If you don’t finish your work then you’re just busy, not productive

Get some things checked off the list.
Get some things checked off the list.
Image: Unsplash/Glenn Carstens-Peters
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One of the biggest realizations I’ve come to as part of my PhD, is how little people care about how I spend my time, they only care about what I am able to deliver. Yet in order to deliver, you need to finish. I was recently reading an article on this topic, and I think the advice can be best summed up as:

If you’re always starting interesting projects and not finishing, then no matter how hard you work, you’re just busy, not productive.

I find this message extremely compelling, because I frequently find myself starting new programming projects in my spare time. In a lot of ways they are not a waste—I definitely learn a lot from these projects and gain a new skill. Yet at the same time, because I move on to something else that interests me before I can finish my current side-projects, when I tell people about these projects, all I can say is, “This was an interesting project that I learned a lot from.”

I say this instead of saying:

This was something really awesome I spent my spare time building. I learned a lot along the way, and you can see the tangible results of my project right now.

Which is more impressive?

I used to try and use the Pomodoro Technique to track my time working on different projects, but it just resulted in me focusing on how much time I was working, not on getting things done. Under that system, things like polishing and refactoring my code (which can be a valuable use of your time, but I would frequently use them to procrastinate), counted equally towards my goals for the day, even if I wasn’t actually making any real progress.

Think about it—do you actually care if it took me an hour or a year to write this post? No! You only care about the fact that you are (hopefully) finding this an interesting read. Yet if I wrote 99% of this article, then allowed it to remain an unpublished draft, then I might as well have never written it in the first place. The same applies to the projects we work on: even if you dedicate many hours to a task and it’s 80% of the way there, if you never finish then no one will care.

Now I have written out a list of every one of my projects, and broken them down into steps I can attack piece-by-piece, and I focus on making sure that every day I cross-off at least one item, so I’m getting closer to moving a project from my to-do list, and into my finished list.

New projects

I am terrible at saying no to people when they suggest new projects (especially when that person is myself). I get genuinely excited about new ideas and opportunities, and it can be flattering when someone approaches you to be involved in a new project. I’m slowly starting to realize that the best strategy to deal with these situations is to ask yourself:

What is the minimal state of completion this project needs to reach for me to consider it a success and having been worth my time? If I cannot realistically commit to the amount of time required to bring the project to that state, am I better off putting my energy into finishing projects that I am currently working on?

Taking on a project that you do not have the time to finish is going to burn more bridges than telling people you don’t have the time to contribute.

Worst of all, you’ll gain a reputation for being someone who can’t deliver.

For me, my plan for 2017 is to finish. I have a list of projects that every day I am whittling down, and I intend to follow up this post at the end of the year with a list of my projects that are finally complete.

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