Wrapping Your Head Around the Project

Starting and stopping a project is suicide. Ideally we could dive in to a project for 50 hours and just get the thing done. Unfortunately, our bodies aren’t made for that kind of thing. Unless you’re a cyborg, you’re limited by:

  • focus
  • sleep
  • limbs getting tired or restless
  • and did I say focus?

In college I’d occasionally stay up all night to write a paper I’d procrastinated on. The results were never, ever good. These nocturnal writing sessions produced the same quality of writing as a monkey plunking on the keyboard. And my grades confirmed my suspicions.

Yet there is one aspect of just plowing through a project that I do find helpful: you don’t have to keep figuring out where you left off. For example: I’m in the middle of a very big project. Unfortunately, when I try to pick up where I stopped working the previous day, I have a hard time getting back into the proper frame of mind. I can spend up to 30 minutes reverse engineering what it was exactly that I was working on the day before.

Gaps in our work are hard to come back from. Especially if you’re doing something that requires intense creativity. You have to get back into the mindset of the project. You have to wrap your head around the entire concept, to really be able to continue where you left the project at.

I’ve found that the only way to really wrap my head around something is to force myself back into the “zone”, so to speak. If it’s writing, I’ll re-read everything I’ve written, so as to recapture that mindset. If it’s programming, then I’ll have to go look at SVN commits, or just start digging around the code. Anything to get my mind back into the frame of the task at hand.

Once I finally wrap my head around the project, it’s not hard to get back into gear. It’s the process of climbing back up to the previous ledge and pushing forward that is a tad difficult.

There are plenty of techniques to help you remember where you left off in a project. Here are a couple that I use that never fail me:

  • If I know I’m going to be revisiting the project quickly, I leave open all tools, documents, etc., so it’s like a visual snapshot
  • I take detailed notes as to what I was thinking, feeling and doing when I stopped working

These techniques are simple, but they take a while to get used to. If you can become more mindful of what you’re working on, odds are you’ll get into the flow easier and quicker.

What do you guys use to get back into the continuity of the project?

Photo by coral11.

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  • Ricky C February 10, 2009, 4:32 pm

    I used to write a simple note in my MS word writing about my to-do-a list for my project, then i started a research over the net, finding the resource and image, bookmark it and write a simple note to every site page that i visited and in the next day, i try to figure it out how i can arrange the list that i gathered into an outstanding paper. And yes i sometimes leave my windows open because i just feel lazy to re-opened the application.

  • Ricky C February 10, 2009, 11:32 am

    I used to write a simple note in my MS word writing about my to-do-a list for my project, then i started a research over the net, finding the resource and image, bookmark it and write a simple note to every site page that i visited and in the next day, i try to figure it out how i can arrange the list that i gathered into an outstanding paper. And yes i sometimes leave my windows open because i just feel lazy to re-opened the application.

  • Jay Daverth February 2, 2009, 4:45 am

    Before I start a new project, I find an album in my collection that I haven't listened to in a while. Then I set it to 'repeat' and that remains the constant background throughout. That way, as soon as I hear it I am back in the zone again. Others may find this annoying, but for ADD-types like me, I just tune it out anyway, so it's more of an associational tactic to get me started.

    Fair warning, for extended projects, there are now quite a few albums that I simply cannot listen to anymore without feeling stressed and agitated!

  • Sangrail January 29, 2009, 10:34 am

    Mark Forster suggests, when stopping a task, to not get to a good 'break point' but to leave it incomplete. Eg if writing, leave the last sentence unfinished.

    That seems to make it more likely that you keep turning over the project in the back of your head, because you know it's not 'finished', and it gives you an easy point to pick up the project from.

    When I've tried it, I think finishing the sentence was a bit more awkward, as I wasn't on a roll like I was when I left it, so it didn't sound as good, but I think I did get started again quicker, so it did work in that respect. And I can just go over the start/stop point while reviewing/editing anyway.

  • Ryan Biddulph January 25, 2009, 6:39 pm

    Hi, Nice post. I plow through projects myself, finish them in one shot. If anything, I go back to it revise the complete work.

    Ryan

  • Miguel de Luis January 15, 2009, 8:00 am

    what I do is a sort of motivational trick, I remember how it felt when I was in the zone, writing as if possessed.

  • Melissa January 15, 2009, 7:51 am

    I definitely try to leave everything open, all my windows and webpages I was viewing. I also re-read my writing, which often sparks new ideas in addition to helping me see where I may have been going astray. One little secret trick I use is to listen to a creativity brain wave cd from Holosync. If I always listen to that when I'm writing then my mind gets programmed to jump into that creative state of mind as soon as it hears the music.

    Side note, I went to college with a guy who always studied for exams in the pub. So right before he went to the exam he'd go chug a beer so he could get back into the state of mind he was in while studying!!!! What dedication :-)

    • Glen Stansberry January 15, 2009, 9:47 am

      Hah! If only we were that dedicated to our projects ;)

  • Jamerson January 15, 2009, 6:28 am

    I'm a studant of mechanical eng. (mechanical projects) and when I have to stop working on my project for some reason – sometimes I have to change a structure or component… – simply I take a look at my notes 'cause everytime I change something I write it down in order I don't have to ask myself “why did I change that?

    Great post! and very interesting.

  • Rob January 15, 2009, 3:07 am

    Great post! I think that continuously and successfully completing projects needs a better mindset from most people. As Roosevelt said, “Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds”. My top 9 ways to help you think differently and achive your project aims and goals are:

    1. Beware of boundaries and labels
    2. Be proactive
    3. Treat people as equals
    4. Listen to criticism
    5. Stretch yourself
    6. Build the people around you
    7. Publicly appreciate others
    8. Reflect
    9. Focus, focus, focus

    Explinations behind each of these points appear on my blog.

  • Devan January 14, 2009, 11:13 pm

    Yes, I find that leaving screens open etc. on my laptop helps tremendously, as I can figuratively 'strap myself back in the cockpit' and have everything ready to go. This includes multiple editor windows, browser sessions, bug tracking tools etc.

    I know many people will go 'yoikes – you leave your editor window OPEN, with real CODE sitting there?' but yes the time and distraction of reopening everything from all over my hard drive and network is totally alleviated.

    I find it so much easier to re-absorb the mental state I was in when I left off this way.

    • Glen Stansberry January 14, 2009, 11:48 pm

      I love your phrase 'strap myself back in the cockpit'. Priceless ;)

  • kazari January 14, 2009, 8:37 pm

    At work, I leave my notebook open, with a quick note of where I'm up to, on top of my keyboard. This way, when I get to my desk in the morning, it's right there. I see it, I remember – and I haven't even logged in yet. So even if I do decide to check my email first, I know exactly where to start when I do settle in.