Ask MAKE: On Finishing Projects

Ask MAKE: On Finishing Projects

Ask MAKE is a monthly column where we answer your questions. Send your vexing conundrums on any aspect of making to If we don’t have the answer, we’ll scare up somebody who does.
Photo by Flickr user Evil Erin

On the Google+ Make: Forum Tracy Wood said:

My problem is I start projects and don’t finish them!! ;(

Dear Tracy,
When I was wrapping up my first year of grad school, I was hanging out with some of my classmates and we were talking about what our summer plans were. I thought aloud, “I wonder what projects I should do over the summer.” A classmate replied, “I know what your problem is, Colombo. You get projects 80% done and then quit. You need to polish the heck out of them!”

And that’s what I did. I chose three projects that had potential and intentionally saw them to completion. I understand where you’re coming from, and it’s a problem I struggled with for a long time. If you’re like me, when you get a project nominally working, the accomplishment is enough to mark it off as “done” even when further refinements can be made. The problem is, that last 20% is the tedious part. It’s filled with troubleshooting, fine-tuning, sanding, taping, painting, redesigning, and sometimes even building an entirely new prototype. In some ways it’s boring, but in some ways it’s easy work. Repetition doesn’t suck up your mental faculties as much, and even making a new prototype is less daunting because you’re just iterating on what you had done before — not starting from scratch. Consider this stage of the build process as a completely different mode of thinking. You’re no longer making broad strokes, you’re cutting with a laser and getting right into all the details.

The payoff is perceptible. When you take projects to their full potential the successes build on themselves, and you quickly learn that the last bits were worth it. The results turn from “pretty good” to “excellent” and you might even get more recognition for your work.

Another barrier in trying to get projects done is having too many going at one time. It divides your attention and weakens your resolve. Even if a project is worth doing, it’s fine to set it aside for a while as long as you intend to resume work on it in the near future. Some say a good metric is to always be working on three projects: one big, one medium, one small. This might not work for everyone, but it’s worth trying out.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi wrote about attaining a condition of “flow,” that magical brain-state where intense focus is attained, and time seems to be irrelevant. He marks out several conditions for creating an environment in which flow can occur, one of which is having a task that is neither too easy nor too difficult. If a task is too easy, you’ll get bored. If it’s too difficult, you’ll get discouraged and quit. The trick is to take an objective look at your project, and break off a piece of it that’s in the perfect zone to be tackled. If you do this, completing each part of the project one by one, you’ll be less discouraged and your productivity will rise.

I’d be remiss in not noting the advice that some of the other members of the Google+ community gave in response to your post. From Jim Wygralak: “Perhaps start smaller projects that you can finish before the New & Shiny factor wears off. Or break down the bigger projects into a series of smaller milestones.” From Guy Winterbotham: “When I have stopped learning I go onto the next idea. Only the ones that remain challenging or solve a real problem get across the finish line.” From Dan Sheadel: ” I find two things to be helpful: Deadlines, and the Cult of Done ethos.”

As a final note, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Linchpin by Seth Godin. Much of the book is about shipping (or completing) your art (and he defines art very broadly) by fighting against instinctual habits that prevent the average person from doing so.

I hope these suggestions help. If anyone else has words of wisdom for Tracy, please share in the comments section.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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