Procrastination and the Perfect Project

News of Instagram’s new Hyperlapse product made waves over the past week, offering sensor-stabilized video for the masses. While it focuses on time compressed stabilization, similar to Microsoft’s recent solution, several other sensor-augmented projects have appeared over the past couple of years.

And before I’d heard of any of them, I had built a sensor-augmented video-stabilization solution. I doubt I was the first, and given that I never released anything, I staked zero ground in that battle, but it did give me pause to reflect on the pattern of how such side-projects fail to achieve their potential.

This is a recurring issue for my own novel projects, and I doubt I’m alone.

project

It begins with a concept of leveraging technology in a novel way, but the technology hill is steep so it’s easy to put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow. And then tomorrow.

Until one day I just buck up and get down to business, dedicated to making it happen. Progress comes rapidly.

Here’s where the feedback loop gets weird, though, and this happens in side project after side project: Despite the significant technical challenges that I had faced, now that I’ve overcome them the project now seems trivially easy. So easy that I can’t imagine that there’s a viable project without loading it absolutely full of functionality.

So I keep piling in more functionality.

Until it’s overwhelming. And then I abandon the project, my absence making me a stranger to it. The project moves further from being releasable.

I’ve done this on dozens of personal projects, and this post is a bit of reflection on that recurring pattern, because I imagine many others encounter the same loop of “too complex until it’s too trivial”.

One of the most remarkable things about successful projects like Instagram’s Hyperlapse, and this is a model that Apple has used to market and product success, is the functional minimalism — no options, extremely limited paths of execution…it just does a small set of things very well. You take a video, it processes it, and now you can share it. To compare that with the universe of options and functionality that I built out…it is an ongoing learning process.

There is a very valuable lesson in that.

My drive for side projects is entirely different from contract and paid work. In those domains I’ll conquer mountains of technology in short order because a clear destination, and a guaranteed, lucrative reward, awaits me. For these side projects, though, I’m never sure if it will pay off, even with implementation excellence and a first-mover advantage: Many very deserving projects lie in obscurity.