Writers: Beware of New Projects

New ideas are great — except when you can no longer handle them all.

By now, my list of “projects I want to work on when I finish all my current projects” spans multiple pages. When I get new ideas, I get excited. I want nothing more than to drop everything I am doing and start that new project as soon as possible.

Why not wait? Because I might forget about it! Or my enthusiasm might mysteriously vanish! Or — every writer’s greatest fear of all — someone else might get to it first. (This has actually happened to me, by the way. Hollywood made a movie based on a book I wrote, except it wasn’t actually based on my unpublished book, so I got zero credit. It has been seven years. I am still not over it.)

New projects are fun and exciting. Their shine is irresistible, their persuasion cannot be ignored.

But beware. The temptation of new things that can replace the old is often so irresistible that we often find ourselves with too much to do, too much to think about, no time to spare, and much more frustration and stress than anyone should ever have to carry on their shoulders.

Hopping from project to project leaves gaps in your learning. And the more new projects you take on, the more likely you are to drop the unfinished work in favor of the shiny objects.

I used to refer to starting a new novel before you finished the old one “cheating on your work in progress.” Whether you want to look at it in that exact way or not, the truth is this: There is a lot to be learned from working on something from start to finish. When you abandon ship before the lesson, you miss out on … a lot.

One thing many writers lack, as a quick example, is discipline. They have a hard time looking at a project that might take months or even years to develop and figuring out how to break it into pieces and focus on one thing at a time. They are so focused on where they eventually want to be that realizing how much work has to come before the finish line suddenly seems too overwhelming. As a result, many of them bow out before they even really try.

But guess what? The only way to learn discipline is to practice discipline. If you don’t know how to follow through on something, then you have to practice how to follow through on something … by following through on many somethings, over and over, until it becomes second nature.

It takes a lot of effort to sit down in front of a computer every single day and write a set amount of words while constantly fighting the urge to do literally everything else. (I’m not implying that you have to write every day — this is just an example.) There are days I just want to sit on the couch after work and read. But I have the discipline necessary to push through that desire and get my writing done anyway. It has taken many years for me to get to a point where I can usually ignore my urge not to write, but I only got here through practice.

Finishing something you start teaches you the value of hard, consistent work. It also teaches you that you are often more capable of accomplishing big things than you think you are. Giving up is completely acceptable in many contexts, don’t get me wrong. But the more often you give up because you “just don’t want to anymore,” the more that enforces the idea that finishing what you start has no value whatsoever — which just isn’t true!

Doing too much at once is a very bad idea. Hustle culture is toxic, yet we are all living in it. And sometimes, it feels as though there is no escape. Once you’re in, you’re in this life for good whether you want to be or not. Or, at least, that’s how it often seems from the inside.

Almost everyone I work with at my day job — I do love them, I do — has fallen prey to hustle culture’s false promises. If you work harder and longer, you will find success faster. If you get ahead, you will stay ahead. If you don’t back down from challenges, if you grab at opportunities, if you just keep sprinting as fast as you possibly can, good things will happen to you. Big rewards guaranteed.

Here’s what really happens: Working harder and longer leaves you exhausted and unfocused. The more you try to get ahead, the more you will eventually fall behind. And the more opportunities you load onto your plate, the more commitments you have to follow through on. And more commitments means more work, and more work means dividing your time for each job into smaller and smaller pieces.

Before you know it, your Twitter bio says you are writing for 10 websites, but you are really only writing for a few of them at a time because you just don’t have the bandwidth to commit to that much in one day.

No one talks about this part of it, though. Because we are all made to feel like we are somehow week or less than or incapable for not juggling 20 different projects at one time.

For a long time, I tried to pretend that I could do everything. I thought it would impress people and make me look more “hirable.” All it really did was make me look disorganized and unreliable. I’ll say this: It is not fun to be in a constant state of frustration, all directed inward, because you “can’t get it all done.” Well no wonder you can’t get it all done, IT’S TOO MUCH FOR YOU TO DO. Not because you’re a failure but because you are a human being who has many, many limits.

If it’s a good idea, it isn’t going to disappear. Especially if you write it down in a place you can refer back to later and give yourself permission to let it marinate for a while.

I get it — when an idea is fresh, all you want to do is take a huge bite out of it and savor the moment. (I hate this metaphor but it’s happening and there is no turning back now.) Here’s the truth: You don’t have to immediately tear open every new idea that comes your way. Some ideas are best left saved for later.

This is especially true if you already have a full plate and won’t be able to fully enjoy the experience of working on this new idea if you pile it on top of everything else. I have a new idea I am absolutely STOKED to start working on. But I can’t right now because I have a bunch of words to write or something, I don’t know. It is in storage. It is on hold. And the cool part about it is that the more I let it sit there, and the more I think about it, the more excited I get.

Sometimes you have to resist the urge to dive in. Not because your idea isn’t worth it, but because there is value in finishing something else so you can start something new as a reward. I’m looking at you, tasks that have been on my to-do list since October.

Have more faith in your ideas. If you are meant to be together, and you are willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen, then it will happen. The reason so many writers never finish things they start is because they dive headfirst into something new, write 10,000 words in a week, burn themselves out, and lose all the motivation they had. They scratched off their new idea’s shine too quickly. They didn’t give it time to solidify.

Be careful. Doing too much at once isn’t good for your creativity. Neither is abandoning something old in favor of something new. Good ideas will come and go. Bad ideas will, too. You have to slow down and pay attention to what’s in front of you. You have to choose carefully. You have to prioritize. You have to think.

Starting a new project is sometimes a much bigger responsibility than you are prepared for. Make sure you are ready — and fully dedicated — before you commit to yet another something that may or may not work out in the end.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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5 thoughts on “Writers: Beware of New Projects

  1. My god do I relate to this!
    My list of started projects? 22. Planned project? 47.
    Finished projects? …. 0….
    I’m working really hard to narrow down and focus on just a handful of projects – one main focus, and 2-3 side projects for a break if the main gets stale or stuck.
    Fingers crossed!

  2. I think this is wise advice! I suspect I lose interest in a project when it’s at the hardest part, the part that takes the most creativity and brain fuel to get through but also the most rewarding place afterwards.

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