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.

18 thoughts on “Ask MAKE: On Finishing Projects

  1. Steve Hoefer (@Grathio) says:

    Sharing a project is the best way I’ve found to finish them. It’s much easier to find the motivation to sweat the last 20% when you know they’re going to be seen by people. I started a blog to give me the motivation to start and finish more projects. Now, five years later, four or five of those projects have made it into MAKE’s pages. Never would have happened if I hadn’t shared them.

    There are also tons of online forums to share in-work projects. If you want something more social, take an unfinished project to a local hacker/maker space or other community workspace. The encouragement at those places is infectious.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      This is true. Often if you show a work-in-progress to the right group of people you can get feedback that re-ignites your excitement, spurring you to see it to the end.

      1. asciimation says:

        I blog my projects. One, a car I am building, is a long, ongoing one. Inspiration comes and goes. But if I don’t blog for more than a week or so I get people emailing me asking why not!

        The main reason I blog them though is that becomes my documentation for when I need to remember how I did something years later. I don’t really mind if no one else reads what I write.

        I have lots of projects I work on. Some take me literally years to complete. It depends on the nature of the project. The car I have a definite goal and date to achieve it (have it race-able in a vintage car meeting in a years time). Other I just do for my own amusement and might never get finished. Some other projects I have very definite goals and manage to complete them very quickly.

        If you know what it is and why it is you are making it then it’s much easier to finish.


  2. andytanguay says:

    The only salve I can offer is to say that MANY people have this problem. MANY.

    I’d also recommend listening to musician Jack White talk about how he does what he does…

    He’s got an AMAZING work ethic and also works to limit himself so as not to get dazzled by ‘the tools’. No matter what you think about his music (it’s awesome), you have to respect his ability to challenge himself and get work out.

  3. ocminimakerfaire says:

    I’m too fidgety to stick with one project at a time so I always have several going. It may take a little longer to get them done but, I’m on my own timeline so it’s ok. Often they are widely different too: painting, wood burning, crochet, periscope for my bathroom… if I get a little bored with one I move on to the next. I do need to be careful not to be working on too many at once though!

  4. lrwickerdesign says:

    I tend to get distracted from a project at some point, but I usually manage to get back to most of them eventually. I do have a couple that I am ashamed to mention since they have been hanging around for at least a year. But, I WILL finish them, I promise, lol!

  5. 0xfred says:

    Some helpful tips here. Thanks. I find that publishing a project (e.g. on Instructables) really gives some motivation – especially if there’s a competition deadline.

    However, you need to consider what your goals are. A friend pointed out to me once that a hobby is something you do just for the enjoyment of doing it. There doesn’t have to be an end product. If you enjoy the challenge of getting your project to 80% and don’t bother with the final 20% because it’s boring then THAT’S FINE. You were doing it for the fun of it and you achieved your goal. No need to feel guilty. I have to say though that he has loads of unfinished projects.

    It’s definitely worth seeing some of your projects through to polished completion. Don’t feel too bad about the ones you don’t though.

    1. Justin says:

      I totally agree. One thing that helps me is to be really honest with myself about my goals for a project. I find that I do projects for different reasons and that plays a big part of when I say I am “finished”. Here are some examples.

      1- I want learn a new skill — In this case I will usually find the simplest project I can and give it a run. Quality isn’t the goal. “Finished” is going through the entire process once so the next time I can do it I know how and where to polish. Example: I recently started learning folding techniques for paper. My first project was to learn to pleat paper (e.g. fold it back and forth). I have since moved on to more complex shapes and patterns but the experience I gained from the 1st project was invaluable. It was a 5 minute project, that was completely successful even though it wasn’t something I would want to share with others.

      2- I want to explore an idea – Sometimes I just want to see if something is possible. So the lower fidelity and simpler I can make it, the better. “Finished” is proving the idea will work after a few rough iterations. Putting polish on these types of projects actually distracts from the exploration and creativity. Example: A friend and I recent got together to make a lamp. We got together and tried a bunch of variations Iterating rapidly. None of them were very good but we proved out the idea by deciding which materials were best, how to color them, and which light sources to use.

      3 – Produce a polished product – Polished projects require time. For me “Finished” is when someone says “Wow! You made that!” I tend to choose these projects very carefully. Because thy always take 3 times as long as you think they should though they are totally worth it.

      4 – Just have fun – It isn’t always what you are making it is the fact that you are making. I do this with my kids all the time. They are really young so we do things like crafts or drawing. “Finished” is simply that we spend an hour doing something we love.

  6. mbseto says:

    Two things that work for me:
    1) Have a reward for finishing. The obvious reward is to be able to start a new project! Also, the comment above about sharing on a blog is spot on- showing off can also be a reward.
    2) More on the nitty-gritty side, when I get stalled on a project I write down on a piece of paper the next 5 or so steps that need to be accomplished. Even if I know in my head what needs to be done, having it on a piece of paper with check-boxes that I can check off is a tangible motivator. This can also help if the next step is something daunting, you can use this to break it into smaller steps and as you check them off you feel like you are making progress.

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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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