When Is It Time to Say Goodbye to a Project?
It's very hard to recognize when enough is enough, but it pays to learn how.
Posted Mar 26, 2019
I recently put an end to a book project I’d been struggling with for several months. As I worked on it, it became increasingly apparent that I didn’t have enough material for a book of the length I wanted, or enough to justify a book at all. The point I planned to make, which I’d made before in a journal article, simply wasn’t enough to fill a book, even after adding more background and context.
As this realization became clear, it became harder to make substantial progress on the book. I usually wasted the first several hours of every day convincing myself to go on, after which I was too emotionally spent to work on it, so the cycle would start anew the next day. Eventually, I had to acknowledge that the odds of getting a book I would be satisfied with were too slim to be worth the cost of continuing on it, so I stopped.
But it was very difficult to make this decision (as my friends to whom I unloaded almost daily would surely attest). Don’t get me wrong, I welcomed the thought of stopping work on the book, regardless of how much time and effort I’d already devoted to it. There’s enough of the economist in me to know that sunk costs shouldn’t affect decisions about the future; if the benefits of continued work do not justify the costs, it’s not worth going on. Once I realized there wasn’t a book in what I was writing, no matter how I tried to rearrange and reorient it—and I tried, believe me—I called it off.
Looking back, I should have stopped much earlier, saving myself a lot of frustration and despair, as well as the time I could have spent on more promising and enjoyable pursuits. So, what kept me going, even against growing evidence of futility? I don’t think it was the book itself, but rather what stopping would say about me. Every book I’ve written has been difficult, each in its own way (and some more than others), but nonetheless I got them all done—until this one.
I hesitated to put an end to this book because, if I acknowledged my inability to finish it, I would worry that it meant I’d never be able to write a book again. As long as I kept going, at any cost, I was still writing it, and there was still a chance I’d finish. “Maybe today,” I would think, “is the day I figure it out, the day it all comes together and the path becomes clear.” If I stopped, though, I would have to look failure in the face—and that was scary, especially because writing is what I do and how I conceive of myself.
Before I felt comfortable stopping, I had to realize that I could still do this, I could still write, I could still start and finish a book—just not this book. The problem was with the project and how I conceived of it, not my ability in general. Not every idea justifies a book, and sometimes it takes trying to write it to figure this out. While I was struggling with this book, I would look at my outline and marvel at how much I had to say, especially after I fleshed out all the points and explored all the nuance to my argument. But when I got to writing, I realized there actually wasn’t that much to add to what was in the outline, and in fact the original article said about all that needed to be said. Furthermore, I realized this very early on, although I kept at it for months because of the fears mentioned above, so back to the outline I would go… and the cycle began yet again.
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What have I learned from this experience than I can pass on? No matter what kind of project you work on, I hope these suggestions—reassurances, really—will be helpful.
1) No project is “your last.” By this, I mean that the failure of one project does not mean you’re washed up, which is the result of a wicked combination of black-and-white thinking (success or failure) and over-generalization (failure now means failure from now on). More likely, it’s that there was something wrong with the project itself. Maybe it wasn’t well conceived; maybe it wasn’t the right project for you to do; or maybe it just wasn’t the right time to do it. All three possibilities occurred to me with respect to my failed book project, which I plan to revisit later—much later.
This leads into my second point, even more basic than the first:
2) Not all of your projects will work out. No matter how well you plan, sometimes things just don’t come together, no matter how much you try. What you need to do is develop the ability to recognize this as soon as you can, but not too soon. It’s a fine line: You don’t want to give up at the first sign of difficulty, but neither should you stubbornly push through once it becomes obvious things aren’t working. You need to give it enough of a chance, but realize when enough is enough. I can’t tell you how to know this point when it comes—I clearly don’t always recognize it myself—but we need to develop a feel for it if we want to save ourselves a lot of time, effort, and aggravation.
Once you realize that the failure of one project doesn’t mean you’re a failure, you can, as the song goes, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” For my part, I’m going to ease into my next book project more carefully, waiting to commit to it until I make sure that the idea is sufficient to justify an entire book, and that it’s a book I will want to continue working on until it’s done (most days, at least). And I will acknowledge the possibility that, despite this caution, the next book may not work out—and if it doesn’t, it’s not worth beating myself up for months just to avoid the inevitable but temporary feelings of failure involved with stopping.
As another famous song says, “let it go,” especially when it’s just not worth it anymore. Recognizing when that point is… now that’s the tricky part. I’ll be working on that—and another book—from now on.