The Emotional Curve of Every Project

I was on a long flight again recently. Long flights are theoretically great times to get a lot of work done, but have historically only resulted in me getting caught up on podcasts, reading books, and/or drawing a cartoon or two. I imagine this is something that will have to change over my career if the amount of travel increases, but that’s a future Shannon problem.

As for right now, on my recent long flight, I realized that every project I’ve ever completed has gone through three main phases:

  1. I’m so excited about this!
  2. I’m very overwhelmed.
  3. I learned so much!

These three phases have corresponded with a pretty clear relationship with anxiety over time:

I could be alone, but the negative thoughts and time ruminating that occur in the transition from I’m so excited to I’m very overwhelmed is mostly irrational, but to this point these have been unavoidable. I know I’ve rarely completely failed at a project. Sure, I’ve abandoned projects, but rarely has my abandoning a project had anything to do with my ability. However, without fail, when I approach something new, I spend a fair amount of time acknowledging that I don’t know how to do what I’ve set out to do, even more time trying to jam all the information I possibly can into my brain about anything even remotely related to the topic at hand, some time making lists of things I think I need to do, and finally acknowledging that I’ve spent a lot of time worrying and a little time learning but haven’t actually done anything yet.

At some point, I convince myself I at least know enough to start just trying things. Despite my inclination to think I need a perfect plan and to know all the answers before trying things, this usually helps. I, of course, run into problems in this process and things go slower at some points when I have to circle back and read up on something I don’t know much about, but I make progress and learn a ton when I just start actually doing the project.

I’m working to minimize the activation energy needed to get started. This way, I can just learn the critical background information, spend time thinking about the project directly, and then start trying stuff before I convince myself I don’t know anything or end up unnecessarily overwhelmed. I haven’t gotten there yet. And, maybe this is all just part of the process. Until then, I’ll just keep reminding myself that I do eventually get there and I always learn a ton.