Seven Index Cards and Two Post-It Notes
There are seven index cards and two Post-It Notes on my desk, representing nine different abandoned ideas. Every few hours, I look at them. I shuffle them a bit, straighten the top ones, and then straighten the bottom ones. The seventh index card ends up a bit to the side, so I shift the cards around, though they are now in the way of my elbow so I pick them up, stack them together, and move them.
I look back at my email. I work on the thing I was working on. I forget the index cards. For a bit.
For the past few months, I’ve been sitting on a handful of unfinished projects. Which means, for the past few months, I’ve been thinking about a handful of unfinished projects. The problem, as one might expect, is that thinking about unfinished projects doesn’t actually provide any progress to unfinished projects.
It just, you know, makes things dumb.
Super dumb. Like, lays in bed at night struggling to relax but NOPE you actually have other things to think about BUT you can’t think about them BECAUSE you’re too tired to do anything but read kinds of dumb.
This is my mind, and I suspect it’s the mind of many like me — completely afraid that an idea might be lost. That if we don’t work on something until completion, it’s sitting in a weird purgatory, unloved and forgotten, breathing labored by its stretched completion date. So I write things down on little index cards.
The index cards and post-it notes are different than, say, a blank notebook, where an idea is jotted down, and then a page is flipped. It’s safe under the covers. But these index cards are … here. They’re not tied to any organizational scheme; they’re loose and important because they reflect something that needs to be done right now.
One of the abandoned index cards is a sketch for a new site. The design is perfect, because it is sketched; it doesn’t constrain to real life. It will never worry about heading levels or image spacing, or about weird legacy code from 2005 from a WordPress template that no longer exists except on an old server I can’t bear to clean up.
It is the leader of the index cards, because it is the most important index card. But it’s already redundant. It represents a failed idea that has since been eclipsed by a better one. It is a ghost. It is an artifact.
It still sits on my desk, despite the project being nearly completed. I’ll throw it away one of these days. I guess. Until then, it’s got to stay, because god forbid I ever tie a bow on anything.
A Management Style
Discussions about unfinished projects always end up tied to the world of project and expectation management, where an unfinished project becomes less of a dragging concern and more a signature of failure. “If your project isn’t getting finished, maybe it was never worth doing,” and all of that.
This path is helpful, because it allows us to give up on things without any kind of emotional baggage. We can wipe away mistakes and shift position without any kind of guilt. This is the golden rule of the tech industry, and understanding its allure is what makes people more likely to try new things: the freedom to fail unlocks the freedom to create.
And that’s fine.
But that path can also be harmful, because the guilt of dropping a project isn’t always wiped away by the glow of innovation. Sometimes, a project — and by project, I mean everything from writing an article to creating a website to getting your home organized — is deeply rooted in self-worth or comfort. Sometimes we fight to create things because they provide in a way that a traditional project might not. They are tied to our identity.
By failing and moving on, we’re not just saying, “Nice try, we’ll get them next time.” We’re saying, “This part of me isn’t worth supporting.”
Which is why I’ve always been wary of the build fast, break often model of project management. I understand its utility when it comes to building a social media application, but I don’t think we can apply app logic to the projects in our lives. In our real lives. I think some things require more planning, more understanding, better expectations. I think when we make something with our heart, we are going to get tied to it in a way that can lead to a wholesale slaughter in the event of failure.
Every day has some successes and failures. That’s, like, how days work. The successes might be big or small: a project completed, or some teeth brushed. But there’s at least one thing each day that you can say, “Hey, at least I did that.”
The failures come in the same way. My biggest, recently, was trying to write a book before I was ready.
It never was my project. I never had my full heart in it. I told people to keep me accountable, and I worked hard at an outline and six thousand words about … I dunno, content strategy? … and I thought I was really making headway.
But I never had my full heart in it. Instead, I attempted to back my way into a project that most people embrace with their entire being. I didn’t expect that the weight of the book project would nearly kill my ability to do any kind of writing. That taking on something so big might would push out all other creative avenues.
When we make a promise, and when we ask to be held accountable, there’s a shift in weight. The project goes from personal to public, and it becomes the only thing. Expending creative fuel on anything outside of the project feels like sabotage. Why write a blog post when you could use that time to write a chapter? Why write at all if it’s not explicitly pushing the project forwards?
I struggled. But over the holiday break, I gave in. I stopped worrying about it. I removed it as an unfinished project in my queue, and went back to trying to make things I had investment in. And the floodwaters burst, and now here we are.
I feel a lot better about it. I’m still going to do it. On my time. Because while the book project matters, so too does my investment in that project. I don’t feel bad about quitting, because I know I’m not quitting for good. I’m just quitting until it’s mine.
A Post-It Note
I forgot about the post-it note.
The post-it note — a blue post-it note, corners bended, sticky part all gunked with office desk crumbs — says one thing:
– digital copy of short form catalog
I don’t … I don’t know what this is. I haven’t known what this is for two months.
I move it to the top row of index cards. And I go back to my email.
After writing this post, I published it.
I posted it on a blog that was 95% finished, but 100% live. Completely live, completely open, completely ready for the full weight of the web’s cynicism and critique.
And then, a few minutes later, I deleted the last section and added this.
I’m not going to say that I came to some great epiphany, because that’s not at all the case. I have not conquered failure and post-it notes and project management. I just felt like this needed a happy ending, and the happy ending happened about five minutes after the post went live.
When ideas are given permanence, they begin to cause problems, not unlike the toothpaste my kids leave inside the sink every morning. Permanent ideas live long past their viability date. They clog up the drain. They make things slower. They hold up the ideas we really should be taking care of.
The index cards and post-it notes I save are relics, freeing themselves of the ephemeral plane. They become things I now have to worry about, forever, because they are right there.
There are two sides of this. One is that, yes, it’s amazing that I can just look down and remember things I’ve forgotten. That I can keep my life in check through nothing more than little notes. The other, though, is that if I don’t get better at understanding the shelf life of these little notes, they begin to nag at me. They drag me down.
Yeah, personal projects need a bit more permanence than the tech industry’s next harebrained idea. But they also don’t deserve to be saddled with every shift and change along the way.
So I took another look at the post-it notes and index cards. I logged a “to-do” and completed it. I gave up on two index cards with div hierarchies that I wasn’t going to implement. I emailed this person, and I crossed off that project need.
And then threw them all away. Including that gunked up post-it note.