Scott H Young

How to Stay Motivated in Long Projects


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At some point in every long project, you’ll hit a motivational rock-bottom.  A bad day, week, or month where you don’t feel like doing any work.  You’ve been writing, coding and working for months and the initial enthusiasm that got you started is gone.  Now you’re left staring at your computer screen blankly, as doubts fill your mind about whether you’ll ever get finished.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Staying motivated on big projects isn’t easy.  I’ve worked on several large project without any pressure from a boss or team leader.  Some of these projects were a year or more.  While working on personal projects (and finishing them) can be incredibly satisfying, it means that motivating yourself is even tougher.  After all, nobody is going to fire you if you stop.

But if you want to write a book, start a business or release a piece of software, you need to get the motivation to finish.  Unfortunately, I’ve found most of the pump-up motivation techniques are lacking.  These can be great when you have a twenty minute performance, but they often die out over weeks and months.

Staying Motivated Means Avoiding Motivation

The best way to stay motivated is to not need motivation in the first place.  If you’re constantly needing all your emotional cylinders to be driving at full force to get work done, you’re going to get stuck in long projects.  Finishing multi-month efforts means you need to build a baseline.

A baseline is your default level of activity.  Although you may do more work than your baseline (and occasionally less), the baseline is your average.  It is what gets finished automatically, without whipping yourself into a productive frenzy.

People who finish long projects don’t necessarily have more motivation.  But they do have a higher baseline.  The amount they do with zero motivation is high enough, that they don’t need to be pumped up every day to stay productive.  They can have moments of doubt or disinterest, and they still get work done.

Building a Baseline

Whenever I start a long project, I try to identify what the baseline needs to be to reach the end.  If I want to finish writing a book in four months, that might mean writing 1000 words a day.  When I had done work on software projects, I would break the entire program into stages and figure out the bare minimum that needed to be accomplished and still finish on schedule.

Once you’ve figured out what the baseline needs to be, you need to make that your default.  One way you can do this is establishing a regular level of output.  With continuous projects like blogging, this is easy.  All you need to do is figure out your posting levels and stick to a schedule.

With complex projects, you may want to define your output in terms of a weekly to-do list which equals roughly a certain amount of productive work.  Don’t define your output in terms of hours, that’s just a recipe to procrastinate while watching the clock tick away the day.

Forget Olympic feats of productivity.  Just try to get the baseline established.  Set it at something that is doable, even if your workweek isn’t perfect, but still large enough to accomplish something meaningful.

    Creating a Baseline Through Habits

Another way to build a baseline is by setting up habits that encourage productivity.  Waking up early, sticking to a regular work schedule, keeping a daily to-do list or giving up television are all examples of productive habits.  Installing habits can be an indirect way to create a baseline level of productivity.

You can set up a new habit by committing to changing it for thirty days.  I don’t suggest habit-building as a measure for individual projects, because the process can take too long.  If you need 4-5 habits to ensure a baseline, that requires at least 4-5 months of commitment.  However, you can use habits to create a general baseline you can use for every project you start.

Restarting the Motivation

With a solid baseline, constant motivation isn’t a requirement to finish projects.  But if you combine a high baseline with the ability to restart your motivation, it’s much easier to avoid the motivational traps you can fall into after months of work.

   Ignore the Carrot and Stick

People, as a rule, tend to be motivated by rewards and punishment.  I feel a lot better after hearing a glowing review of something I’ve written than reading a piece of hate mail.  But just because carrots and sticks are universally motivating, doesn’t mean they are the best way to stay motivated in long projects.

A better way to stay motivated is to create a clear picture of what you want the project to accomplish.  Create that clear picture, and write down the specifics.  Then, when you lose motivation, return to that starting point and re-examine the reasons you got started.  It’s better to use your long-term vision to motivate you forward than short-term feedback.  Feedback is fickle, so you need to anchor yourself to a long-range plan.

Some days I’ll get great feedback from this website.  Some days I’ll get criticism.  But I try not to think of either of those when staying motivated to write for this website and constantly improve.  Instead, I think of my long-term vision for living entirely off of a web-based business, reaching thousands of people and making something that inspires me.

The best way to stay motivated is not to try.  Build a baseline so work happens without constant willpower.  Then, regularly refresh your reasons for starting a project.  Those should be enough to overcome a temporary lack of encouragement.  Staying motivated for months and years isn’t easy, but if you’re smart you can avoid the crashes that plague most projects.


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9 Responses to “How to Stay Motivated in Long Projects”

  1. I’m in agreement that “rah-rah” motivational techniques aren’t a lasting strategy. I worry about trying to set too high of a baseline and burning out or not leaving enough free time to have fun and be creative. But I do think you’re onto something here in ditching the temporary for the long-lasting.

  2. Charles says:

    I’d like to see an article with tips to stay motivated in a repetitive manual job too.

  3. Avi Marcus says:

    Even with things that you love, sometimes normal anxiety causing situations come up, a ripe opportunity for procrastination.

    This reminds me of two posts:
    Make sure to accomplish something every day: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2004/10/timeboxing/
    and, “have powerful reasons”:
    http://zenhabits.net/2007/02/top-20-motivation-hacks-8/

  4. Swap says:

    Hey! I just found your blog, and i liked some of your points.

    I¨ll keep reading.

    Keep posting!

    See ya.

    Swap.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Charles,

    The closest thing I’ve written is my second article on arete. But I normally dislike repetitive manual work. It’s not part of the lifestyle I want and that’s why I’m working hard on projects to get established with my own business.

    Sara,

    There are always going to be trade-offs. There is a time for spontaneity and relaxing, but also a time for working hard on your goals. I don’t know of any magic formula that lets you have both at 100%. This article is about the working hard on your goals side of life.

  6. […] 59 warlock ftw – and other characters too). I made sure to pick things that would make for a nice baseline to assist my goals in the […]

  7. Etiketer says:

    Thanks! Really interesting. I wish i could spend my time on writing articles…just have no time for it.

  8. Laura Etta says:

    Scott,
    this article was a tremendous help! As a person living with ADHD my entire life, I have a long history of unfinished projects. I am currently working on one that is detrimental to my future, hence, I cannot afford to screw it up! This is the best “do-able” plan so far!

    Laura

  9. Morgan says:

    Hi Scott,

    I was just wondering how to stay motivated in order to finish restructuring my manuscript, and found your blog in my search. I enjoyed reading it. Haven’t heard about the baseline idea, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Has me thinking about things from a fresh perspective.

    Thanks for writing!
    Morgan

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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