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Tuesday 9 April 2013

The Project Resistance Curve

Lately I’ve been working on a major project for the clinic, and I’ve reached a very familiar point. I don’t want to do it.

I’m bored. My mind is coming up with every possible excuse to avoid working on it.

Fortunately, I’ve been through this enough times that I recognize it. I know most of the tricks my mind will play on me to try to get me distracted.

  • “Hey, remember that other project you thought of last year? That would be more fun, wouldn’t it?”
  • “This thing isn’t going to work out anyway. No one will want it, so all this effort will be wasted.”
  • “There are more important things for you to do. Like wash the car. Or clean out your desk drawers. Or rearrange your filing system.”

Anything to get me away from the task.

It has occurred to me that I can’t be the only one this happens to. In fact, I know it isn’t: clients report a similar phenomenon all the time. And in graduate school whenever you went to someone’s home and noticed it was clean, they would nod self-consciously. “I know. Thesis avoidance.”

But by this point in my life it has happened so many times that the rises and falls in enthusiasm have begun to show a pattern. Maybe other people experience the same pattern. Or maybe different people experience different patterns, each as individual as a fingerprint. Probably not: the pattern isn’t complex enough to be so unique.
Attraction (+) or Repulsion (-) to a Project by %age Completion

So here’s mine. I’ve graphed the subjective experience over the percentage of the project that’s been completed. Points above the centre line indicate attraction to the project – wanting to work on it, and feeling tempted to put everything else aside to devote attention to it. Points below the line indicate repulsion, and the further below the line the greater the aversion.

Initially when the project occurs to me it seems extremely interesting – possibly because it holds the promise of distracting me from some other project I’m already stuck doing. If I manage to hold off until I complete whatever I was supposed to do before it, the enthusiasm can be quite high. “This is great! I’ve discovered my true calling.”

Often there is a feeling of inspiration – a sense that I can see the entire completed project, in detail; all I have to do is follow the instructions, or write it all down. Others report this feeling for their own projects as well, it’s not just me. (And no, you closet diagnosticians, this does not describe a hypomanic episode.)

As the project progresses, the illusion of inspiration (and it is always an illusion) fades.  Unexpected complications appear. The beautiful structure that seemed so flawless is, it turns out, flawed. Things need to be reworked. Details need to be filled in. And the sheer quantity of drudge work the project will entail becomes obvious.

The initial burst of interest fades, and the project becomes a vaguely interesting sideline. There’s still an attraction to it, but it is gently subsiding, and the hope is that I can complete the project before it vanishes altogether.

This invariably turns out to be impossible. The level of interest crosses the neutral line and becomes an aversion. This is where the brain begins to come up with roadblocks, excuses, and diversionary tactics.  The feeling of aversion intensifies, in part because the end is so far off that it might as well not exist. The project begins to seem like Sisyphus’ job of rolling the rock endlessly and pointlessly to the top of a hill for eternity.

Eventually the end of the project begins to inch closer. Suspense develops. Is it possible to get to the end before the aversion becomes irresistible and the project is put away unfinished?

If I keep slogging, there is a quite sharp shift in motivation as the end comes into clear view. This usually happens when the project is about 90% complete. Suddenly it seems easier to get to work. Things begin flowing again. The aversion disappears and interest rises, often matching or exceeding the initial enthusiasm. There is a flurry of work.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite last until the last “t” is crossed. At this point there is a sense that “I’m basically done; I can relax and celebrate a bit.” Giving in to this thought can prolong the project in a way that seems silly to anyone who has been following the progress. “What are you doing? Go to the damned mailbox and send it to the publisher (or whatever)!”

Why bother posting such a narcissistic bit of navel-gazing? In part, because clients often describe a very similar pattern. Creative types notice the evaporation of interest, and they despair that they will never finish anything. Students put their theses on hold and wait for interest to return. It has been helpful to discuss my pattern with them and see if they notice their own characteristic project resistance curve over time.

As well, different points on the curve sometimes seem to get mistaken for mood disorders.  More than one young adult that I’ve seen has been precipitously diagnosed with bipolar II disorder on the basis of their initial enthusiasm for a project. Others have had depressive episodes queried during their lulls.

So what are people’s experiences? When you have a big project, what’s your curve like?


  1. I can relate to this post...and wonder if I can share it with my dog training students and ask for their thoughts?

  2. Absolutely, share away. I'm guessing that dog training also follows a curve: an initial burst of enthusiasm, followed by a decline when the amount of commitment required becomes evident.

  3. I really liked the post. It illustrates something I've always intuited. But, if I were to graph my own project resistance curve, I'd guess that my dip would be deeper and earlier. I wonder how much variance there is in everyone's curves and what psychological attributes could predict the variances.

    From a more industrial standpoint, I further wonder whether certain types projects generate similar resistance curves. It would be interesting to find out if you could modify the project to make it more palatable for execution.

    One thing that sort of jumps out at me about your graph is the fact that as a project nears completion, the risk for project failure goes down. This isn't my discovery, it is based on doctrine promulgated by the Project Management Institute. I'll bet that there's a correlation between the dip in your graph and the project's risk for failure. Maybe we begin to lose interest in the project once we believe that we can get off the ground. It is as if that area is where our creative drive has been fulfilled and the work remaining is mere detail.

  4. This reminds me of an old adage about business: Entrepreneurs make lousy managers. Some of us are more interested in the risky, creative, exciting process of starting something up - but then get bored and distracted once things are running smoothly. Others like tending a finely-tuned machine once it exists, but don't like the chaos of startup.

    Personally, my enthusiasm peaks early in part due to an almost-always-erroneous thought that "this will be easy" and then dips as the gruntwork grinds on. The enthusiasm returns when the end appears to be in sight.

    One strategy for modifying the project that I did not mention in the post is to subdivide the project into subprojects. The project I'm actually thinking of in the post, a 15-hour video course on how to run our group therapy protocol, is a case in point. It involves scripting, filming, collecting additional visuals, and editing - each of which are huge tasks.

    I've manage to avoid burnout by alternating between the four. I finished the scripting (about 500 pages of notes) by thinking of it as a separate project, distinct from the others. And, indeed, it is the least satisfying so has the strongest aversion. I've now collected most of the ancillary visuals and have filmed about 60% of the content, most of which is now edited (luckily it's divided into 50 or so individual lectures of 8-20 minutes). Filming is done in day-long sessions scheduled in advance, so there's not much avoidance there. And editing is a bit addictive, like a somewhat tedious video game, so it has a pull of its own.

    Will it be finished? I'll post back here when it is.

  5. Dr. Paterson!

    The dip you are experiencing is in fact, THEE Dip that Seth Godin has written a book on. It's called, of course, "The Dip." I'd buy it or check it out in the library - its a good read.

    Basically the idea of the Dip is that when you are starting something out, there will be a lot of enthusiasm matched with some reward. This is what happens when you dabble. As time progresses, however, you encounter “The Dip” where the journey gets tough. If you push through “The Dip”, THEN you reap the rewards.

    Here are some quotes from the book I liked:

    “The Cul-de-Sac ( French for "dead end" ) ... is a situation where you work and work and work and nothing much changes”
    ― Seth Godin

    "Stick with the Dips that are likely to pan out, and quit the Cul-de-Sacs to focus your resources”
    ― Seth Godin

    I had written an article on it on my website a while back. But I'm transitioning my site. :/

    The dip is the filter that hinders people from success. It's the giant filter, it's the lull in your motivation and the period that tests your commitment. This may be the thing you are experiencing.

    Stay Empowered,

  6. I have found that my curve has a second set of oscillations wherein I may be trending toward repulsion, however, there may be a period of a few days where the attraction is stronger. Often the upswing results from a new idea, or someone else's interest or positivie input etc. I sometimes feel that this attaction & interest/repulsion & lack of interest is something that only happens to depressed individuals and it is helpful to note that others struggle with it.