Making Time for New Projects

There are many privileges I have working at Mozilla. One of them is a decent amount of time off, by American standards. This year Mozilla continued the tradition of closing offices and halting business for the last two weeks of the year. Originally I had thought about getting some volunteer work done during the time off, but ended up just spending time with Sherri and our friends, puttering around the house and playing a lot of Skyrim. It’s difficult for me to disengage from my various responsibilities and truly allow myself time to relax and rest. I felt guilty the first two-thirds of this time off. Despite that, I did manage to have some good rest and in taking a break, I was able to think clearly about what I want out of the next year or so.

What I realized is that I’m ready for a shift. I haven’t been able to make the kind of progress I’d like on a few projects that are actually very important to me. There are some good reasons for this lack of progress. The past 18-24 months have been extremely chaotic on a personal level. Sherri and I became deeply involved in caring for her ailing mother. We lost a dear friend. We bought a house and moved.

I’m happy to say that a lot of that is behind us now. Sherri’s Mom is settled into assisted living and others are responsible for her care now. We aren’t planning to buy a house, move or have any major construction done. We also seem to have found medication regimine that is keeping my asthma somewhat under control. As a result, I’m sleeping better at night and can engage is more physical activity than I have been able to in quite some time.

With things on the home and personal fronts feeling more settled, there’s one remaining barrier to going deeper into my most important projects: having too many projects.

In a lot of ways we falsely operate on a model of scarcity. Lots of things aren’t actually scarce when we think they are. Time, however, truly is available in limited amounts. If I’m involved in ten projects, each one of them is going to get less time, on average, than if I’m involved in five. It sounds like a simple, obvious, statement. But, like possessions, it’s easy for us to accumulate projects and difficult to let them go.

There are a lot of reasons we hold on to our projects: No clear succession path, not wanting to say goodbye to the project itself or to something it provides for us, not wanting to feel like you’ve failed or that you’re letting someone down, the uncertainly of knowing what will take its place, habit. All of these represent valid needs we have and it’s important to honor those needs and the feelings that arise when thinking about not continuing to be involved in something.

Over the years I’ve cultivated a set of questions I ask myself to help navigate the process of identifying whether or not it’s time to let go of a project. These include:

  • If I stopped doing this project, what are things I could do with that time instead?
  • What other things I’m excited about have I been saying no to because I’m involved in this project?
  • Am I still learning things or otherwise growing as a person as a result of being involved in this project?
  • Is the project still evolving as a result of my involvement, or has it stagnated?
  • Are there ways to deescalate but still maintain some involvement that would be satisfying to me?
  • If I can’t identify a clear succession path for the project, what’s the worst that can happen?
  • If I think the worst case is that no one continues it, does that mean that the project had reached its natural end?
  • What are the ultimate goals of my project? That I want to be around for?
  • What do I envision the end of the project to be? What does it looks like when my project has accomplished its mission, achieved all its goals?

Generally, we spend a lot of energy on starting, building and sustaining projects and very little energy on defining a project’s end. No wonder we have trouble ending projects! Often we rely on external factors to drive decisions about endings. Work life becomes untenable so we quit, or we accept an offer elsewhere. Or we disengage from a project abruptly when some other issue in our lives becomes a higher priority and gives us permission to do so. I wonder if there’s a benefit to bringing additional mindfulness and intention to how we approach ending projects. This doesn’t mean mapping out a complete plan at the beginning of a project and then rigorously and stubbornly abiding by it, regardless of changing circumstances. Rather, I think it’s a useful strategy to periodically inventory what we’re working on, ask the above questions of each.

In asking myself the above questions about all my projects at the end of this year, I was able to arrive at a clear picture about which projects I’m okay letting go of, or decreasing my involvement in, and which new projects I’d like to take on.

The plan for 2014 is something like:

  • Organize fewer events. The main event that I plan to maintain my involvement in this year is Open Source Bridge. All others I either won’t be involved in, or will only be involved in an advisory role. Stepping back my event-planning role means that I’ll be able to devote more attention to my role as President of Stumptown Syndicate.
  • Attend fewer repeat conferences. I’ve decided not to attend PyCon or OSCON this year. Both of these conferences I’ve been to multiple times and crossing them off my calendar means I’ll have more time to attend new conferences. Top on my list are: Allied Media Conference, Wikimania, WikiConference USA, LibrePlanet.
  • Submit no conference proposals. I’m not planning to do any speaking at conference unless specifically invited to do so. This frees up time to work on our Event Planning Handbook and accompanying workshop.
  • Spend less time on social media. I have a bad habit of treating social media like a sweet or a cigarette. Stuck on something? Check Twitter. Stressed about something? Check Twitter. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Stress relievers are good — as long as they are serving their purpose. However, social media tends to become a distraction and one that generates more stress than it relieves. Spending less time on Twitter/Facebook means I will have more time to engage in deeper conversation and nurture one-one-one connections. I’ll still use social media, but with intention and in time-constrained amounts.

What about you? What are some ways you figure out how to continue or end projects? What things are you planning to do less and/or more of this year?

One comment

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    I’m so glad for you that your health has settled down, and that your family is in a more sustainable situation.

    Going on the Hacker School sabbatical in late 2013 helped me partly because it meant I unsubscribed from approximately all my work email lists before I left, and am being mindful about what I add back. Now I am attempting to do that with my personal correspondence as well – your post reminded me to unsubscribe from the GNOME Foundation list. And I’m using Beeminder to help me reduce email clutter, keep my inbox down, etc. I let go of probably hundreds of kind-of opportunities to help out in some marginal way with projects. It’s good to have those dispensed with.

    Thanks for posting this.