Projects (and your involvement in them) come in all shapes and sizes. Some are like a Michael Mann bank heist; you’re in and out, never to be heard of again. Others are like a relationship. You know you’re going to be spending most of your time with them and even when you’re not together, they’re never far from your thoughts.
Long term projects fall into the latter category. They require long periods of intense focus but withhold the satisfaction of completion for many months or years. I’ve found that in addition to the usual technical and interpersonal challenges, long-term projects also come with a set of emotional challenges.
The first is usually motivation. This is only natural when you’re facing the same task every day. Even your favourite activities can lose their allure when you do them every day.
When your motivation starts to waver, it takes more effort to get started in the morning and tasks take longer to complete. Which, in turn, forces you to spend even more time on the project. More time spent on the project reduces the variety of tasks you are working on. This lack of variety can soon lead to a feeling of stagnation.
Once you’re at this point, your brain will start to desperately search for other sources of stimulus. The background chatter in office becomes a shouting horde, the e-mails and Slack messages become a context switching nightmare. But the project still needs to progress, so you spend more effort to keep yourself focused.
All this exertion eventually catches up with you. You’re left drained, frustrated and in a state of mind that is incapable of the levels of creativity and productivity you had at the beginning of the project. You’ve basically become a walking, talking example of diminishing returns. This isn’t a good place for you or for the project.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve faced each of these challenges. It can be tough but through trial and error, I’ve found a set of solutions that not only protected mental wellbeing but improved my productivity.
1. Make sure you take regular time out from the project
In general, it is healthy to take a break from any activity that becomes a primary focus. As mentioned earlier, mental stagnation can very quickly lead to exhaustion, but this isn’t the only reason you should take a break. During periods of intense project work, such as when a deadline is approaching, our brains can become over-stimulated. This is advantageous over short periods of time but can quickly lead to burnout.
Whenever I’ve been working on a project non-stop for a couple of weeks or when I’ve had an intense period of high pressure work, I take a couple of days break. Even if I don’t feel like I need it. I might work on another project, catch up on BAU work or play around with some new package or statistical method. This gives my brain a break so by the time I come back to the project, I feel re-motivated and ready to go.
2. Have other projects to work on
Even with large projects, it is rare for them to require a wide variety of modelling techniques. Once you’ve found a method that works, you’re usually iterating and improving. This doesn’t give you many opportunities to try different tools and approaches. At best, this can leave you feeling mentally stale. At worst, you can feel like you’re over-fitting your learning and experience to one type of problem.
To get around this, I have “palate cleanser” projects. These are usually small projects or business questions that can be completed within a few days. Sometimes they allow me to practise different techniques, sometimes they just require a different way of thinking. Either way, they leave me feeling mentally refreshed and satisfied about completing a task.
3. Pick when to work on your project carefully
Even though you’re working on a large project it doesn’t mean the world stops turning. E-mails are still sent, requests are still made, and you still have other work to get done. These BAU tasks can play havoc with your productivity. Days spent context switching from one task to another can be particularly frustrating, especially when they are mentally laborious.
Once I start on project work, I find it extremely difficult to drag myself away from it mentally. Even simple tasks such as replying to an e-mail can take a lot of energy to change my focus. The only solution I’ve found is to better plan my days/weeks.
I won’t start project work until I’m confident that I won’t be disturbed. This usually means that I spend the first part of the day (or even the first few days of the week), clearing my to do list. Having two days dedicated to project work is much more productive than spending a whole week constantly switching between tasks.
4. Take advantage of your peers
You are guaranteed to face difficulties during a project. These could be practical, or conceptual, maybe even philosophical. Whatever the challenge, you will need support from your peers.
Formal and informal feedback from your peers is often the best way to get past project roadblocks. They share the same technical specialities as yourself and understand the business context. I’ve lost count of the number of times the right question has helped adjust my approach or clarified my thinking. But don’t just use your peers to review what you’ve done. Getting their thoughts on an intended approach to a problem before you start can save a lot of time and effort.
And there’s nothing to lose by asking for help, even though many of us working in data love the thrill of solving a problem entirely on our own. If you come across a problem that stumps your peers, at least you can be sure it’s a hard problem.
These solutions won’t prevent challenging days. I still have weeks where I feel mentally drained. What they will do is prevent any long-term burnout.
Forcing myself to take a break keeps me motivated. Having other projects to work on give me the variety I need to prevent stagnation. Being disciplined about when I work on a project prevents distractions and leaning on my peer’s experiences improves my productivity.
And that’s how I keep my sanity when working on a long-term project.
TL;DR Summary Table
|Solution||What does it solve?|
|Take regular time out from the project||Keeps you refreshed and motivated|
|Have other projects to work on||Reduces the risk of stagnation|
|Carefully pick when to work on the project||Reduces the risk of distraction and frustration|
|Take advantage of your peers||Increases productivity|