Project Amnesia

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.

Neil Gaiman

Right now I’m struggling with project amnesia. By project amnesia I mean that I’ll start a new project, and I’ll be really excited about it and it feels important to me, but then a week or two later I suddenly realize that I’ve completely forgotten about it. I haven’t spent time with it in days, and it hasn’t even been on my mind. How can something that I was so excited about and cared about be forgotten so easily?

In some cases this could be a sign that the project wasn’t that important to me after all. It could also mean that I have too much going on at once to be able to remember everything. Or, it could mean that I haven’t been doing it long enough to make it a habit.

Of course, this is a common experience. Energy and interest is high at the beginning of a project and it fades as the project goes on and becomes more tedious. This can lead to being addicted to starting new things to find that excitement again which leads to a cycle of never finishing anything.

Whatever the reason, here are a few different things I’ve been trying to keep track of what I’m doing and re-motivate when I need to.

  1. Remind yourself why you started the project to begin with. Even projects that are important to me require a renewed commitment regularly to keep them going. Write down the reasons you started the project in the first place. What did you envision the result would be? What do you want to accomplish? It’s hard to keep the big picture in mind when you’re in the middle of working, so take a step back and think about the reasons you’re doing what you’re doing.

  2. Say no to new projects and ideas. Only do things that spark joy. There’s a strong temptation to start new projects when older ones have lost their initial interest. The moment you start a project is the moment you’re going to get a hundred new ideas for what you could do instead. Don’t follow the sirens, tie yourself to the ship. The fact is that our to do lists get cluttered just like our closets. Don’t simplify the list by deciding what to abandon. Simplify by deciding what to keep doing based on how excited and joyful it makes you feel. Make a list of everything, consider each project, and ask yourself if it sparks joy. You’ll know intuitively when it does. Stop doing the ones that don’t.

  3. Simplify goals, make it managable to finish. It’s important to not lose momentum. Define a checkpoint that you can reach in a single working session or at the most within a few days so that you can feel like you’re making real progress. If you feel momentum, you’re more likely to keep going. If it drags on with no feeling of progress, you’re more likely to just stop altogether. Keep the goal simple, specific, and attainable. For example, make it “edit the appendix to the book” rather than “work on the book.” If you make a plan and write it down, you’re more likely to stick to it.

  4. Keep a journal. This is something new I’ve been trying recently. Keeping a journal about what you’re working on helps you reflect on what you’re learning and gives you something you can review the next day so you can remember exactly what you did. Don’t trust your memory to remember all of your ideas and progress. Get it written down so you can use more of your mental energy working on the projects rather than keeping track of them.

  5. Make a habit. If you want to be an artist or a writer or a game designer, you have to learn the habit of doing it every day. If you are struggling to keep track of projects like I am, it might be because it’s not part of your daily routine and habits. There are a lot of theories about how to make something into a habit in order to make a real change. One way that I like is to keep a list of what you’re working on (along with your journal if possible) and set a reminder to review it on the first day of every month. See Live Like a Hydra by Buster Benson, or this new book by Leo Babauta, blogger at Zen Habits for two expert opinions on setting goals and learning habits.

I struggle with this a lot right now and I’m still trying new ways to keep organized and stay focused. The silver lining in all of this is that it’s pretty great that we even get to have this problem. There are so many exciting things to do, the flow of ideas never ends, and we just have to try to keep up with it.

Have you found it challenging to stay focused on projects? Have you found ways to manage it? Let me know on Twitter.

Kevin McGillivray is a teacher and web developer from Wisconsin. He writes about creativity, mindfulness, code, and tea. He tweets and tumbles.

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