wolfgang ziegler

„make stuff and blog about it“

The Joy Of Not Finishing Projects

June 5, 2023

Getting things done can be nice: fixing a bug, implementing a feature, assembling a piece of IKEA furniture or finishing this blog post, that's been in draft for weeks months now. Completing a task gives us a sense of achievement and reward - but is it always the ultimate goal? For what it's worth, it can be just as gratifying to work on a project, very well knowing that it will never finish or at least never get polished and stay forever in a prototype state.

Before I continue, I should probably make it clear that I'm referring to side and hobby projects here. Of course, in a work environment we usually don't have the luxury to simply abandon projects after the exciting, initial phase once we lose interest.
However, next time before you start that oh-so-important refactoring task, be honest to yourself: aren't you just (unwittingly) putting your project back into a phase where everything was "just more fun"? Maybe I'm up to something here ...

The Flow, the Struggle and the Void

The reason why it can be satisfying to abandon projects or never really finish them is that it's usually the early stage of a project that is most exciting. This is where we solve complicated problems, make fundamental decisions, try an approach and discard it again. This is the phase where it's suddenly 3AM and we realize we have to get up again in a few hours to. To sum it up: this is the Flow phase of your projects.

The flow phase is normally followed by the Struggle phase. In this phase, we find ourselves in the "I started this, now I have to finish it" situation. It's about polishing, testing, improving ... well, finishing things, which is often way less fun than the initial flow phase. The 80/20 principle might also hit hard here, in a sense that the last 20% of finishing a project consume 80% of the time.

But let'say we pulled through the struggle. It might get even worse then, when the Void hits us! That's what I call the realization that we just finished something that nobody is actually waiting for or gives us reward for. We painfully went the last mile with our project, but now what? What next? Then we realize, that the actual process of fixing this bug, implementing the feature, or writing the blog post was far more enjoyable than the actual outcome.
This does not mean that we are not happy with or proud of the results (sometimes I'm not, but that's not the point here), but the actual satisfaction often comes from the creative process itself rather than the result. This is even more true for side-projects and hobbies because these are actual activities we decide to do. Also, they compete with many other possibilities of how we could spend our spare time (family, sports, reading, Netflix, ...) - so it's only natural that the actual process of creating is the reward. Like right now, I'm writing this blog post because I enjoy doing that and this is what motivates me much more than the idea of a published blog post (that nobody might read anyway).

How it started

LEGO bricks

Thinking back, this has always been a pattern in my life. Assembling LEGO sets e.g. has always been a passion of mine (and still is) but it was that actual process of assembling it that gave me most of the joy. Of course, playing with the sets as a kid and now putting them up for display has its rewards, but usually, as soon as I finish(ed) a set, the void hit(s) me.

Another example are my software hobby projects. A while back, I wrote dozens of apps (mostly for Windows Phone) which I actually enjoyed. However, what I mostly enjoyed about it was developing my very own app development framework during that process. I did not enjoy publishing those apps, polishing them, writing documentation, ... It was all about process, not the goal.

How it's going

To this day, most of my side-projects suffer from the TODO syndrome. I focus on the interesting details, and leave small, tedious, polishing tasks open for "later".

Code snippet with a //TODO comment

One of my favorite side-projects is a game/game engine that I'm working on. I'm 100% sure that this will never finish, but I don't care at all. I started this project years ago and work on it every now and again. The big difference to many of my other projects is that I started it without the actual goal of ever finishing it. This greatly avoids any stress or anxiety about getting things done and the project simply is what it should be: an enjoyable distraction that I can work on whenever I feel so.

I had to turn almost 40 years to figure out that I don't have to to stress myself out about finishing projects that only/mostly I care about. And even now I fail at it from time to time. However, whenever I do so, I'm reevaluating my goals with the project in question:

  • Is finishing it actually a goal? If yes, the struggle might be worth it?
  • Is the project just a nice or interesting distraction and I enjoy the process? Well then, I might as well save myself the struggle.