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A note to myself
305 points by clubhi on May 11, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments
I wrote this a few weeks ago and I keep it open on my desktop at all times.


That would be cool. But you know what else would be cool? Actually finishing an idea that you started. How many times do you start to work on something and never finish it? EVERY time. You've been doing this your whole life. Somehow along the way you have learned many things and even became a master in a few different areas. But that is not what you want. You want to create. It's not really creating when you never finish.

An old friend sufferes from a very similar problem, and it's basically been following him around his whole life (sadly, I don't think he's gotten past it even in his mid-30s).

He gets _very_ excited about something. A new technology, a new idea, a new trade, whatever. He goes head-first into it. He becomes an expert (he's one of the smartest people I've ever met). He may even launch a company around it.

And then something doesn't work exactly as he thought it would. Maybe the trade isn't an profitable as he'd hoped. Maybe the customers didn't come banging down his door on day 1. Maybe the press didn't write about his new idea quite as glowingly as he'd hoped.

And then he just starts to deflate. And can't get out of his own way. The idea, the energy, the emotion, the passion - it just drains out of him like air from a burst balloon. He really, truly (I hope), wants to be successful, but once the balloon tears, he never gets that initial passion back, and ultimately he gives up and moves on to the next thing. I've seen it happen 4 or 5 times over the past 10 years, and it's truly disappointing because he has such totally unrealized potential.

The lesson to be learned is one that we all hear quite regularly as entrepreneurs -- it takes more than passion and drive and brains (and luck) to win, it takes more than anything a LOT of perseverance and ability to slog through those tears in the balloon.

Re: the last paragraph ("The lesson to be..."). Is it really the lesson you can learn? Doesn't this friend of yours know this? Didn't he actively try to persevere, to see how he works and what makes him stop and what could possibly keep him going?

To me it sounds more like description of a problem (i.e. just restating it). "A person starts many things but drops them before finishing. In other words, that person lacks perseverance."

A lesson to me would be something like... a) when you feel your passion for something going up, do X, b) when you have just started doing something new, do Y to ensure you don't drop it tomorrow, etc.

Have you perhaps seen these kinds of 'solutions' or approaches? (not just restating the essence of the problem, but actually attempting to solve it from the standpoint of the person _with_ the problem :) I think more than a couple people could benefit from this :)

Have you considered seriously talking to your friend about this?

The single biggest mental hack I have for getting around this is this.

Just write it down.

As soon as I write it down and stick it on a list of product ideas it's out of my head and I can focus again. As a bonus you've got a nice list 'o' stuff that you can go poke through whenever you get some spare tuits.

At the moment I have (pause to look at trello) 57 items on the company "Product Ideas" backlog. Two have come off and are being actively developed. The rest - I rarely think about.

I feel like once I write something down in a list it will dissappear into the 'backlog' forever.

I can see why you would think that, but then again, what's the other alternative? You either have time/resources to do it now, or you don't. As far as I can tell, you really have three choice: you can do it, forget it, or write it down. If you write it down, at least there's a fighting chance you'll revisit the idea when you do have time/resources.

Also, empirical observation shows me that, in my own case at least, things that are put on lists do sometimes get done eventually. I'm always obsessively making lists and writing down notes about possible new features for Quoddy, and over time I find that I do keep working further and further down the list... to the point that now I'm starting on stuff that was originally labelled "Speculative / TODO: Sometime Before The Heat Death Of The Universe".

Well, yeah, but if you start building it and get stuck halfway and give it up, it's still going to be stuck in backlog forever, only now you've wasted a few days on it.

Have you TRIED it? You can try things like a Kanban (Trello is awesome) to roll work forward out of your backlog. Or a to-do list.

But the simple fact is, you will always have more work to do than you have bandwidth to do it, if you're a remotely interesting person. So sure, some things will "disappear". That's okay. If they DON'T disappear, other things won't get done.

I thought that was kinda the point. Get it out of your head so you can continue focusing on your current project.

That's one of the central ideas behind Getting Things Done (GTD): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done

Getting things written down and out of my head definitely helps me to focus.

>Just write it down.

Cannot agree more. If you don't write it down, you will forget it. Trying to remember a feature, that you knew was good, but cannot remember now because you didn't write it down, can be frustrating.

I like that this note about discipline has itself become a distraction. To be true to the note would have meant finishing an idea in progress, rather than browsing to HN and posting.

Well, unless OP thought it was useful enough to share.

He said it was a few weeks ago. Maybe he finished his work before posting this to HN.

You might be too hard on yourself.

It is ok to start many things. Do not think you have to finish something just because you started it. That is a very heavy burden and will discourage you from starting new things.

Sometimes, it is valuable to reflect on things you have accomplished, and avoid judging yourself when things don't work out as planned.

It still helps to get into the mindset of starting and finishing. Some things are meant to be weekend projects that are abandoned shortly after. Other things are meant to be products, with a few dollops of polish.

I had a really hard time finishing projects when I was younger. One day my college advisor said, "If you never finish your own projects, you'll work for someone else for the rest of your life." Of course, working for someone else isn't always a negative, but you get the gist...

I have some incredibly talented friends who operate this way. The trick? Team up with some MBAs. Do the hard stuff, design a contract that gives you trickle revenue, and pass it off to them when it gets boring. It's completely fine to be this kind of person if it makes you happy, and with the right structure you can be wildly profitable "just doing the hard 50%".

I could have written this up to the week I launched Bingo Card Creator, after years of frustration regarding never taking anything to completion. The best cure for not shipping is shipping.



It took me a while to figure out how to use Work Flowy in a way that will help me. Here's what it's become for me:

1. A To Do list separated by due today (or this week), due this month, due this quarter, due this year. Some stuff winds up on multiple lists (e.g. grad school is on this quarter and this year to keep it in my mind).

2. A few shopping list templates with basic items. I don't ever update them, but when I get to the store, I look and make sure to get whatever I know I don't have (the list has stuff like eggs, meat, vegtables, fruit. It's extremely vague, but helps me not miss a section).

3. Random notes that I've written down and may or may not ever go back to. I used to have a collection of these on my computer in assorted Doc files (and some on google drive) and I never knew where the one I wanted was). I read through my whole workflowy every month or so and get rid of what doesn't belong anymore. A lot of times, though, I am reminded of something I wrote down months ago and can now think of it again.

4. A few small projects that I'm working on broken into steps to make the whole project seem less daunting. Currently have a bathroom remodel on there (I used to do construction, so this really is a small project for me) with tasks like: tile, plumbing, electric and sub sections for what I need to pick up from Home Depot.

It's not perfect, but the apps that are currently out there never worked for me (Orchesta, Clearly, Remember the Milk, etc.)

Is this a parody? Not to be cynical, but I'm curious how a nested to-do list can have such an impact that it prompts people to say "this made me cry."

For some reason there's an endless supply of people who eventually have the thought, "I should make a to-do-list app."

Guilty! I think it's an entrepreneurial rite of passage or something.

Building a to-do app is to entrepreneurs what writing a text editor is to devs

It's really not.

Someone should really make a to-do-list-app framework to make building to-do-list-apps more efficient. Think of the amount of time that's been wasted making to-do-list-apps.

Its a common notion, ( never really tried probably should ) once you list down all the things down in form of a organised list the chaos in your mind created by so many things just settles down.

Planning gets simple and you tend to do things the better way, your mind which was just filled with things about this and that is now ready to do something about those things.

Of course its still odd to link someone to just a to-do list manager instead someone should explain what should be done with that tool.

I actually like it :) Incredibly simple.

You don't ever really finish anything, you just put it out in the world. I'd be happy if 10% of the things I create were publicly launched.

That's what discipline is all about. Creating a plan, having goals with milestones, checklists, schedule, etc. It's hard work and sometimes tedious, but mostly rewarding, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment and pride. It increases your level of confidence in what you can accomplish, it makes you better at overcoming problems.

Having ideas is a natural impulse, following through requires discipline and hard work.

Someone said "genius is as common as dust".

Nassim Taleb said something like "it's not about having ideas, it's about learning how to manage your ideas". I might be slightly off.

Anyhow, good initiative.

Finishing isn't always everything. I've learned A LOT more from projects I started and never finished. Those things I've learned helped me in the projects I actually did finish.

These days working in higher ed I complete a lot of projects at my day job, but I start a lot that I never finish on my own time. To me, personally, it is more rewarding when I learn something new, come up with something that I think is cool, whether the project gets finished or not.

Finished is better than perfect, every time.

I say this constantly to creative people who struggle with your problem. I've solved it myself by making "finished" a hard goal and habit, and leaving a trail of completed projects behind me.

Here's the thing... smart, creative people generate ideas at an appalling rate. Each new idea is a temptation. The trick is to sort through them, learn to ignore ideas that don't REALLY grab you. Go back and work on the existing ideas, the ones that have already grabbed you. Keep working on them even when they're frustrating or boring or seem impossible.

Next trick... have an exit strategy. Have a clearly defined "done" point. You won't finish if you don't know what "finished" means.

Next trick... deadlines. Set deadlines for interim goals, and interim goals small enough to feel reachable. Learn from Agile development techniques. You can do Agile even as a one-person shop.

My problem is that all of my ideas are too big. It seems that every new idea I think of -- well, if I kept going with it and finished it to the extent that it matches my idea, it would take a year or two. I don't have two years to waste on an idea that may or may not help me. Maybe that's sad but it's real lifeā„¢.

The only problem with unfinished projects is that they leave you incomplete. When a project is complete, you get a sense of completion in your mind. Otherwise, it becomes a dangling thread of thoughts in the mind. It keeps taking space and mental cycles (even if it is in the subconcious). And that leaves little room for exploring new ideas and executing them. The mental space starts looking cluttered.

At the same time, there is this problem of when to call a project finished (or completed). As such, everything in this world is ever changing and ever evolving. And that means calling a project complete becomes more of a mental thing than a well defined state of the project itself. For example, if I start working on a movie now, I may feel complete by making the movie, or by making sure that it is seen by as many people as possible, or by creating a sequel that's even better than the first movie etc etc. In fact, in this example, the project goes through multiple well defined stages but there are projects where there are no well defined stages. Things like blog, business don't have well defined stages. There is nothing discreet in their progress. There are jumps but it is still a continum which goes on and on and on.

When I look back, I feel biking is one project I finished. I wanted to own a bike and travel around since college days. I bought one when I got into a job. I travelled to many places. And then during one trip, I felt complete from inside. I felt that I had done as much biking as I wanted to do. I could have done more; in fact, I did travel to more places after that. But there was no urge to hit the highway on bike anymore. Same thing happened with photography. I wanted to do photography. I bought a camera, shot many pictures and then eventually, I stopped clicking photographs because I started enjoying the moments better without a camera.

So, while it is important to complete projects, completion itself is a state of mind. Which makes it difficult to complete a project with the "intention to complete it". Because completion is not "about the project", it's about how "you relate to the project".

Closes HN and continues coding

Sadly, I know a lot of hackers that suffer from not finishing. If there is one thing I've learned from working many years as a PM, even average ideas can become big with a team that executes well and know how to finish. It's what separates great entrepreneurs.

'PM' usually denotes 'Prime Minister'. I suspect this is not your actual occupation. Furthermore, great entrepreneurs should be separated.

PM usually means "post meridian", far more often than it means "prime minister". You have to work out what an abbreviation means in context.

It can mean "project manager" (as georgemcbay said) or "product manager" (which is different from project manager, but they sometimes look similar from the perspective of a programmer). It's pretty clear from context that one of these was more likely than "prime minister".

If you work in tech in the USA, 'PM' usually denotes 'Project Manager'.

Well, thats a demotion, isn't it?

What if short, intense bursts of high-quality work is just a different way to create? Like consultants, people can come in for days/weeks/months(years?), give their best, move the product further and then move on to the next thing. Is that possible?

Something that worked for me: in January I decided that 2013 will be the year of finishing things. I made a list of everything unfinished, and at this point I'm down 3, with 3rd thing just finished 2 days ago. Feels great.

Finishing things impossible. When do you know it's finished? When it's dead? It's not bad to start something and table it. The amount of time "that thing" comes back to you is probably the best filter for you get it moving. If it does not come back to you, it probably means it's not important to you, or not important to anyone else. Just use pattern recognition to spend the right amount of time on the right idea.

I'd love to convince you to beemind projects that you want to force yourself to see to fruition. http://beeminder.com (I'm a co-founder)

If I'm lucky others will chime in to back me up that it's astoundingly effective for exactly the psychology you describe. We can unambiguously say that Beeminder itself wouldn't have survived without beeminding it. :)

Looks like an interesting project; suggestion: reshoot your intro video without making Bethany laugh while she's explaining how the site works - I found it very distracting and thus hard to take her seriously. If she's just a giggler by nature then maybe find someone else to do the presentation :-)

Ha, I think you're right, and thanks for that feedback! We just hate doing videos and a/b tests say that that beats the pants off the alternative of a nice, professional static image. So we're going with what we got for now.

And, yes, that's me making her laugh. I was trying hard to get her to conceal how much she hates making videos! :)

But let's save this stuff for our next "Show HN". For this thread I'm really eager to hear thoughts on whether self-tracking and commitment devices are a good approach to the OP's problem.

What works for me is telling other people about my project so there is some sort of social pressure to finish it. Also: spend some money on it. For example, hire a designer to create some nice logos for your app. As soon as you've spent some money on it, you'll have another trigger to finish the project, because it would be a waste of money if you don't.

Spot on! I kept an idea to myself for a couple years and finally committed to it by telling people about it. And not just sharing but actually saying this is my next "job." Then I rented a desk and hired a designer and "the pressure" has made me happier than any other professional time in my life. I'm not finished but I have momentum...

Sounds familiar :-) but sometimes quitting is the right thing to do. Found this interesting on this topic: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/09/30/new-freakonomics-radi...

Reminds me The Dip by Seth Godin.

Always wanted to build something. Tried my hand at a few projects. Worked at it for 3 years, odd jobs kept the money flowing. Recently took up a corporate job. Signed the company contract which takes away my right to work on anything else(profitable or non profitable).

Still want to build. Bidding my time.

Ask for an out. Explain that it's how you keep your skills up to date, and that it lets you be a more productive and effective employee. In the past I've had this clause in my contracts and had them take it out. They did.

Seems like it could be a long shot in large organizations. The managers close enough to you to be on your side don't have enough clout to override HR responding with "we don't make changes to employee contracts", and the ones who do aren't in touch with the craft enough to understand why you'd want such an exception.

I have successfully gotten a clause like this changed or adjusted in a large corporation twice. Both times I signed first, then raised an issue in an email which was intended to be forwarded to the lawyers. My email included specific, detailed objections ("as written, this means that the company owns the bedtime stories I make up for my children") and proposed alternate language ("We could, for instance, replace the clause 'all intellectual property' with 'all intellectual property related to the company's business or produced using company resources'.").

In one case, an international company with a couple-thousand employees in the US, the company lawyers never got back to me, but the next year the contract was changed and it included a variation of my original proposed language. In the other case, a US company with tens of thousands of employees, the company lawyers got back to me immediately with a statement about how they intended the existing language to be interpreted (and this addressed my concerns).

I can't promise you will get the same results, but I thought it was worth sharing my anecdotes.

That was the first objection they raised. I pointed out gramatical issues and other flaws in the contract that made them have to send it back to the lawyer anyways, and it came back w/o that clause.

In some states, like CA I believe, this might be in your contract, but if you live within the right constraints (e.g. use your own equipment, on your own time, away from your employers facilities, not competing with the employer), then your work is is your own. Of course you should verify with a lawyer if you're really going to pursue anything serious or if your side hobby suddenly promises to become profitable..

Nitpick PS: I think you meant "bide"

Don't you mean 'biding my time'? Anyway, good luck!

I have seen those too. Do people really enforce these?

I would just do my own stuff anyway and just not tell the employer. Fuck whoever says I can't work on my own stuff in my free time.

The problem is, if you manage to create the next Facebook, your former employer's lawyers might come up with a claim that your company is based on IP they own...

How can anyone tell when I started working on my project?

By looking at your github logs perhaps?

I am amazed why is it even a thing? How can employers own what you do in your spare time? (Esp. if it is in an unrelated field.)

IMHO, sometimes we end working on things before the original concept of finished is achieved because those hacks are subconsciously self-serving and derive more personal-value in understanding everything about finishing than what we consciously believe the value of finishing is.

I can't be the only one who had The Fresh Beat Band pop into their head after reading the first couple sentences, can I?

Seriously, though. I have something similar taped to my monitor. A quote from @rands (I believe) that goes:

"You'll get more done when you stop thinking someone else is in charge."

Whenever I've tried leaving an insightful note for myself like this, over time it seems to completely lose its meaning. Definitely never as profound as when you read it the first couple times.

Perhaps that would make a great app. Periodic anecdotes from yourself. /me checks the app store

Great idea. Stop whatever you are doing and work on that!

Mentorships, apprenticeships, life coaches, business coaches

All therapy in different disguises.

Inner demons are almost always bad for us. I am finding that my business problems mostly reflect personal issues I have not solved - oddly it makes approaching therapy much easier

Nice. I find that keeping a little ledger on top of your desk and writing down every idea that pops in your head is also a very good habit. And you often realize "some great idea you had wasn't that great at all" (pg).

Happens to me all the time, new ideas seem more appealing, perhaps easier to implement, and more profitable. so why not move on ?

I would modify this note to be "Actually finish an MVP then move on"

Finishing stuff is nice, it took me awhile but i finally got there. The new problem i have is: now that i finished a project, how do i get people to know about/use it?

You show it to people who might want to use it!

Sometimes not continuing is the correct way to finish a project. Only keep working on the gems. Fail early, fail fast, fail cheap.

This is a bit philosophical: how would you know that you're finished, and that it's time to move on?

You know it's finished when you are dead. (A bit rough interpretation of Sartre?)

I loved this. Will be adding it to my desktop too. Fits like a glove actually.

Just Finish Everything. Golden advice.


Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is the only thing that matters.

Ideas that seem good on the surface are a dime a dozen. More refined and more specific ideas aren't. However, execution is needed to iron out and refine even great ideas, it's an interplay.

i've been working on the same cool idea for the past year. the cool bit is, its a cool idea that once i'm finished will make it easier to play with the other cool ideas i have :)

what is finishing something but a mere delusion.


From the website's testimonials: "Prediction: @WorkFlowy and @Quora will each revolutionise significant parts of education in the next 5 years."


Because it's clearly going to... I tell you downvoters what: ONE year from today, let's look back on this thread and talk about where WF and Quora are going, if they're even still alive. I'll be here.

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