Over the years I’ve observed my own work tendencies, moods, and productivity closely. I’ve also carefully observed the work habits and characteristics of interesting and accomplished people I’ve crossed path with in addition to having read about in the pages of biographical books. There are a couple ideas that seem to cut across the vast majority of people that accomplish important things within their respective domains. One of the most important is the ability to select and work on a project of personal importance over a long period of time.
Just looking at my own experiences with productivity and mental well-being makes it very clear how important it is that I have a long term project to orient myself with. For example, some of the most productive and happy times of my life have been:
Writing each of my e-books.
Developing The Simpler Life.
Launching and developing SamSpurlin.com.
Launching and developing life coaching and personal development coaching.
Writing a 25 page paper on an obscure historical topic.
Training for my first half marathon.
Some of these projects are ongoing and some of them have been successfully completed. While I was working on each of these projects I could always seem to more easily align my actions with my values which resulted in a greater sense of well-being in my daily life.
On the flip side, when I’m feeling my worst, listless, unmotivated, and weak, it usually means I don’t have a project that I’m excited about. At this point, it’s important that I distinguish between the everyday use of the word “project” and the type of long term project I’m talking about here. Most of us have a huge array of projects of varying sizes that we have in some state of completion. Projects our boss expects us to finish for work, projects our spouses expect us to finish at home, projects for school — most of us have no shortage of projects in our life.
However, I’m talking about a project that speaks to you at a deeper level. A project that you’re undertaking just because you like the sound of it. A project that is just an opportunity for you to investigate something that interests you further. I’m talking about projects that get you excited to work on and aren’t necessarily related to what you do to make money (although, they can be).
WHY DO YOU NEED ONE?
Having a personal project can help your quest for a well-lived life in a couple different ways. In addition to likely being intrinsically motivating (you do it just because you enjoy the act of working on it), there are a couple other benefits you could be reaping from developing a long term personal project.
First, projects of this nature generally take a long time to accomplish. I would consider the short end of the spectrum to be 6 months while the upper bound is almost limitless. Since this isn’t a project that you can just sit down and knock out in one evening of concerted effort you will develop your discipline as you steadily chip away at it over time. One of the beautiful things about discipline is that once you’ve developed it you can bring it to bear on nearly any other problem. Developing discipline as you work on your project will increase the amount of discipline you bring to other areas of your life.
Secondly, a long term personal project can help you develop and find meaning in your own life. The importance of meaning in living a healthy psychological life has been explored by many psychologists. Most notably, Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning wrote eloquently about how finding meaning through suffering separated many of those who perished in Nazi concentration camps with those who didn’t. Obviously, suffering isn’t the only way to develop a life of meaning. Finding a project that has long term implications to the world, your community, or anything else you care deeply about can help develop the sense of meaning that most psychologically healthy people share.
Thirdly, a large scope project can give you an opportunity to pull together a wide array of skills and abilities in novel ways. Most of us get very good at the specific elements of our job which means we can be incredibly efficient within the narrow confines of what we do everyday. However, without some sort of large, and often transdisciplinary, project we may never get an opportunity to use our various skills and abilities in novel ways. In fact, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, two prominent psychologists within positive psychology, have shown that using core character strengths in new and novel ways is an excellent way to increase well-being .
HOW DO YOU PICK A GOOD PROJECT?
At the risk of sounding like I’m diminishing an important point, let me just say that it almost doesn’t matter what you pick as your project as long as it’s inherently interesting to you and is something that will take a long time to accomplish. The specifics about what you’re doing or how you’re going to do it isn’t as important as the process involved in adopting and working on a project of this nature. With that being said, there are a couple techniques you can use to develop some ideas for your project.
Get involved with an organization and develop a solution to a need they have. I have a friend who decided to make a long term project a fundraising effort for an organization that he was involved in. It allowed him to combine his many different interest in marketing, interpersonal communication, and philanthropy with a cause that he cared deeply about. Most volunteer organizations would love to have someone on board that would be willing to take a difficult problem they have and try to develop a viable solution.
Another possible avenue you could take is to make an old-fashioned bucket list of things that you’ve always wanted to do. It can be fun to just sit down and think about everything you’d do if you had the time, money, cajones, etc., to do. Make your list and then either select something that seems moderately possible (but still difficult) or if you’re a real die-hard, pick one at random.
The third strategy can be approached in one of two complementary ways. Most of us are pretty aware of what we are and aren’t good at. For your long term project you could identify a weaknesses and then dedicate a year or longer to making it one of your strengths. For example, maybe you feel like you haven’t read most of the books that somebody your age is “supposed” to have read. For the next year you could work your way through the Great Books. You could even start a blog where you write about your journey through the books and the thoughts you have about them.
On the other side of this approach is to take something that you’re already pretty good at and become truly world-class at it. Perhaps you already view yourself as a pretty good chef and you enjoy cooking. What if you started a project to make every recipe in a difficult recipe book? Or to develop a cookbook of your own? Or anything else you can think of to elevate your cooking game to an entirely new level.
Lastly, you can develop your project by looking at the various strengths, interests, and abilities that you have and combining them in a completely new way. As I wrote about earlier, using strengths in a novel way has been shown to increase well-being. What could you do that would combine your interests of writing, zombie movies, and interpretive dance? True creativity comes as a result of combining seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts in ways that nobody else has ever done. Get crazy and create something that ties together multiple different components of who you are as a person.
HOW DO YOU ACCOMPLISH IT?
I promise to be much more brief in this final section. I wanted to make sure I spent plenty of time explaining how important and beneficial I think it is to find some kind of long term project. I wanted to make sure that I was super clear about possible ways you could go about finding a suitable project. This last step, however, is much easier than everything else I’ve written about.
The way you accomplish your project is to take constant, tiny, microscopic, incessant, baby steps in the right direction.
You won’t complete this in a day, a week, or even many months. The only way you’ll successfully reach the conclusion of any project worth doing is to be ok with making small progress every day. It’s not a matter of smarts, or strength, or any other personal characteristic other than determination. Projects, like objects, have inertia. If you let it sit still it’s going to be difficult to get it moving again. But if you keep your project moving forward, if even almost imperceptibly, then it will eventually get done.
I’m really, really excited about hearing other people’s projects. Care to share yours in the comments below?