Every day when I fire up my Toodledo, I have a handful of projects or tasks that I’m working on.
I’ll probably finish half this week (it’s the Holidays… yeah, that’s it). I’ll push out a few of these until later. And on Sundays I re-evaluate if some of them are just not meant to be and let them fade into oblivion.
It’s not that I don’t think these are good ideas! In fact, it’s the opposite — I want to do them all!
But life gets in the way, and we have only so many hours in a day. And I bet this all sounds pretty familiar.
Have you ever asked yourself why, despite our best intentions, most of our projects never make it to the finish line?
It turns out there’s something called the planning fallacy. In a nutshell, humans tend to underestimate how much time it takes to complete something. A logical consequence is we then overcommit to opportunities, leading us to fail to actually complete most of them.
This tendency is so ingrained that you can know about it and still do it. Your unconscious brain is working against your self-interest!
Adding to the problem is that — for most of us — starting new things can be exciting. This causes a loop where you get a hit of dopamine for starting something new. We’re built to crave these dopamine hits.
But once the hit is over, we lose interest in the things we really don’t care about, so they get the half-hearted effort. They sit incomplete, like unfinished homework.
So what can we do about it? It’s simple. Teach yourself to estimate the full cost.
The rule of 3x
Whenever you’re estimating the investment it’ll take to complete something — time or otherwise — multiply it by three.
It’s going to be hard at first because it’ll seem excessive. “Surely, I don’t need that time,” you’ll tell yourself. But it’s way more accurate when making realistic estimates.
At LinkedIn, I saw this time and time again. The best engineers estimates were often optimistic by a factor of 2. Unforeseen issues, bugs, additional QA… all these factors can slow down a project. For new teammates who are unfamiliar with their tools, add another turn. So 3x.
So this puts a premium on planning. If you think about it fully and commit to the 3x rule, you will make wiser decisions.
It’s a much more healthier way to live. You give yourself breathing room for the unexpected. You can surprise yourself on finishing early, and getting a confidence boost.
But given you’ll only be able to take on 1/3 of the projects you do now, it means that you’ll have to say no.
Learn to love the discomfort of focus
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.” — Steve Jobs
Yes, it’s uncomfortable. No, it’s not easy. But the compounding of your time and attention is what will lead to success.
At LinkedIn, I heard time and time again from executives “fewer things, done better”. One of my investors shared with me “Focus isn’t saying ‘I’ll do three or four things instead of everything. It’s saying ‘I’ll only do one thing’.”
How to overcome the main project derailers
Knowing what to do and what not to do is only the beginning. But it’s the most important factor in what you complete. Once you’ve figured out what you’re going to do, you still need to do the work! You need to finish the project without jumping ship at the first signs of trouble.
It turns out the main reason folks give up on projects is because of an unreasonable internal standard: perfection.
The best antidote? Define “success” to be something far short of perfection. If the standard isn’t quality oriented, you are far more likelier to follow through.
Another cause of abandoned projects? Getting distracted.
We believe we are far more capable of multitasking than we are. The antidote is to break down a project into microchunks, each of which you can complete in a single sitting. Subtasks are a great way to write out precisely what the components of a given project are and how to accomplish them, then pick them off one-by-one.
Finally, learn to cut your losses. Setting an arbitrary due date is a great forcing function. You can set a due date by when you’ll call it quits when something has been lingering in the background for too long. You only have so much attentional capacity.
So clean out your projects list so that you never have more than 5-10 in your attentional capacity at any given time and don’t let a project you’re never going to finish take up any of that space.