Are you working on a project that seems never-ending? Are you on the brink of quitting because the work has turned out to be much more than you anticipated when you signed up for it?
If so, welcome to “development hell.” A term that originated in the media industry, “development hell” refers to a state of project limbo where a project gets “stuck” in development, unable to progress to the next stage. If you are experiencing the following,
- You have invested a significant amount of time and energy in project (or goal, or task), with little progress to show for.
- Every step you take unveils more obstacles than you can manage.
- Even when you think things can’t get any worse, they do get worse! (Yay to Murphy’s Law!)
- Working on this project gives you misery.
- You can’t see any “light at the end of the tunnel”. In fact, you’re not even sure if there’s an end of the tunnel!
… then, you’re probably in development hell right now!
My Development Hell
For the past 3.5 months, I was stuck in the development hell as I wrote my new book. For what it’s worth, much of my pain was self-created. There were 3 factors:
- I had high expectations of how I wanted this book to be. Given that it’s a topic I’ve written a lot on before (productivity), I wanted it to supersede my previous work. So, I found myself constantly scrutinizing my manuscript. With every few words I typed, I kept asking myself if this was the best I could offer. This resulted in much back and forth as I wrote, edited, and deleted significant amounts of text each time.
- Given that I was writing a book, not an article, I felt more pressure to churn out superb writing. Especially I’ve written over 600 full-length articles on PE before.
- Originally my plan with my publisher was to make this book an extended version of one of my articles. Under this assumption, I set aside three weeks for writing. However, after I started writing, I decided to make this book 100% original with my best material on productivity. With this new scope, I would need a good 6 months to write it — 5 more months than what I had planned for! As that I was planning for my wedding, house hunting, updating my site, and the like, writing this book meant that I would have to push back or compromise on my other tasks.
So under the weight of these obstacles, I began to doubt if this book was going to see the light of the day. While I was excited when I started this project, these feelings soon turned to frustration as my manuscript exploded into a labyrinth of words. I had lots to do but no time for everything.
For a period, I felt depressed. Each day, I would wake up and write, pausing only to eat, bathe, and finally sleep. This cycle would repeat the next day. I saw emails coming in and other tasks beckoning me, but I couldn’t get to them because I had to write. Several times I thought, Should I just drop this and move on to other things?
Snapping Out of It
After a period of low, I decided I had enough.
Rather than flip back and forth between wanting to write and wondering whether to give up, I decided to put my foot down and make a call. Yes, I do want to write this book, was my final answer. Sure, while I had other to-dos and deadlines, this was an opportunity which might never come my way again. I didn’t want to let this go without a fight. Even if it meant compromising on other tasks (for now) and feeling the heat for a few months, I wanted to do this.
So I went into full-book-writing mode. Just suck it up and get it done. No more self-doubt. No more self-questioning. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Emerging from the Void
Over the months, I wrote and wrote. Some days slowly, some days quickly. Some days it was frustrating; other days more promising. My objective was simple: to share my best lessons on productivity with everyone.
I began to finish one chapter segment after another. Then, the chapters. Slowly, I began to see light creeping in from the end of the tunnel.
As I approached the final phase of writing, I couldn’t stop grinning. I started thinking about how the final book would be like, how it would benefit the people reading it, and how it would be the start of other grander projects.
Then came the day when I completed my manuscript. As I saved and exported the script, I smiled and cheered a silent “HURRAH!!!” After 3.5 months of intense writing (2.5 months earlier than I had projected), my book was finally completed. I emailed the script to my editor. I was done. I was finally done!!!!
Your Guide to Get Through Development Hell
If you are currently stuck in development hell, you’re not alone. Here is my guide to walk you through this painful period.
1. Decide If This Project is Worth Pursuing
The “development hell” phase is typically the make-or-break phase of a project — it’s either you push through with 100% commitment or you fail. The fact that you’re “stuck” right now means that this project is bigger — obstacles and all — than you anticipated, and so you need to decide if it is worth the time.
- Do I want to pursue this project? (This is your “WHY.”)
- What are the benefits if I see this to completion?
- What are the costs involved to complete it? How much more time and effort do I need to invest in it? (Ignore sunk costs which are costs that have already been invested and don’t change no matter what you do now.)
- Do the benefits of completion outweigh the costs?
- Are there severe implications if I quit?
If you have a strong “WHY” and the benefits of this project outweigh the costs, then that’s more than enough reason to move ahead with the project. However, if you don’t really care about this project, its benefits are overshadowed by the costs, and there aren’t major implications from quitting, then consider quitting. Contrary to popular belief, quitting isn’t a bad thing — in fact, sometimes you need to quit in order to win.
2. Break Down Your Tasks into Bite-Sized Pieces
If you’re intimidated by your project tasks, break them down into bite-sizes. Each “piece” should be simple enough to act on immediately. If it still intimidates you, that means it’s not small enough — keep dissecting it until it’s so simple that you can laugh at it. Then, get cracking! 😉
When I started writing my book, I created an outline of chapters. I focused on writing each chapter at a time. I knew from past experience that writing a book without an outline would be suicidal, and I needed to break it into segments first.
However, what I didn’t anticipate was that even the individual chapters needed breaking down — I kept getting stuck with them because I had so many ideas and considerations for each chapter! Writing a book chapter is also nothing like writing a blog article; you need to make sure that everything you write ties in with the bigger theme of the book.
To counter this, I broke down each chapter into sub-segments, followed by mini-sub-segments. Then, I focused on writing each mini-sub-segment each time vs. worrying about a zillion other things while writing. Doing so made writing much more manageable.
3. Keep Your Perfectionist Monster in Check
Ah, perfectionism. Golly. Perfectionism is good as it means having high standards, but it can also make us obsess over tiny details that don’t matter and miss the big picture.
My recent coaching client D, a trainer, is a heavy perfectionist. In the past couple of months, he has been working on improving the quality of his training materials. The problem is that this task has been taking way longer than he had planned — partly because he underestimated the time needed, partly because he keeps finding new things to add on, hence making the task grow bigger and bigger.
As a trainer, I know that product updates can go on forever — there are always new things to add and things to improve on! Without putting a cut-off on the project, it can burgeon out of control and never see the light of the day. I told D that while it’s great that he has so many ideas to implement, it may help to draw a line on things to work on for this update and leave the rest for the next update. D nodded and drew a great analogy with product software launches. He said, “It’s like new software launches where a company can be working on multiple future versions of a product. I can just work on the getting version 2.0 out first and leave the rest for version 3.0 next time.”
With your project, know what your priority areas are and focus on them. 80/20 applies. As for the non-priority areas, give them minimal to no attention. You have limited energy, so place them in areas that matter.
- How to Overcome Perfectionism (series)
- Achieve More With Less In Life Using 80/20 Principle (series)
- Get Your Big Rocks In First
4. Take a Break
If you’re thinking, Whattt?? Take a break?? I’m on a timeline here! I totally understand. After all, this was the same reaction I would give whenever my fiance Ken asked me to take a break from writing.
However, breaks are necessary for us to walk the longer path ahead. While some of us may think of breaks as distractions from work, breaks help us recuperate so that we can be more productive later on. Breaks also let us take a step back from work so that we can regain perspective and get new insights.
For example, during the times when I got stuck with writing, pressing on never helped me achieve more. I would write a lot of unsuitable material that had to be deleted later on; I would also be very frustrated since I would have spent hours writing without output. On the other hand, whenever I took a break, I would get new ideas for my book. Because I was away from the problem, I could see things from a wider perspective, after which I could immediately see what I was doing wrong and what I should be doing instead.
To quote the movie Now You See Me, “The more you look, the less you see.” When you’re stuck in a problem, you can never see what the problem is. It’s only when you take a step back that you can (a) see the situation in its entirety and (b) spot solutions that have been in your face all this while.
So if you’ve been working non-stop, take a break. Go for a meal, shower, relax your mind, or even meditate. Your break may well give you that big break that you’ve been looking for (no pun intended).
5. Talk to Someone (Get Emotional/Mental Support)
Mid-way through my book writing, I felt really shitty. One reason was because I wanted to get to my other urgent to-dos but couldn’t. Another reason was because I was imposing a lot of expectations on myself and became very self-critical.
The good thing was that Ken was there to support me every step of the way. Throughout the whole period, he would buy/cook breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper for me every day. When I was beating myself up, he would encourage me and perk me up. When I was being grumpy, he would patiently support me. When I wanted to talk about the book or get his feedback, he would be there to share his thoughts.
Having Ken to speak to about my book helped me stay positive about my writing. While I could have written the book in lone-ranger mode, Ken helped alleviate part of the weight that I was imposing on myself. I was responsible for writing and delivering my book, but I never felt that I was alone in my battle because he was around.
Working on a drawn-out project can make someone turn inward and become insular, so have someone you can talk to regularly. Message a friend, call a family member, chat with your partner, or even reach out to like-minded forum communities. Share your frustrations, vent if you have to, or even talk about non-work stuff. The point is to anchor yourself in the real world so that you don’t get lost in your own project universe.
6. Analyze What’s Blocking You
Sometimes when we’ve been stuck in the same situation for a while, it helps to analyze what’s blocking us rather than blindly push forward. Ask yourself:
- What’s blocking me in this project right now?
- How can I address this blockage?
While in “writing hell”, I had several blocks:
- I felt like I wasn’t fit to write the book until I’ve achieved ten times my level of achievement today.
- I felt like my advice was too simplistic.
- I felt like my advice would be too difficult for some people to apply (which totally contradicts the previous point).
These were nothing but mental blocks — self-imposed criticisms which were preventing me from moving forward. Somehow, my immense expectations of what my book should be made me question everything about my writing. Ironically, it was these expectations that were preventing my best ideas from flowing out. Even though I was being self-critical to give the best to my audience, I wound up sabotaging myself instead.
After I identified my blocks, it took me a while to acknowledge that my self-critical attitude wasn’t helping me to give my best to audience — it was preventing me from helping them. I realized that in order to write my best book, I needed to adopt the same approach in my course creation, coaching, and article writing — that is, writing from my heart and dispensing my best advice. After I made this switch, my writing finally began to flow.
7. Set a New Timeline
If you have been working towards a timeline that is unachievable or already past, create a new timeline. There is nothing more demotivating than striving for a target that is impossible. Assess your current to-dos and resources, and work out a new timeline of the tasks to do next and the dates to complete them by. Readjust your priorities if needed. Your targets should be both challenging yet achievable.
8. Get Feedback
When you’re working on a drawn-out project (especially if you’re doing it alone), the littlest of tasks can get magnified into a crater. It’s also not uncommon to bark up the wrong tree, only to realize that you’re heading in the wrong direction after a while! By then, you would wasted hours of your time without anything to show for — plus you would have less time to complete other things on your list.
To prevent such scenarios, make a point to get regular feedback, particularly from your target audience. No matter what you are doing, there is a group of people you are doing it for. For example, if you are launching a crafts store, your audience will be the people who want to buy craft material. If you are writing a gardening book, your audience will be people who want to learn about gardening.
While some may think that feedback can only come after the entire work is done, this isn’t true at all. You can get interim feedback as you work on your project. For example with my book, I would share snippets of my text with Ken every now and then to get his thoughts. In the early weeks of my writing, I also sent draft chapters to my editor, just to ensure that we were on the same page with the book direction.
9. Practice Self-Care
When we’re busy with work, it can be very easy to push aside other parts of our life. Skip meals, eat junk food, don’t exercise, neglect our social life, cut back on rest, and abandon our personal needs. Our underlying belief is that by spending more time on work, we can complete our work quickly, after which we can return to caring for ourselves.
Right? Wrong. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work this way. The different areas of our lives aren’t silos to be managed independently; they are interconnected like a web — you can’t neglect one without affecting the others. When you push back your personal needs, it creates negative impact on other parts of your life which may not be immediately visible. This negative impact creeps up in little ways later on, say sudden bouts of unhappiness, frequent low energy, low productivity, and sudden lack of motivation towards working. I elaborate on this in my upcoming book.
So, practice self-care and care for your needs. Make the time to eat healthy, exercise, catch-up with friends, and rest well (see Tip #4 on take a break). Nurturing your needs will create a positive effect in your other life areas too.
Resources for healthy living:
- Start off Your Day with a Healthy, Nutritious Oatmeal Breakfast (Under 300 Calories!) [Recipe]
- Recipe: Delicious Veggie Vegan Wrap
- 3 Easy Steps to Get Yourself to Exercise… Even if you HATE it (+ Beginner’s Workouts)
- Having Insomnia? How to Get a Perfect Night’s Sleep — Every Night
10. One Step at a Time
All things said, at the end of the day it comes down to action.
There are a lot of things involved with book writing. From planning, to brainstorming, to fact finding, to writing, to sorting through my labyrinth of thoughts and ideas, to editing, to proofreading, to more editing. The process easily take three months to years. Professional full-time writers like Malcolm Gladwell take years to publish a book!
What got me through my book writing was not by worrying about the things that I had to do ahead, but simply by taking one step at a time. When the going got tough and I got overwhelmed with the myriad of things to do, I would simply (a) open my Word document for my manuscript, and (b) write the next sentence for my book. Once I was done, I would write the next sentence. And then the next. And then the next.
This step-by-step approach was what got me through each day of my “writing hell.” Some days I would get grumpy: I would take a break (Tip #4), and return to write after that. Some days I would get derailed by random “fires”: I would tend to these activities first to prevent them from blowing up in my face, then return to write my book after that. No matter what happened, I would always return to take the next little step (see Tip #2 on bite-sized pieces).
Whatever you are working on, I know it’s tough. No one said things will be easy. However, since you have decided to pursue this project (Tip #1), then it’s now about gritting your teeth and getting things done. No one can do this for you but you. Feel free to get help (read: Your Guide To Outsourcing), but remember you need to be the one to lead the way.
To quote Joe Girard, “The elevator to success is out of order. You’ll have to use the stairs… one step at a time.” Don’t feel that you’re alone. You aren’t. There have been many people around the world right now, stuck in “hell” mode of their goals and projects too. Just keep taking baby steps and you will slowly walk your way out. Remember, every step you take is a step completed. If you focus on these little steps, you will be done soon enough.