Exactly a week ago today I posted that I had been having a slow week while working on Eligo. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. By the end of that day I was starting to talk myself out of making Eligo altogether. If you’ve worked on any sort of large, personal, creative project before then you’ve likely done the same. Maybe you even gave in. I almost did. I was asking myself things like “is this even worth it?” and “will anyone use this?”. I was telling myself that the answer to these questions was a resounding “no”.
One thing missing from this discussion that I was having with myself inside of my head was my reasoning for working on Eligo in the first place. The real purpose of the project, which I talked about in my announcement post, wasn’t so people could use it. I was working on Eligo to get back into the habit of working towards something. Giving up in the middle didn’t seem like a great way to make a habit. So I decided to persist.
I’m not sure if these two things are related or not—it’s impossible to detach the two in my mind—but the moment after I decided to keep going I had a bit of an epiphany: the design was all wrong. Keep in mind that I had already redesigned once. “Surely I can’t rip everything out again”, I thought to myself. All of those start up guys talk about “good enough” constantly. Couldn’t this design be just that: good enough? Once I asked myself who I was doing this for, the answer to the question of it being good enough was obvious. It was not.
I talked to my wife about it. While she was encouraging about my decision to scrap the direction that wasn’t working, she urged me to sleep on it. And I did. But it was hard. I feared that I was going to loose all of the energy and positivity I had just acquired. I had vague ideas in my head of a direction to take the design and I had an even clearer picture of what was wrong with the current design. I wrote down everything that was floating around in my brain and went to bed. Against all odds, I was able to get a full night’s rest. And you know what happened? I woke up positive and with an even clearer picture of where I needed to take Eligo.
I got to work immediately and by the time my family had awoke, a few hours after I did, I had a clear direction for the design of the product. I was working quickly and efficiently. Things were coming together. By the end of the day I had a very solid style guide for the product committed to the project’s code repository. I had gotten more done that Friday by 5:00pm than I had the whole rest of the week.
I was encouraged by what had happened when I went to bed with unfinished ideas the night before. So I did something similar and contrary to what my brain was urging me to do: I put the project aside for the weekend. I spent time with friends and enjoyed the beautiful weather we were having here in Southwest Missouri on the porch with my family. I was thinking about the project constantly but was doing so away from the screen. I felt like I was doing honest-to-good problem solving in my head, rather than rummaging the internet for other people’s solutions to my problems.
Something magical happened again on Monday morning: I had the same productivity superpowers. In fact, they seemed even stronger than they were on Friday. Every decision I was making seemed to just be right. And if it wasn’t right, I was in a state of mind that I could see what was wrong and adjust easily. Things were simply coming together and the project was finally starting to feel like a product.
It’s Thursday morning now and I feel like I’ve had three weeks of productivity crammed into these past three days. The best part is that I haven’t been exhausting myself. I’ve still had to keep myself focused—which hasn’t been too difficult this week—but I’ve been making serious progress on Eligo. To top it off, I’ve been able to stop working around 4:30pm which, as a result, has helped me make progress on some of my other goals, like cooking dinner for my family most nights. And Eligo is in a great place. In fact, I hope to get the alpha up by the beginning of next week!
I don’t have a clear path to this elevated state of productivity. I wish I did. However, if you’re struggling to work through something, here are a couple of things you can try that worked for me this week:
Spend some time away from the problem. I’ve read the advice from creative people before to “take a walk” when you’re at a mental roadblock. This can be very hard to do but it is wonderful advice. Detach yourself from your work and your brain may solve some of the problems for you when you’re not deliberately thinking about them. Your subconscious is better at solving problems than you probably realize it is.
Don’t be afraid to scrap work you’ve already done. Its important to not get too attached to the work itself and instead focus on the quality of the outcome. If something isn’t right don’t continue working at it for work’s sake.
Don’t exhaust your energy. This is related to point #1 but I think it’s important to separate it out. When you do find yourself with some energy, fight the urge to work until it’s been drained. This is especially difficult if you’re coming off of a productivity “dry spell”, like I was, where you fear that the next time you sit down to work the energy won’t be there. Fight the urge. Leave some of your ideas for tomorrow.
On that last point, Ernest Hemingway had some great advice for people writing a novel that I think applies to all creative work. He answers the question “How much should you write in a day?” with:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
— Ernest Hemingway “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter” in Esquire, October 1935
I’m thankful that I stumbled upon some productivity this week. Although, at second glance stumble upon isn’t the right way to put it. I worked hard to get to here and I don’t think I’d be where I am on the project if I hadn’t gone through all those dead ends at the beginning. So perhaps that leaves us with one more point that didn’t make in onto the list. This may be the most important point: don’t give up.