Sometimes I grow tired of the constant hum of failure. Most of my dreams end up as flops. But I’m sure I’m not alone, and we all struggle with the guilt of not finishing from time to time.
It might be unambitious, but occasionally I think it would be nice to fail more predictably, so I’ve been searching for patterns in how my ideas fizzle out. What’s different when I persevere, and when I don’t?
Instead of mentally filing all my unsuccessful ideas under “failure,” I’ve realized it’s useful to break them down by when in the process the plan was abandoned.
Failure Reason One: I Never Start
Almost every idea I ever have… never even gets born. Writing a musical? I think I might have talked about it once or twice. Taking dance lessons? I’ve never so much as spoken the thought aloud.
Sometimes I feel guilty that so many ideas go untouched, but perhaps it’s for the best. A generous interpretation would be that I’m filtering for the projects I’m most passionate about. Revealed preference theory suggests that if I don’t care enough to take action, then I never cared about it as much as I imagined.
And this is okay. We don’t have to follow through on every idea that passes through our minds, or even on every idea we actually like. Passions fluctuate, and perhaps I’ll be sufficiently drawn back to a dream someday.
Of course, lack of passion explains why most ideas never get off the ground, but there are infinite reasons why it’s hard to take the initial action on a project. Again, it helps to break down more specifically than “I can’t get started.”
How to Overcome the Failure to Start
If you can’t seem to just begin, here are some ideas that might help:
- Write about (or imagine, or tell someone) why you’re excited to do something. Whether it’s “I’ll get fitter,” “I’ll have built my own furniture,” “I’ll have my own podcast,” “I’ll have my dream job,” that initial surge of motivation is helpful to overcome inertia.
- List everything that is blocking you from starting, and then work through the list one-by-one. Can you dissolve, circumvent, or pass over each block? If you’re not sure WHAT is blocking you, list anything that conceivably could be, no matter how silly.
- Don’t just focus on the negative. List all the advantages, skills and experience you have in attempting this.
- Attempt the smallest possible version of what you want to achieve. Do a 2-minute workout. Write 10 words. Update a single section of your resume. Apply for one job.
Failure Reason Two: The Initial Struggle
Starting is hard enough, but after starting is honestly my least favourite part. Now I have to actually DO something—yikes.
Periodically I get back into fitness… usually after months (or years!) of accumulated guilt for neglecting my physical side. Each time the first few workouts feel like a trip through actual hell. My lungs ache, my muscles complain, and it seems impossible to survive to the end.
Similarly, the early stages of any new project, phase or job are the most frightening. We have to discover a mountain of new concepts to learn, and develop a whole new framework to fit them together. This is even true within the same domain: learning to write a nonfiction book is different from learning to write a fiction book is different from learning to write a graphic novel is different from… and on and on and on…
During these early phases, my biggest problem is self-doubt. I feel inferior to everybody who’s ever already done what I’m attempting. Often my projects get strangled by this fear as I nervously nibble at the edges but never quite manage to get deep enough to build confidence that I can do it.
How to Get Past the Initial Struggle
If you’re struggling with the overwhelm of a new project, try these:
- Remember and renew your initial motivation.
- Remind yourself this is a temporary phase. Given enough work you will learn everything you need.
- Think of your past successes. Don’t write them off as “but that was doing x and now I’m attempting y”—you proved you can learn everything you need to achieve something difficult.
- Break down all the skills and knowledge you need into ever-smaller chunks and reward yourself for picking up each chunk.
- Work doesn’t have to be perfect! Don’t compare yourself to people who’ve been doing this for decades—compare only to your own work from last week (or month or year).
- Give yourself permission to quit if you need to.
Failure Reason Three: The Slow Drift Into The Void
Eventually, we adapt. In the case of physical activity, our body literally adapts: those workouts that seemed death-defying become a matter of simple routine. In other domains, new concepts which once seemed incomprehensible become obvious, and we start combining them together as we produce ever-better work.
Unfortunately, we now require commitment. This is a dangerous phase, as the initial rush of passion has drained, and the goal is often far away. For example, writing a book is a tedious plod of putting words down (and, usually, immediately deleting them) again and again and again—often without reward.
This slow plateau is deathly but incredibly important, as this is where all the real work is done. Assuming we started this project with an end goal, it’s crucial to constantly renew motivation during this phase.
How to Stay Committed
If you’re struggling to stay committed:
- Boredom is the enemy—you no longer have the frightening thrill of grappling with new concepts. Find ways to keep it interesting. Watch videos while you workout. Dance after every 100 words. Call a friend after working for an hour.
- Be gentle: allow yourself space to recuperate and recharge.
- Be harsh: get someone to be your drill sergeant and scream “WRITE SOME WORDS / RUN SOME MILES, SOLDIER” until you do it.
- Focus on the end goal—how good will it feel to finish?
- Focus on intermediate goals—what’s the next milestone? Enjoy your improvement—remember how impossible everything seemed when you began? How impressed would past you be if they could see you now?
- There will be hard days, when everything feels impossible again and you feel like you’ve regressed. You haven’t. It’s just an ebb day.
- Make progress an automatic habit, so it becomes hard to imagine a day where you don’t work out / study / practice / write.
Stay in the Right Gear
Each of these phases brings a different struggle, but until I thought of them this way I didn’t differentiate between them in my mind. When a project enters a new phase, I need to update my strategy to survive the new phase. The techniques that got me started won’t cut it when things get overwhelming, and, in turn, those techniques will need replacing once I hit the plateau, and boredom becomes the main obstacle.
Hopefully, next time I fail to finish a project, it’ll be because I chose to stop, and not because I hadn’t noticed my project had changed gear and I didn’t keep up.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.