Personal Projects & Procrastination


Personal projects are very important. They give us creative types the chance to create work without clients and restrictions; to explore new creative avenues and methods without fear of scrutiny or rejection; to create something that may change our lives forever. Facebook was a personal project. So was twitter. Ji Lee, creative director at Google Labs talks here about the transformative power of personal projects and how he used them to leave the world of advertising and end up where he is today.

What’s strange is that even though we are aware of their relevance and impact on our creativity, personal projects are extremely difficult to undertake and complete. Ideas remain bound to moleskin pages and online bookmarks, rarely making their way into the real world. When it comes to personal projects, for many of us, procrastination reigns supreme.

A few weeks ago I decided to explore procrastination: why we do it and how we can overcome it; and see how some of these understandings could help us complete those all important personal projects.


What is procrastination?

As I discovered, that’s quite a big question. To avoid delving too deeply into the philosophy of procrastination here, I’ll skim the surface and recommend this book: The Thief of Time. Have a look if you’re interested in reading about the subject in more depth.

Procrastination is defined as willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off. Knowingly delaying something because you believe it is the most efficient use of your time doesn’t count. Procrastination is about doing something against your better judgment or not doing what you think you should be doing at a given time.

This definition is important as we move further into the post. Knowingly spending time away from the office on a walk, or taking time off during the day to watch a film in a deliberate search for inspiration doesn’t count . Any activity that is knowingly undertaken and doesn’t conflict with an immediate deadline is not procrastination.


So why do we procrastinate?

I’ve always been fascinated by why we procrastinate. As a creative person I find myself doing it a lot, and judging by all the creative literature on the subject, I’m not alone. In my experience procrastinating over personal, self-initiated work is the most common. Although we technically could (and do) procrastinate in work. A project has to be completed by a certain time. There is a definite deadline. If you don’t complete a work project someone else will. The deadline for self-initiated work however is movable, and if you don’t do it, it will never get done. The goal is vague and the responsibility isn’t shared.

Here are two theories to begin to explain our tendency to procrastinate:


A Lack of Concern for Our Future Selves

In her essay Procrastination and Personal Identity from The Thief of Time, Christine Tappolet posits that procrastination displays a lack of concern for our future selves. Although we regularly display a special concern for our future being – hence regular exercise, a healthy diet, and career aspirations – when we procrastinate we willing pass the buck and burden or harm our future selves but putting off what we know we should do now for later. An example from Tappolet’s essay uses an everyday, domestic situation to explain:

“…you procrastinate about washing the dishes, though you are quite aware that the dishes have to be washed at some point – nobody will do it for you and you lack the money to buy a new set – and you are aware that by the time you do it, you will have a huge pile of dirt-encrusted dishes to wash, something you consider much worse than washing the dishes right now… we are often tempted to get someone else to do what we loathe doing… we are trying to pass the buck on to others… when you fail to wash the dishes now, though you think that washing the dishes now is clearly preferable to doing it later, it seems you end up consciously burdening your future self, the one who will have to do the chore. in such buck- passing cases, it seems particularly clear that you have a lack of concern for your future selves and that you fail to consider later selves as fully identical to your present self”

Imagine the dishes are your future novel, your screen-play, the “facebook killer” you and your friends came up with in a bar, or a side project of any kind. A lack of concern for your future selves, and the belief that they are more capable than our present selves, means the majority of us put off these projects indefinitely even though completing them now could be of huge benefit to us in the future.


Hyperbolic Discounting

As temporal beings we are prone to hyperbolic discounting:

“Given two similar rewards, humans show a preference for one that arrives sooner rather than later. Humans are said to discount the value of the later reward, by a factor that increases with the length of the delay.”

When it comes to instant v delayed gratification, instant wins. Placing this in the context of personal projects that involve vague, movable deadlines and outcomes, we can understand how completing self-initiated work is extremely difficult. It can be constantly trumped by instant rewards i.e watching the football instead of writing, drawing or reading.


What Can We Do To Overcome It?

Break a project down into small steps

If vague deadlines and outcomes are a major contributor to procrastination, we can overcome it by breaking a larger project into smaller, instantly rewarding steps. Too often personal projects have lofty, ambitious goals and the initial steps require a lot of energy. By making the first and proceeding steps small and manageable, the deadline is never that far away and the sacrifice made to achieve the goal is far less. By creating an instant reward at the end of each step, be it a definite sign of progress, or more time allowed in the pub on the weekend, we can overcome our tendency for hyperbolic discounting.

A method such as Scott Belsky’s Action Method provides a more detailed description of how to use this type of personal project management.


Make it a habit

Research has proven that making relevant implementation intentions will increase the chances of you completing a project: By deciding to work on a project at a certain time, date, and place, you increase your chances of completing it.

In one very interesting experiment, the effect of using relevant implementation intentions to overcome procrastination was tested on recovering heroin addicts. At 10:00 A.M the participants were shown a model C.V and told to make plans to have one of their own created by 5:00 P.M. They were split into 2 groups. The first group made irrelevant implementation intentions: where when and how they wanted to have lunch. The second group made relevant intentions: when, where and how they were going to write their CV’s. None of the participants in the first group handed in a C.V at 5:00 P.M whereas 8 out of the 10 participants in the second group did. This result is pretty amazing: even under the cognitive strain of heroin withdrawal, making a definite plan to complete a project and overcome procrastination worked.

So next time you start, or intend to start on a personal project, figure out where, when, and how you’re going to complete it. This post for example was written between 6 – 7 A.M over the period of a week, at my desk by the front window of my house, when there was no chance of me being distracted by anything else. Stephen King committed to writing his early books by going to work at 5 A.M and writing 100 words a day before his day job began. By simply setting definite, relevant intentions to work on a project, you’re more likely to complete it.

Although I still procrastinate on personal projects (especially when rugby’s involved) I’ve found that an understanding of it and an understanding of how to combat it have helped me complete and start projects that have been notebook-bound for years.


Do you find yourself procrastinating on personal projects? Are there any other methods you’d suggest to overcome it? Did you implement any of the steps above and find that they worked / didn’t work?

Article Info
Posted by: Ciaran McCarthy
Thinking About: Advertising / Creativity / Culture
Location: Sydney
Twitter: @formeandu
  1. Steve Peck

    Nice article Ciaran and certainly relevant to many of us. Scott Belsky’s book is a good one and the Behance Action Method is definitely a top notch personal project management system. One of my former creative directors wrote a film about a year and a half ago and did Stephen King’s program by writing before work at 4:30 or 5am every day.

    I think ultimately it becomes how passionate you are about any given project. We all have too many ideas to realistically produce on the side so it’s a matter of selecting the ones you care about most and making some personal sacrifices to pursue them.

    • Ciaran McCarthy

      Thanks Steve.

      I agree, it is about selecting which project to invest time, energy and passion in, or just learn to live without sleep! After all, you could get up every morning and try to work but without the passion you’ll stop working on it pretty quickly.

  2. Jamie Murphy

    Although a good read and quite insightful Ciarán, I’m knowingly procrastinating by finding out about the article on facebook, by reading it here and in two minutes, by tweeting it. Thanks very much!!

  3. Lexie Kier

    ahh! totally valuable and valid insights.

    i need to read through this more carefully later– not procrastinating. i swear i will get to it later and i’ve even set a time and place in my head for it. :)

  4. Ciaran McCarthy

    Haha thanks Lexie, that’s some impressive relevant implementation intentioning!

  5. Paddy Treacy

    Good read Ciaran. This topic is very close to my heart, in a bad way.

    I think another strand to this lies around one’s skill set, or perceived skill set. Nothing kills an idea quicker than the fear of not knowing how to implement it. It’s an easy way out and gives people the chance to pat themselves on the back and think:

    “that was a good idea. Now if I knew a bit about coding, I might of been able to do that. But I don’t, so that’s that. Not to worry, back to the football.”

    On the other hand, I’ve found myself trying to train up on 5 different skills at once, in order to bring something to life. This inevitably ends in frustration, abandonment and a whole lot of wasted time (*stop motion is tougher than it looks).

    The point I’m making is that, unless you’re the six-million dollar creative, collaboration is key tool in getting a project off the ground. Find people who share your interest and can do things you can.

  6. Ciaran McCarthy

    Thanks Paddy.

    I agree with you completely: collaboration is the key. A lot of the side projects I have produced involved the help of very talented people with skills I could never possess.

    Finding collaborators can be hard and frustrating but joining groups like the Knot Collective is a great way of meeting like-minded people. Maybe you’re part of one of these groups already, if not you should consider it. Great things happen very quickly!

    I agree that learning new skills to produce a personal project can be frustrating but they are a great chance to put yourself under pressure to up-skill and develop a skill you never considered learning before.

    I’ve found that learning to code has benefited both my personal and work projects, likewise a basic understanding of motion graphics and 3D modeling have helped me meet communities of collaborators and produce personal projects.

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