For better or worse, I seem to be one of those people that ends up committing to long-term projects. It isn’t a conscious choice, and honestly, I often want to bang my head against the wall when I realise that I’ve hardly completed any of the monstrously long tasks I’ve taken on over the years. However, I am conscious that there is something to be said for tenacity, ambition and the stick-to-it attitude that I have cultivated (again, for better or worse). So, if you’re thinking of writing a book, starting a course or adopting any sort of drawn-out, unstraightforward venture, I invite you to look to this honest account of the joys and woes of long-term projects, before you dive into those deep waters.
High commitment, high reward
Let’s start with the good news. Long-term projects can be highly rewarding. If you can push through the long uphill struggle and eventually pass the finish line of an important goal or milestone, you will get a great sense of accomplishment. More than that, you will have likely developed meaningful skills, experience and resilience in whatever area your long-term commitment centred around.
For me, the four years I spent doing my psychology degree were brutally challenging, and therefore extremely rewarding. I came out the other side with advanced abilities in critical thinking, perseverance and of course, firm foundations in psychological theory, practice and skill. My brain felt as if it had been pulled out from all four corners (I know brains don’t have corners but that’s what it felt like) to its absolute limits of intelligence and energy. I read back on my essays now and marvel at how switched on and smart I was. I’ve never been pushed so hard – physically, mentally or emotionally. And now, in the workplace, presentations, tasks and reports feel manageable and hardly touch me in terms of stress.
In sum, I have reaped the benefits of that particular long-term project.
There’s always something to come back to
Life is horribly changeable, and sometimes an enduring commitment, no matter how gruesome, can act of something as a rock in your life. I felt like a lost child after my degree was done, as I had lost the thing that had always been there to return my attention to during each and every personal crisis that affected me during the four years.
This blog has been a lovely long-term project, as I have had a constant avenue to share my thoughts and musings. I can come back to it and I can watch each little ditty add up to an interesting picture of the emotional and physical places I’ve been in at every stage of my life.
Responsibility equals respect
Another benefit of long-term commitments is that people respect them. In a world where concentration spans are shrinking and there is this constant background rhetoric of “get rich quick”, hustle culture and having it all, I have found that people have a lot of admiration for those who can steadily make their way through one bulky accomplishment at a time without getting distracted by shiny quick wins.
When I tell friends and acquaintances that I have written a novel, they are amazed. They tell me about their book ideas, and how they wish they had the time to write. They respect what I have done, even though I’m still unpublished.
The sunk cost of time
Despite people’s lovely admiration of the fact I have written a book, I do get frustrated when they talk about time, their lack of it and therefore the assumption that I “had time” to write this book. Time does not fall out of the sky. I made time to write my book, when I wrote it. And there were months and months when I didn’t make the time and didn’t write a word. Almost all writers cannot afford to be full-time authors and the fact is that nobody has time to write. This is exemplified by the fact that we had a global quarantine, with many people finding unsolicited time on their hands and, although a minority will have managed to accomplish goals they had been waiting for time to do, an overwhelming majority probably didn’t do so in that very stressful period.
Nevertheless, I have given time to this book. I started in 2016 and finished the first draft within two years. And now, after another two years, I am still editing it. I want to get it published, which will take at least a year from the point where a publisher accepts it. Before that, I have to chase editors and agents and beg them to represent me. There will be many more revisions, queries and crucially hours, before this project is “done”. And if nobody thinks my book will sell – that’s it. I will never get that time back. I try not to see it in that way, because I did enjoy writing the book and learned immense amounts about myself and about writing in the process. But in a cost sense – both financially and in terms of time – this will be a sunk cost if I don’t reach my publishing goals.
It’s just something to think about before you start a creative project. Are you doing it for the money? If so, don’t bother.
No longer feeling it
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – motivation is fickle and cannot be depended upon. Commitment is the crux of the matter, and it will be what sees you through the days where you’re uninspired, exhausted, or distracted. Ultimately, you must accept that you will not enjoy every minute of working on your project. You may even hate a significant portion of it.
I’ve been working on a study paper about cognitive-behavioural therapy for anxiety for four years, and I can’t stand the sight of the thing at this point. It took me year to gather the grains of secondary data from disparate national healthcare databases, another year to analyse and write up, another year to edit and align with co-author’s comments…and now I’ve submitted the beast to a journal. But I have been asked to revise and resubmit, which means trawling through statistics and literature and all that jazz yet again. This is very, very tedious and the whole project has derived me approximately no joy since I found the initial significant results over two years ago. But it has to be done, because these are important findings and I’m obliged to finish what I started.
Essentially, there’s the idea, which might take all of two days to fully form, and then there’s the work, which takes multiple years. You should ask yourself: Am I up to this? Do I have the endurance? Am I prepared to suffer?
It’s easy to underestimate how much humans are driven by finishing things. You know that little buzz of satisfaction you get when you tick something off on a to-do list? That’s dopamine, and that’s real.
Long-term projects are not about dopamine, or quick wins, or pleasure. They are hopefully (but not necessarily) about meaning and fulfilment. This is not a buzz. And sometimes, your pieces will sit unfinished or untouched for periods of time – perhaps forever if you don’t make yourself revisit them. They will feel like they are weighing on you or dragging you down or getting the way of the other cool new ideas that you have. You will want to throw them aside, because the lack of closure or completion is driving you crazy – like when your highly edited manuscript gets sent back to you with major revisions on every line.
I’ve finished very few of my independent projects, and honestly am starting to lose hope that they will ever take off. It takes real stern self-talk now to stick with it and I think it’s important to ask yourself whether you wouldn’t rather take on a poem (rather than a novel), an evening class (rather than a degree) or a walk (rather than a three peaks mountain-climbing challenge). These things are far easier to tick off.
How to survive your long-term commitment
If you are anything like me, you have probably ignored all my attempts to put you off whatever massive commitment you are undertaking. In which case, you leave me no choice but to give you some advice on the things I’ve found helpful in coping with so many enduring commitments.
Start with enjoyment
This might seem obvious, but please pick a project you actually care about in the first place. I know so many people who started degrees in subjects that they at the very best were only half-interested in and at the very worst actively hated. Then they would either eventually drop out or suffer through a painful three years of boredom for a piece of paper they never used. It’s just not worth it, people. Do things that mean something to you. That you are invested in. It’s good to be challenged but don’t back yourself up into an uninspired corner with a project you can’t stand.
Break it down
Every big goal has sub-steps, and these can usually be broken into even smaller bite-size chunks. I find it less terrifying to think about the end product. I tell myself: I’m not writing a book – I’m writing a chapter, a line, a word. Taking things one step at a time also helps with any obsession I have over having a perfect final piece. Perfectionism kills momentum and will paralyse you – preventing you from marching forward in the way that you need to in order to reach big goals. So, make it small, and don’t think to hard!
Even better, it can help to have a project that doesn’t necessarily have a finish. Fitness, for example, is a lifelong commitment. I’ve been doing yoga for over five years now. I’ve had times where I haven’t done it, but it’s something I’ve always come back to, and I get a great sense of satisfaction from that. Always striving for an “end” can feel quite defeating at times, so I would recommend having lasting, wholesome hobbies that you can revisit.
They always say you should buddy up on goals, but I can never normally find anyone who is willing to do this, and, in any case, I’m a bit too independent. However, what I do need is someone I can go and rant to after a long day of getting nowhere with whatever I’m working on. And if I’m problem-solving, I have to talk it through.
So, don’t get shy about mulling things over with a friend (preferably several friends so you don’t drive that one person mad), especially if you’re an extrovert and can’t stay in your head with your work all the time.
Stay excited (fresh perspectives)
I’ve warned you about the death of motivation on long-term projects. But there are ways to relight the fire. To be honest, I thank the earth for YouTube and Spotify. Just hearing someone chat away about writing or psychology or fitness can really help me get a new hot take on what I’m doing, or simply give me a little push of inspiration.
Leave it alone
Sometimes, you’ve just got to leave projects alone for a bit. Maybe one project simply does not fit into your life right now, or maybe you’re just not in the head space to do it well. It happens, and it’s important to not fight yourself all the time.
You don’t have to be a waste of space when you’re taking a “hiatus”. Go accomplish something smaller and easier to tick off. Do some life admin. Spend time with your loved ones. Whatever you were working on may have been important, but it was not the centre of your world. You are more than what you accomplish (or don’t).
On that note, I’ll end this with my favourite quote: you are a human being, not a human doing.
It’s good to have goals, but they should add to your life, not take away from it. It comes back to the enjoyment point; making your projects more about the process than the end result is a far more sustainable way of doing things. That’s why I reckon I’ll steer clear of huge statistical reports and stick to writing and yoga going forward. And I’m still thinking about that PhD…
I hope this was remotely helpful. Remember to have fun out there and I’ll see you on the next one.