One Project At A Time, Or A Dozen?

We got a bunch of great food for thought in this week’s ask-us-anything on the Hackaday Podcast, and we all chewed happily. Some of my favorite answers came out of the question about how many projects we all take on at once. Without an exception, the answer was “many”. And while not every one of the projects that we currently have started will eventually reach the finish line, that’s entirely different from saying that none of them ever do. On the contrary, Tom Nardi made the case for having a number of irons simultaneously in the fire.

We all get stuck from time to time. That’s just the nature of the beast. The question is whether you knuckle down and try to brute-force power your way through the difficulty, or whether you work around it. A lot of the time, and this was Dan Maloney’s biggest bugaboo, you lack the particular part or component that you had in mind to get the job done. In that situation, sometimes you just have to wait. And what are you going to do while waiting? Work on Project B! (But take good notes of the state of Project A, because that makes it a lot easier to get back into the swing of things when the parts do arrive.)

Al and I both weighed in on the side of necessity, though. Sometimes, no matter how many attractive other projects you’ve got piled up, one just needs to get out the door first. My recent example was our coffee roaster. Before I start a big overhaul, I usually roast a couple days’ worth of the evil bean. And then the clock starts ticking. No roasting equals two unhappy adults in this household, so it’s really not an option. Time pressure like that helps focus the mind on the top-priority project.

But I’m also with Tom. It’s a tremendous luxury to have a handful of projects in process, and be able to hack on one simply because you’re inspired, or in love with the project at that moment. And when the muse calls, the parts arrive, or you finally figure out what was blocking you on Project A, then you can always get back to it.

34 thoughts on “One Project At A Time, Or A Dozen?

  1. Just this morning a friend of mine (hi Rob!) said (regarding unfinished projects) that he is a “black belt in the partial arts.” I wish he had said that BEFORE the podcast as I would have so stolen it from him!

  2. Yep, I have one project on the back burner for ~1 year now, since I need a bunch of different cars to test on. Currently have 3 others in the works.

    Speaking of I started a new job a bit ago which is in person. I should ask co workers to test on their cars.

    At least personally, I get invested in a project when I have to figure things out. That usually gets me to 80%. It’s finishing that is hard because there is nothing to figure out, it’s just the boring aspects.

    1. >> At least personally, I get invested in a project when I have to figure things out. That usually gets me to 80%. It’s finishing that is hard because there is nothing to figure out, it’s just the boring aspects.

      I was not prepared to feel quite so seen this morning!

      1. I actually like the “finishing”. The final assembly is like eating dessert. It’s seeing positive results from all the planning and thinking that got me to that point.

        But I also get that for many of us, the pleasure is in the building, and less the using of the final thing. I tend to look for projects to make things that enhance my other non-project activities and interests.

        1. I think that finishing or not is a different issue from doing a bunch in parallel. I.e. you can start up different projects in one order, and finish them in another. It’s just a matter of which one wins.

          It’s like survival-of-the-fittest for projects.

          Although when I have the pressure to get something _done now_ (!!!) that really does cut into the luxury to have many things going at once.

    2. I have three projects that I’ve been working off-and-on for 18 years now. By “off-and-on” I mean more than 200 hours in any individual year – I get blocked or burned-out on one and switch to another for a couple of months.

      Part of the problem is knowledge, I’ve had to learn a lot about some obscure topics. Anyone else know how to design a cascode? Anyone else know how to calculate the energy loss at RF of a salt water dielectric? Specific knowledge, but necessary for 2 of my projects, and the 3rd one is about AI. I think I’ve reached the level of electronics needed to get the next step in one project *this year*, and am hoping to get it to the point of taking data.

      I decided at the beginning to choose projects for which “the journey” is the enjoyable part. Lots of people take on projects for external rewards (money, likes, or acclaim), things you get in return for doing something, but those types of reward will extinguish your love of doing projects. This is a well known aspect of human psychology.

      The projects I do let me learn all sorts of techniques and principles, which I find deeply interesting.

  3. I’ve always been in the “many” projects camp. This is why I’ve really enjoyed getting into experimental aviation, building a kit aircraft. It might seem like one major project, but in reality it’s hundreds of smaller sub-projects: structures, sheet metal, fiberglass, engine, control systems, electrical systems, instrumentation, embedded software, et al. Depending on my workload, mood, inspiration, energy level, I can choose which tasks to tackle. Some days I’m really inspired, so I might work on instrument interface firmware. Other days, it’s relaxing to just go out and de-burr sheet metal.

      1. Definitely. Even 99.9% wouldn’t be good enough. :-) That’s why for most of this project I tried not to focus too much on the overall major-project progress. It was downright discouraging. Months of work would equate to maybe a couple percent uptick on the progress meter. It was much more satisfying — and motivating — to track each sub-project individually. Now, instead of lamenting that I’m several years into this project, and still have about 10% to go, I have hundreds of sub-projects behind me that are 100% complete. The remaining tasks don’t seem so daunting.

  4. I used to be in the many projects camp. I had a far/ranch for 20 years so my projects could be anything from a simple front axle bearing replacement to pulling the trans out of my tractor. Not even including all of my electronics projects. So 10 years ago I decided no new major projects in my shop until the current one was fixed/completed or I was waiting on parts. I then did something very similar to my indoor electronics shop. It helped tremendously with all of the different piles of unfinished and at times costly parts just laying around collecting dust.

  5. I have always had many projects “in progress” – ones that are on hold for a part or two, some where I’m stuck on how to proceed, a few where I just lost enthusiasm at some point. And now that I’m retired, I have resumed working on quite a few of them. I’m embarrassed to admit that there are a few projects that have been in stasis for um 40+ years. But I have actually tackled some of those, recently. Honest.

    More recently, I’ve put more effort into completing projects, or deciding that they’re not worth continuing with. Partly it’s seeking the gratification of completing and using something, and partly it’s the knowledge that my time is no longer limitless, and shouldn’t be wasted.

    One of my friends is an object lesson. He’s acquired projects to the point that he’s a hoarder. It cost him his wife. He’ll never complete even a quarter of them. There but for the grace of God (and the strictness of my wife) go I…

    Anyway, to respond to the title – I have lots of projects in the hopper, but I actively focus on just one to three at any given time, til they are done, or at least moved forward significantly.

    1. You’re implying that your friend’s losing his wife is a bad thing. In my experience, this is not necessarily true. Ok, maybe it might seem bad for a few months, but a year in and the projects are seeing much more development and the wife long forgotten. Now I have a cat, which is much less demanding, more self sufficient and only costs me the occasional packet of worming tablets (I never feed it).

      1. BTW, I only have one project on the go at the moment. It’s quite varied but expensive which increases the pressure to make sure it gets finished. These days, I work out timelines, mini-milestones, budgets, make sure exotic parts are bought well in advance etc etc.

  6. I prefer to have only one or two projects at a time – I’d like to only have multiple projects when you have the workspace for them and ideally when one or both have prolonged ‘wait for paint to dry’ type moments so you have a natural second project to move on to while the other can’t be worked on… Means less time catching back up on what the next steps are supposed to be on the project that got shelved for weeks/months/years…

    Never seems to work that way though, always something that puts a project onto the pile of shame… For instance I started a model railway something like 10 years ago, got almost all the way to the most interesting bits of the final set dressing and engineering the bridge that was to be the centrepiece, then it went into its travel/storage crate when the space was needed for something (can no longer remember what), and being such a large volume footprint project it hasn’t yet ever come back out…

  7. I have project ADHD. I read Hackaday and other sites and think “oooooh, that’s awesome!” and off I go starting a project based on whatever “that” is, and then along comes the next shiny new potential project. I tend to get into them because of the learning potential. My issue is that once some of that initial learning is done, then it’s more fun to move on to the next big piece of learning instead of going back and finishing the previous project where little bits of extra learning may be the reward. So maybe I have “new learning” ADHD. :-)

    Darn you, Hackaday, for providing some much learning opportunity! Hehehe

    1. This. Ya go ’til ya run out of parts then do something else. One kind of needs multiple projects as a practical necessity to maintaining productivity. Amateurs worry about tactics, experts worry about logistics. Trite, maybe, but not entirely without point.

  8. Hmmm. You folks are all talking like you have a choice in the matter.

    I just do. Work on an existing project, start a new one, finish an old one. Whatever comes up as I have time and interest and materials.

    Some days it is “do something, do anything” and some days it is “play couch potato.” When it is couch potato time, all projects go on hold except for thinking about how to carry out the projects when I get back to them.

  9. Several projects at a time here. Some been languishing for years…. The internet (can’t be me of course) is the cause. I mean I get started on something, and then I see some cool project/idea on the internet that takes my eye as well. In fact I have my son printing some 3D parts for me right now of a project I thought was neat a week or so ago…. Even though I got unfinished projects all over the bench, and quite a few kits (robot platforms) still in boxes. And since I am in R/C aircraft building and flying, I have a lot of balsa kits laying around too…. :rolleyes: . That’s just with the ‘fun’ stuff. House projects still need to be done… So it goes. One thing about it, there is never a ‘there is nothing to do’ moment if I want to work on something!

  10. Over time, I’d like to think I’ve gotten a little smarter about the way I approach projects. I used to take on around 10 at a time, because (I thought) I could easily flit from one thing to another without fail, and I needed something to fill in the gaps when one or more projects had downtime.

    Now though, roughly 20-25 years later (probably more…), I try to keep only a small handful, maybe two or three, going at once. The less the merrier, because I can dedicate more energy into fewer projects. I’m not worried about forgetting something I probably knew when I was last working on something — yes, I also take excellent notes now, so picking up a project last touched months or years later is no longer a problem.

    I don’t think I’d have learned any of that without the direct experience. Taking notes, making documentation, recognizing and stopping feature creep, knowing when to consult experts, scheduling personal time, the importance of cleaning & organizing my lab area once a week: all of that had to be learned first-hand.

  11. When you make a soup you don’t stand over pot and keep mixing – you do other thing meanwhile and just come to check it from time to time. With projects it’s the same except it’s not about soup ;-)

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