Big Projects, Big Mood Swings

Why we bounce between optimism and pessimism while working on large projects.

Posted Jun 30, 2016

Stevage/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Stevage/Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever completed a large project? Did you experience any mood swings during the course of the project? I thought so!

Several years ago Cameron Herold, a successful entrepreneur, published a graphic illustrating the emotional mood swings people can expect when they set out to build a business. According to Herold, there were 4 emotional milestones people reach during the early stages of their endeavor: 1) uninformed optimism, 2) informed pessimism, 3) crisis of meaning, and then 4a) informed optimism or 4b) crash and burn. Whether you take 4a or 4b depends on what happens during the “crisis of meaning.” (I’ll describe these in more detail below.)

Tim Ferriss picked up on this in 2008 and brought Herold’s “Transition Curve” to an even larger audience. You can see Herold’s original curve on Tim’s site. 

Having started a few businesses ranging from mildly successful to decidedly unsuccessful, and having taken on a few other large projects (like the book I’m working on right now), I’ve been on Herold’s roller coaster ride many times myself.  And I suspect this ride is open not only to those starting businesses, but also to anyone working on pretty much any complicated project.

Mood Swings and Project Complexity

The top portion of the following graphic contains Herold’s “Transition Curve” and the four mood-milestones we encounter as we pursue a large endeavor like building a business:

Jim Stone
Source: Jim Stone

The mood swings are represented by the red curve. As we start a project we grow in optimism (1) for awhile. Then we start to grow pessimistic (2), until we reach something of an emotional bottom (3). And then we either crash and burn (4b) or grow optimistic again (4a) as we complete the project.

But something else is going on at the same time. And that’s represented in the bottom half of the graphic. From the start of our project, until it reaches the point of maximal trickiness (5) our project grows more complicated. Then, as we solve some of the unexpected complications and get parts of our project completed, the complexity tends to reduce until we finish the project.

Let’s Plan a Party!

Let’s walk through Herold’s 4 stages and see how things look in terms of project complexity, and then tie that back to mood. As an example, we’ll plan a party.

1. Uninformed optimism. When we first set out to have a party, we’re optimistic. How hard can it be? We’ll just “have a party”. Then we start to break it down and it seems even more doable. We’ll just “pick a date”, “secure a location”, “invite friends”, “prepare the location”, “enjoy the event”, and then “clean up afterward”. That’s just 6 easy tasks. How hard can that be? The project really does not seem very complicated at this point, and it will be fun, so we’re understandably optimistic.

2. Informed pessimism. Ah, but things are never as easy as they seem. We start to break down the 6 tasks into subtasks, and not all the pieces are fitting together. Our preferred event location is available on only one date, and three of our guests have told us they can’t make that date. Half of the rest haven’t yet gotten back to us one way or the other. Should we change the location, so we can change the date, so more of our friends can come? Should we pester our delinquent friends for their RSVP and see if we can still salvage a decent party at the current location? Our to-do list is growing, and many of the elements are in conflict with each other. We’re starting to have doubts that this is going to work at all.

3. Crisis of Meaning. Now we learn that we’re past the “early bird discount” period for reserving the preferred venue, and our planned catering menu won’t work for two of our guests -- one has nut allergies, and the other is vegan. And, so far, no one has offered to help us set up or tear down the party. Unexpected complications are at their maximum here. And we will either figure out how to work around them, or we won’t.

4a. Informed optimism. Perhaps the event venue needs our business and offers to keep the early bird discount in place, our vegan friend tells us that, despite the menu, he wouldn’t miss the party for anything, ten more people get back to us with “yes”es, one of the friends who couldn’t make it is now free that weekend, two friends have committed to helping us decorate and set up the venue, and two have offered to help us clean up afterward. Most of the unexpected complications have been resolved, and things are looking up! Our to-do list is shrinking, and the remaining items are pretty straightforward. We just have to do them. We are growing in optimism, and it’s not naive optimism this time. We have a right to be optimistic.

4b. Crash and burn. OR, . . . we can’t work out the complications and we have to cancel the party.

When we do large projects, we tend to take this roller coaster ride. It doesn’t matter if we’re starting a business, planning a party, remodeling a kitchen, writing a paper or a book, or coding a web-based application. If the project has any size, there will almost always be unexptected complications lurking, and we will discover them only after we’ve gone some way down the road and expanded our planning sufficiently to reveal the conflict. For this reason, the point of maximal planning complexity (5) usually lines up pretty well with our “crisis of meaning” (3). And the crash and burn option (4b) is often in play, becasue there’s no guarantee ahead of time that we will be able to overcome the unseen complications.

So, assuming we’re going to continue taking on large projects, because, after all, we are trying to leave some kind of mark on this world, how do we minimize these painful mood swings?

How to dampen the mood swings

I don’t have any foolproof advice for preventing unforseen complications. Unfortunately, I think they’re just part of life. Often we can solve them, but sometimes they will kill our projects or make us change course drastically. Even so, here are six ways to make the best of things and reduce the costs of unseen complications and their power to affect our well-being.

One: SCRUM it up. SCRUM is part of the Agile method of project management often used by software teams. The main idea is to carve your project in to smaller chunks (taking only a week or two), and make the chunks stand alone, in the sense that they are completed wholes ready to be evaluated by those who care (clients, end users, executives, etc).

There are many ways to carve up a project, but two of the most common ways to do it are to complete stand-alone modules (for instance, a chapter of a book), or to complete successive versions of the full product (a first draft, a second draft, etc.).

Not every project will lend itself to SCRUM. As I write, I’m having trouble coming up with a good way to do it for planning our party, for instance. But many projects (such as software, books, or presentations)  will. If it makes sense to complete one of your projects as a set of modules or as a series of versions, you should consider doing it.

The benefits of SCRUM are many. It gets you more feedback, and much earlier in the process, so you don’t have to change as many things when someone wants to take things in a different direction. Plus, the number of unforeseen complications that will arise for a single module within a week is typically much less than the number that will arise for the whole project over the course of six months. And that’s good for  your mood. It means your lowest lows won’t be as low. There are very few things as frustrating as being 3 months into a large project with 3 months to go and to start having doubts about it.

Two: Clear your mind. I give this advice often. And that’s because I have a great mind-clearing method. And, when I first learned to do use this method, it improved the quality of my life overnight and made me more productive as well.

In this case I’m not just talking about keeping a clear mind in general. That will be helpful, of course, but I’m also talking about getting things that relate to your project out of your head and onto paper (or virtual paper). Any time you’re feeling some confusion about your project, or sense some pessimism building, write down what’s on your mind. Try to ferret out the source of the confusion, and, if you uncover some complications update your plan so that you know that one of your next tasks is to resolve that complication.

Three: Use a “fractal” planning tool.  By this I just mean use a tool that allows you to keep breaking tasks into sub-tasks and sub-tasks into sub-sub-tasks to as fine-grained a level as you need. A word processing outline will do the trick, if that’s all you have access to. However, you might want the ability to zoom in on parts of your plan to focus on that part, pan out to get an overview, or show and hide parts of the plan to allow you to focus on the task at hand. The following two online planning tools will allow you to do all of that:

  • The Fractal Planner (coded by yours truly in 2011. It still works great and has a built-in mind-clearing tool, but lacks an app)
  • Workflowy (no mind-clearing tool, but has an app)

Four: Work less and plan more. I know I’ll get some blow-back for this advice. You’ll hear some people gripe about “too much planning and not enough doing”. Planning can get excessive, but I think this griping often says more about the griper’s own impatience than about a true excess in planning. I explained in “Why Is Procrastination Even A Thing” how not enough planning can sap your motivation for working on your project.  So Griper, no griping!

Five: Take advantage of incubation. If you get stuck on a problem, work it a little, plan and brainstorm a little, and then, . . . take a break! Go walk in the woods. Go play disc golf. Do some gardening. Take a nap. And then come back to the problem. I think you’ll find that, often enough, once your conscious mind gets out of the way, your unconscious mind will generate some surprising solutions. I say more about this incubation effect in “The Creativity Hack You Can Do In Your Sleep”.

Six: Be willing to crash and burn sooner. Sometimes we will avoid working on our project because we are starting to suspect that it might not work and we want to delay the point in time where we have to face that fact. We stop working on it. We stop planning. And we avoid explicitly addressing the complications that have arisen.

Try to be willing to crash and burn sooner, so you can change direction sooner, or move on to other projects sooner.

In general people feel far too much shame when one of their projects fails due to unforeseen complications. It happens to nearly everyone who bothers to take on large projects at all. And no one is so smart they can anticipate all complications from the outset of a project. Perhaps just knowing this will help you set aside that all-too-natural irrational shame that comes with a a failed project, and you can get moving on to even greener pastures.