. They found that “the most common event triggering a ‘best day’ was any progress in the work of the individual or the team. The most common event triggering a ‘worst day’ was a setback”.

And the best thing about all of this is that even small wins can boost inner work life.

Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. […] Consider this diary entry from a programmer in a high-tech company, which was accompanied by very positive self-ratings of her emotions, motivations, and perceptions that day: “I figured out why something was not working correctly. I felt relieved and happy because this was a minor milestone for me.” — Source

Amazing, right? Given all that, one way you can create (and finish) more side projects is to make sure you are tracking and visualizing your progress towards completing the project.

Some of the obstacles to side projects

1. Keeping track of every activity needed to complete the project

I like to build stuff and for me one of the best parts is actually the process of deciding what to build. I like to do a lot of research and exploration before starting the programming part itself. The problem with that is that this part of the work before programming often don’t feel like working. Why? Because it’s not easy for me to watch my own progress during this part of the work.

I then started to make something that is helping me a lot: now I write down any discovery I make. As a new side project, I decided to create a tool to help me develop more side projects (I love this meta stuff).

My side project tracker

While developing the project, some of my thoughts during the concept phase were:

  • The importance of progress (I had read about it in many books, but I made all the connections because of the ThinMatrix channel)
  • Dan Ariely talking about how at the beginning of something, what motivates us is what we did accomplish so far, and in the end what motivates us is how much work we need to do to finish the project

Then it came to me: this thing about visualizing the project at the beginning vs. at the end of a project is similar to what we feel while mounting a puzzle.

How I feel when I start to build a new project

2. Visualizing the progress

This was one of my goals with the side project: make progress more visual. My first thought was to create something like puzzle pieces, but my front-skills are not that good yet, so I’m using simple squares with CSS to do that.

How the tool works

I will need React.JS for another project, so I decided to use it in this one to learn. I followed the official tutorial, and for my surprise the dynamics of the tic-tac-toe were very similar to what I wanted to do. I used the project of the tutorial as the base and was tweaking it to get what I wanted. You can check the full code here (I still don’t know for sure but I’m probably breaking a lot of React patterns, so beware!).

I learned more cool things in the process:

  • I will still need pen and paper. Writing my thoughts and my complaints when I get stuck is pretty good to clear my mind, and I just need to see my notes to get exactly where I was previously
  • Creating a todo list with all the steps I will need to complete in order to finish the project is so important. I thought this was something overrated, but it did wonders to my workflow

In case you were wondering how my handwriting looks like. This day I was trying to figure out the difference between ‘bind’ and ‘() =>’ in React (Btw I still don’t fully understand it haha)

In Summary

To sum up everything in one sentence: making progress is a powerful tool we have to overcome procrastination and we need to find ways to keep track and visualize our progress.

I think our main challenge here is to find ways to create momentum and make sure we are always making progress. Of course we will get stuck sometimes, but being aware of it is a good thing to do. ThinMatrix for example usually starts to create new 3D models for the game when he is stuck with something in the code.

And to leave us with an inspirational quote, I really recommend this article by Jack Simpson: If you don’t finish your work then you’re just busy, not productive:

If you’re always starting interesting projects and not finishing, then no matter how hard you work, you’re just busy, not productive. — Scott H. Young

And how about you, do you develop side projects? What’s your process to build them? Let’s talk about it in the comments! And thanks for reading 😁

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