Your side-projects deserve a decisive, merciful death at your hands. You dragged them into this world, you’ll fling them out. And do it quickly.
I want to talk about killing our much beloved side-projects, and why this is totally a good idea. Then I want to talk about why this could be a terrible idea. I’m not here for resolutions.
There are two parts of my personality, plucked from the universe-scale D&D Players Manual, which make the question “should I carry on with this side project?” difficult to answer:
- ** I like to flip-flop** - just because you made a decision in the past doesn’t mean it’s the best decision, or that you owe your current time your past self. Your past self was probably dumb and optimistic anyway. What do you know now that you didn’t know when you made the choice? Do you know that you’re not enjoying yourself, that you don’t have the money, that it’s not worth the time or investment? Cool, just put your tools down. This kind of thinking got me out of working freelance, a decision I thought I would love but actually did not. Vive l’empoi.
- I like to commit - if you’re going to make a decision, act like you’ve made the decision. Sometimes that’s about writing a blog post about random things you learn every week even when you don’t want to. Sometimes it’s about finishing puppy school (with your dog, obviously), or building an MVP of that website you’ve wanted to build since 2014. Inaction is a choice. Relaxation and space are a choice. You can commit to restoring some inner peace and spend every night for four months in silent meditation, or watching Netflix, or going on dinner dates with different friends. Or you can commit to learning a new language, reaching a new fitness goal, whatever. I really don’t care what the goal is, but I like to achieve goals.
These two make for often uneasy bed fellows. Not quite sitcom-worthy misanthropes, but the two can make it difficult for me to feel confidently happy or fulfilled. Second guessing? That’s a lot easier.
I am a front-end and full-stack software engineer by trade and craft. For the past several months I have been building DashDot, an iOS app for interval training. I started this project because it solves an actual problem I have, and because I wanted to try building something for a different platform.
I’m going to stop building that app. I’m not going to caveat that sentiment with “for now” or “at the moment”. I have excommunicated it from my life, and I have no intention to pick it back up, or open that Xcode project. I might do those things, sure. I might try again in the future. I just don’t think I will within the next lunar cycle, and I’m not setting any expectation to myself that I will, either.
The minute I made that decision, I felt lighter. I was free from doing something that I had increasingly come to resent. I’m not going to go into all the nerdy details about why I didn’t like iOS development - but the short of it is that I do not want to do it. So I won’t.
Maybe I’m weird and this is totally natural to some. Maybe some people love giving things up and can do so without nary a backward glance. You’ll know we’re similar people if hearing that you can do this, that you can simply stop, is a gleeful relief or reminder, not an obvious re-statement. Got a side project that simply isn’t worth the investment any more? Great, kill it. No one’s going to come looking for the body.
Though the killing metaphor is satisfyingly dramatic, I think excommunication is the better analogy. The idea of the project isn’t dead, I can still go back to it. You can start building your ideas again whenever you want. Instead, I’ve made the choice to have no interaction with it: I’m not going to design, build, refactor, or plan anything else to do with this project. It’s going to take up no more of my mental time and energy. It has been banished from my kingdom of effort and attention.
You might be ready to excommunicate when…
You ever catch yourself, mid-activity and think “wait why am I doing this”. How might you know when it’s time to excommunicate that project from your life? Here are some smells I’ve been looking out for
- Does it spark joy? - 2019 internet meme aside, Marie Kondo has a good point: how does your body respond when you think about, or work on the project? Are you excited by what you’re doing or could be doing? Is it heading in a good direction? Or are you just a little weary?
- Is it worth it? - is all this time, money, and mental energy you’re putting into the project actually giving you something back? Investment and returns aren’t just money: does it feel like a good use of your time and attention? If you’re finding it hard to justify to yourself, think about why?
- Where is this going? - follow through the thought process for “what happens next” for the next weeks and months. One of the last straws for me and my most recent side project was realising that even if things become wildly successful and people love the app, the thought of having to build, improve, and support an iOS app just did not feel like a good reward. And then if things went badly I’d have to do active work to get more users so that I could support an app I didn’t want to support. Is the project leading me closer to the life I want to live? No?
But what if I just keep picking things up and putting them down?
I’m worried about being that guys who gets a new personality-defining hobby every other month. I don’t want to be telling my friends how great it is to feel the wet clay between your fingers, and then eight weeks later consider my chances as a professional oboe player. There’s nothing wrong with that, you have to pursue your own happiness in this life, but there’s more than that.
I worry sometimes that I jump between things, never finishing them or accomplishing anything with them. But also, massive spoiler alert, no matter how long your streak on Duolingo, you’re still going to die. If you can wring joy from the scarce few hours we have on this giant hunk of space rock then, by all means, flit between things. Flit away. Keep flitting. This is hedonism, which I think gets a bad wrap and has a lot less to do with Roman orgies that you’d think.
However, if you only ever get a few steps down a road, or you only do something when it is interesting or enjoyable - we miss out on something.
Vasari, the first art historian and also debut biographer of Leonardo, wrote in reference to the famous renaissance artist, architect, natural scientist, and polymath: “if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them”. Leonardo was a flitter.
If you’ve got the mental horsepower of Leonardo (which I certainly don’t), then the curiosity does us benefit. Even with his almost mystic mental capacity, and despite working in one of the most productive and talented eras of artistry in European history, Leonardo left behind very few finished paintings. He left behind a lot of notebooks, with questions and observations, and he undoubtedly pushed a thousand tiny journeys forward, but he rarely reached “done” in his work.
There are no more than eighteen surviving paintings which can be attributed to Leonardo (if you ignore all credible questioning on many of these works). Though to be fair his portfolio includes things like The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, possibly two of the most recognised pieces of western art. This is compared to the literally dozens of paintings by Raphael (who died at 37, a full thirty less life years than Leonardo), or Michelangelo who painted (or supervised) the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel _, which accounts for over 500 squared metres and then also he sculpted _David. To be fair, Michelangelo was probably a bit too dedicated, and maybe could have loosened up a bit.
Unfortunately, no one’s really doing anything comparable to painting the Sistine Chapel anymore. I don’t know why, maybe we’re all too remarkable to be remarkable anymore, or maybe we’ve become numb excellence. You’re not sacrificing an era-defining oeuvre so you can go to an introductory macrame class or get three pages into your bullet journal before never opening it ever again. But I do still think we owe it to ourselves to commit a little before abandoning ship. The process of mastery and craft run deep in us, I think.
That’s because new hobbies or side projects are both themselves (i.e. making a clay pot, writing a book), but they are also meta-projects: the process of planning how you will dedicate your time and attention around them. The ability to engage with the terrible, awful imitation you have made and the shining exemplar you were trying to reproduce, and asking yourself “how did I get this so wrong?”. This is another time to mention The Gap by Ira Glass.
If you hang around for long enough, you notice the transition from a project as itself, to a project as a meta-project. I think there’s something inherently valuable in going through that, and I don’t think you can force it.
To give an example from my domain, when I dip into a lot of forums for web developers I see piles of novice engineers asking ill-formed, basic questions which either have a one-line answer (“how do I get data from an API in python?”) or no answer (“which JS framework should I learn?”). But a lot of the conversations I see happening between experienced engineers, or at talks from engineers - these are more philosophical or ideal. Broad, cross-technology approaches, team and inter-discipline management or integration. Once you have reached conversational fluency with the details, you can go one level higher. I really enjoyed learning the basics as an engineer but I am really enjoying the work of a journeyman.
Similarly, with writing I deeply enjoy the feeling of having written, I dislike much of the reality of writing consistently. I love having a blog where I’ve written consistently for nearly a year, but I hate the Saturday morning fear that this might be the week I don’t write a blog post about things I have learned. I love organising thoughts after they lay strewn in a text document, having stumbled over each other in a rush to get out of my brain. I love that I nearly always have a conversation starter or something to mention when I’m out at the pub. Or if I was out at the pub and there wasn’t a pandemic.
Some of these things are about the actual act of writing but others are, more broadly, because I write. And I think I have only come to enjoy these things, and to even see them in the first place, because I have committed to a regular writing practice. I don’t think I would have got there if I decided to flit between ideas, or if I had committed to only writing when I feel like it or when something comes up. I do not know if I would even think to write something in the first place if I hadn’t.
Ultimately, it still doesn't matter, obviously. I’ll be dust in a hundred years and no one cares if I do or don’t commit to things, so long as I seem happy. But there is hope among all the fatalism. But I think the things you gain, and the muscles you exercise at the beginning of something are different to what’s necessary when the motivation runs out and you’re looking to improve. If those are the muscles you want to build, stop flitting.All this, of course, if you’re able to healthily bare the cost of getting there.
Sometimes the answer is a resounding and valid “no”, “I really don’t want to” or “I hate this”. If it is, excommunicate the project from your life. Put it deep in that freezer.