Why Many Personal Projects Fail

At least for me, keeping up New Years resolutions is like living through Ground Hog Day of recurrent failures.

My parents live overseas.  When I was 12 and alone in the states, I would miss them dearly and believe (certainly hoped) they also missed me.  I wanted to give them something meaningful for the Holidays, so I came up with the idea of taking pictures of daily events starting January, so that by December I would have ample pictures to compile into a beautiful photo album to send to them.  It was a brilliant idea, and although I was not someone who took photographs of food or events, surely I could remember to do it for them.

Like many personal projects, the project never materialized.  At a time before digital cameras became popular, I would take plenty of photos in January and then the enthusiasm would burn out.  Until December, of course.  I would fly to visit them for the Holidays with gifts far less personal but were conveniently placed on-sale at the local store, promising myself that the next year would be different.

With New Years resolution time came rolling around once again, it made sense to look back and recollect past failed projects.  I have failed to: adhere to a fitness program, read 12 books a year – one per month (which was recently and serendipitously accomplished), eat 4 servings of vegetables daily, sleep early and wake up early, read the newspaper everyday, quit checking email every 10 minutes, and quit day-dreaming, etc.

So why do so many little projects fail, even when some of them seem to take so little effort to achieve?  More importantly, what could I have done differently?

Habit Triggers

New York Times staff writer Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit offers a possible answer to the why.  The thesis of his book is that many things can be framed as forms of habit, and that habits require certain qualities to take hold.  Triggers are things that we are already doing which would remind us of things we need to do.  For example, teeth-brushing was not a behavior something humans were born with but a habit to be acquired.  Manufacturers of toothpastes and toothbrushes would reinforce through advertisement the sensation of plaques when we rub our tongues over our teeth after a meal and feel the film of microbial coating over them.  As children our parents would remind us to brush before getting into bed.  Those are our triggers.  Instead of having to actively remember to brush, somehow many of us have our brains wired to raise red flags when we forget to brush.

Another element of triggers is that they set can set off entire routines.  Duhigg’s book describes an experiment where mice were trained to follow specific paths in a maze to find the cheese.  Over time the mice learned to first identify the type of maze they have been placed in, then the identification were triggers for the entire path-finding routine.  The key finding was that following the established habit took less work for the mice than trying to establish a new routine.

The Power of Habit would argue that I was unable to remember to take pictures because (1) in childhood I did not have a trigger that made me remember to carry a camera around, and (2) “interesting events” was too vague of a trigger for me to establish a routine to bring up my camera and snap a picture even when I do remember to bring one with me.

Perhaps if I had placed a lightweight camera — hence the rise of camera phones, smartphones — next to my keys, I would then remember to bring it with me everytime I go out.  Then, I should have set more specific goals of taking photographs such as “every time when I go out to eat, take a picture of my appetizer and entree.”

Job To Be Done

Charles Duhigg explains personal projects as quests to establish positive habits, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen argues that projects in a company (The Innovator’s Solution) and in a person’s life (How Will You Measure Your Life?) can be framed as “jobs to be done.”

Professor Christensen’s premise for the theory in innovations is as follows: a product can only sell if it makes easier a job that customers are already trying to get done.  The smartphone initially became popular in business because executives were already carrying a PDA and a cell phone.  The smartphone  simply does that job better.  Camera phones became popular in the consumer sector because young men and women are already carrying their cell phones and cameras around to collect memories.  The camera phone simply does that job better.

On the personal level, it means that a personal project is only sustainable if it is related to or an extension of something we are already doing.  Changing into running gear at the company restroom and jogging home from work is a popular form of exercise for busy professionals because they were already trying to get home.  On the other hand, starting a fitness program from doing nothing is obviously still possible but has a higher rate of failing.

Job To Be Done theory also explains why personal projects are more successful in groups.  If we had been going out for a drink with good friends after work because we need to unload complaints or gossips, then doing Yoga with friends, or going to the gym with friends (provided they are also interested), become excellent alternatives.  In this case, the job to be done remains the same, only the new personal project comes with the added benefit of improving health.

The Immediacy of Gratification

The idea that personal projects should include worthwhile gratifications is difficult to overstate and is also relatively obvious.  In fact, personal happiness seems to be the whole point of undertaking such projects in the first place.  However, almost all studies agree that the rewards can not be merely positive; they also have to be immediate.

An illustration of this situation would be to imagine yourself sitting in front of a slice of moist strawberry short cake the day after you promised yourself to cut off sweets.  Regardless of fancy theories like habit-setting triggers or the job to be done, the desire is almost primal and inexplicably difficult to deny.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt frames the human mind as a rational rider atop an irrational elephant.  The rider can guide the elephant, but only when the rider himself/herself is calm, collected, and only then only to a certain degree.  He also argues that while the rider can set long-term goals, the subconscious elephant who will do most of the heavy lifting is blind to those same goals.

Successful personal projects, then, should include short-term motivations.  One of the purest forms of motivation is the sense of progression itself, incremental short-term goals that can be achieved one by one.  David Allen‘s GTD model recommends all large projects to be broken down to specific, achievable, steps.  These steps are then associated with checkboxes that can be cleared to demonstrate progression.  These theories would also suggest that you set a medium-term goal that can be met and associated with a slightly larger reward to keep the elephant happy.

Starting a running routine, for example, could involve starting a calendar where you put a check next to each day you accomplished the day’s worth of exercise.  If you listen to music, create a 30-minute playlist so you are constantly getting feedback of where you are in the routine.  If you run outside, identify landmarks along your daily path that tells you whether you are 25%, 50%, or 75% done with the routine.  Finally, give yourself a slice of strawberry short cake if you kept up a full week’s exercise without missing a day.

Putting It All Together

Although the three theories address different elements of sustaining a successful personal endeavor, they are synergistic rather than mutually exclusive.   Durhigg’s work is in agreement with Christiensen’s by suggesting a process to install new habits by first diagnosing why what you are already doing became a habit at all.  The following example is an illustration inspired by the one described in The Power of Habit.  If you wanted to start a healthier eating habit, then maybe you had found yourself always walking to the vending machine to buy a cookie, then pause to talking to a colleague on your way back.  Try to find out what the key element was: was it the boredom of work, the hunger, or that lovely colleague sitting between you and the vending machine? If boredom is the cause, try reading something instead of eating; if it’s the hunger, break it with an apple; if it’s the lovely colleague, then buy a bottle of water at the vending machine for an excuse to walk by.

The proper identification is key to understand which elements can be replaced and which must be preserved to satisfy “the elephant beneath the rider.”  The knowledge of the source and solution will help you move towards your goal by creating small achievable steps.  Interestingly, the whole idea of establishing a “personal project” is itself a way of demarcating self-improvement into small chunks of accomplishment in a distinctly GTD manner at the “10,000-20,000 feet level.”

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

One response to “Why Many Personal Projects Fail

  1. Pingback: On Habits, Good Ones and Bad » Figure Stuff Out

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