Using Failure to Get Big Projects Done

Actually Getting Big Things Done is a series of guests posts on how to make things happen from those who know how to… well… actually get big things done. Today’s post comes from David Sparks of and the Mac Power Users podcast. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also a father of two, a full-time lawyer and an up-and-coming publishing magnate. David work has had a major impact on my own productivity. His OmniFocus videos and the first two Mac Power Users workflow episodes with Merlin Mann fundamentally changed the way I use a computer… so yeah… I’m a fan…

I have to admit that when Michael first asked me to write this article, I was a bit leery. What qualifies me to write about “Big Things”? I’ve never been good at it. Indeed, I can publicly admit that I suck at it. The thing is, I’m pretty sure everybody else also sucks at the very challenging task of pounding big rocks. In this fact, I take some solace and can endeavor to share a bit with you, dear reader, not as some certifiable expert but, instead, a fellow traveler with many knocks and bruises from so many prior stumbles, falls, and the occasional ass-over-teakettle wipeout.

My failures greatly outnumber my successes when it comes to arriving at the finish line. To me, the most insightful bit is not my successes, but instead my failures.

As a case in point, I’d like to examine my failed project to become a hot shot Xcode programmer. I first began programming computers in the 70s. I wrote Dr.Pepper and Twinkie induced BASIC like only an obsessed 12-year-old can. I even did 6502 Assembly Code. (Yes, there was a time when the “JMP” command meant something to me.) I made my own text adventure games. I wrote programs to do my math homework (that took 10 times longer to write than simply doing the homework). My best game was a B–17 tail gunner simulation that rendered at something like 2 frames per second and looked a lot better (with hand drawn sprites) in my memory than they ever did in reality. I loved the idea that I could control that screen with that keyboard. Somewhere along the line I got busy and stopped programming but instead found other uses for computers to make my life easier. (Indeed, I’ve built a second career around it.) However, my inner twelve year old is still really pissed off at me for losing my way as a programmer. I’ve got a lot of programming friends and it is easier to learn now than it has ever been before. So why don’t I have any apps built?

I bought all the right books and I’ve made all the necessary pledges and incantations to myself and friends. Yet I’ve never finished an Xcode book and I’ve never really put all the pieces together. Why can’t I finish this? The sky is the limit as to reasons for me to quit something but there are three that I see over and over again.

First is lack of interest. By that description, it may sound like I quit on projects that I don’t like but that isn’t what I mean. Of course I don’t finish projects I don’t like. I don’t even start those. There are projects I like a lot that I don’t finish. By “lack of interest” what I mean is, I usually give up on projects that I don’t absolutely love. This is, coincidentally, the chief reason my Xcode project stalled. I want to do it more than I want to watch TV but not as much as I want play with my kids or write my next Field Guide book. Put simply on the things I love score, this hasn’t made the cut (for now). Sorry 12 year old Dave.

The second reason I often fail at big projects is that somewhere along the way, I realize it wasn’t what I expected. When something goes off the rails, I am merciless. My time is precious. I don’t want to waste a second of it. When I realize a project is no longer right, I stop, re-asses, and often abandon it. Cranking widgets on something “just because” while other opportunities to make something truly special slip by is tragic.

Finally, I often fail at projects not because of something noble like greater love or realization that I’m off track but instead my own personal kryptonite, process obsession. I can spend hours and hours setting up tasks and tweaking whatever geegaw I can lay hands on. It is a sickness and I fall into this trap so often that I have no business whatsoever writing this article.

So there are three really good tips for me. If I want to actually finish a project, it needs to be something I love dearly, it needs to be pointed in the right direction, and I need to avoid getting lost in process when I should be moving the ball forward. You’ve probably got an entirely different hurdle list but until you figure out what exactly is on that list, it is going to be a lot harder for you.

So assuming you’ve got that far, how do you finish? Sadly, I don’t have any special advice here. It is hard. You need to bust rocks and when your back gets sore, care enough to bust some more rocks. Know that the world and your own devious brain will throw up road blocks at every opportunity but also know that you can finish if you just keep at it. Perseverance is the name of the game. Also, don’t be afraid to ship. A lot of people use perfectionism to describe fear.

As a final bit of advice, for those projects that don’t make it to the end, don’t be so hard on yourself. As I wrote earlier, we all suck at this so it just means you are a human. Just put on your big boy pants and try again.

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One Response to Using Failure to Get Big Projects Done

  1. I always had massive respect for programming, but never actually got it in my task managers. I’ve got a bunch of books, but never knew from where to start. When I was a kid, it was more important to level up my skill in Quake 2 and Starcraft, than to learn how to code.

    Now as I grew older, I found that having wast knowledge and using a computer like a jedi start to require some coding skills. And I believe at some point I’ll be getting on xCode.

    Also over 26 years of my life (and 10 years of running a diary) I’ve came to realization that some things need to take time. As I was reading and reviewing my old goals, I’ve came to conclusion that I actually did some of those projects. Yes it did take me years, but I did actually get to do them today.

    Self talk reflects to the outward reality, and I am quite sure that at some point, you’ll get to coding.

    Thanks for the share! :)

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