Your Guide to Get Through Development Hell

Stressed boy working on laptop

(Image: wan mohd)

Are you working on a difficult project now? Do you feel like quitting because everything feels so difficult?

If so, I feel you. Development hell is a state where a project gets trapped in limbo and can’t seem to progress. Though it is commonly used to refer to movie productions, development hell can happen for any project, such as if you’re trying to…

  • … start a business
  • … write a book
  • … create a new software or plugin
  • … produce a new artwork
  • … build a successful blog
  • … or simply, create anything GREAT.

You know you are in development hell if…

  • You are feeling very stressed up about a project
  • You’ve invested a huge amount of time and energy but it’s not even halfway done
  • Nothing you do seems to move the project forward
  • Every step you take reveals new obstacles
  • Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do! O_O

Your Guide to Get Through Development Hell

For the past three-and-a-half months, I was stuck in development hell, writing my latest book. While my writing started off well, it quickly descended into drudgery as the work turned out to be more than what I had prepared for. After much grueling mental work for four months, I finally completed the book and sent the manuscript to my publisher!

If you are currently stuck in development hell, don’t feel that you’re alone. Here is my guide to get through this painful period!

1. Decide If This Project is Worth Pursuing

The fact that you’re in development hell means that there is a large amount of obstacles to work through before you can see the project through to success. Here, you need to decide:

  1. Do I want to do this, or not?
  2. What are the benefits vs. costs of doing this? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? (Ignore sunk costs such as the time you have already spent on it. These are costs that have already been invested and don’t change no matter what you do now.)
  3. What are the opportunity costs? (Meaning, what else can you be doing if you’re not working on this? Are there more worthwhile projects to pursue?)

Contrary to popular belief, quitting isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it may be better to quit if (a) the project is too costly to continue, (b) the benefits don’t outweigh the costs, (c) there are other more worthwhile things you can complete during this time, and (d) you don’t particularly care for this to begin with.

Evaluate if this project is worth your attention, make a decision, and move on. Whatever it is, don’t get stuck in limbo for too long.

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 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

White flower

Perfectionism is a serious problem when it comes to big projects. Not only does it make you obsess over tiny details that don’t matter, but it makes it impossible to progress because you keep fine-tuning everything to get the “best” outcome.

I once had a coaching client, a trainer, who is a heavy perfectionist like myself. 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.

Read: How to Overcome Perfectionism (series)

4. Take a Break

Feet in water

The problem with being in development hell is that it’s a catch-22. On one hand, you’re frustrated that you’re not progressing despite spending so much time on it. You refuse to stop until you complete this. On the other hand, it’s precisely because you’ve spent so much time and energy that you have reached a level of mental (and perhaps physical) fatigue with this goal. When you keep seeing something for a long time, it becomes difficult to see its problems. It’s like running around in a maze and not knowing that you’re in a maze.

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.

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, and dinner 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.

Hands holding red seeds

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.

Read: How to Make More Best Friends in Life: My Heartfelt Guide

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:

  1. What’s blocking me in this project right now?
  2. 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 that 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.

Read: Are You Self-Sabotaging Yourself? (Understanding Self-Sabotaging Behavior and Breaking It)

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 to 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

Girl peering from under leaves

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.

Read: 45 Tips To Live a Healthier Life

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. 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. 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 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.

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, 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, 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.

Read: How to Finish What You Start: 10 Important Tips

Image: Upset girlHellWoman thinking, White flowerRelaxed feet, HandsGirl peering, Steps