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The Side Project Prophecy

The Side Project Prophecy

January 17, 2022

The side project prophecy: the more you talk about building your side project, the less likely you are to ship it. — me, I guess

If you're like me, you've found yourself in a situation where you were so excited to pursue a new goal, start a new side project, or explore a new hobby, that you just couldn't wait to tell the world. So you tweet about it, get a flood of positive encouragement, and then...whoosh, suddenly the motivation has evaporated, another domain name laid to rest in the graveyard of side projects.

Experts have been pointing out this phenomenon for years:

Researchers concluded that telling people what you want to achieve creates a premature sense of completeness. While you feel a sense of pride in letting people know what you intend to do, that pride doesn't motivate you and can in fact hurt you later on. (source)

Researchers concluded that when someone notices your identity goal, that social recognition is a reward that may cause you to reduce your efforts. (source)

While it’s natural for the people you love to praise you after you announce an intention, this study suggests that when someone praises you for an inherent trait that you have little to no control over, it isn’t very helpful. Further, in some cases, it may be less motivating than receiving no praise at all, particularly after you experience failure. (source)

When you tell someone about your next big idea, the mental process of visualizing future success convinces your unconscious mind that it’s already happened. It doesn’t fill your body with pre-victory anxiety… It fills it with post-win celebration! (source)

This has happened to me enough times that I needed to understand why I'm sometimes able to successfully balance the building and the sharing, and sometimes the motivation disappears the moment I click tweet.

Two ways to solve this problem

1. Only tell people whose opinions you value

While doing some reading into the psychology of motivation for this post, I discovered a subtle nuance in how to talk about an emerging goal or project: it's okay to tell people about your goals and ambitions, as long you tell someone whose opinion you actually care about.

Contrary to what you may have heard, in most cases you get more benefit from sharing your goal than if you don’t – as long as you share it with someone whose opinion you value... (source)

Researchers say that sharing your goal with a higher-up does more than keep you accountable, it also makes you more motivated, simply because you care what this person thinks of you. For example, telling a mentor or manager about your hopes to get promoted could light a fire under you more than, say, a peer or friend. (source)

Many times I've told mentors and close friends about project ideas, only to have them fade away into nothingness. But hey, the experts say that this tactic can help, so it might be worth a try!

2. Build, then tweet

This is the key tactic to sharing and shipping that has helped me successfully ship projects in the past. If I tweet about something before doing any real work, the motivation quickly dies after telling the world.

But if I slightly invert things, and get just the smallest unit of work done before sharing, I find that the social feedback is a motivation multiplier.

It's the difference between hearing "Looks awesome!" and "What if it could do X? Have you tried Y? How can I sign up?" One of these things feels good in the moment, but is ultimately meaningless, while the other starts a conversation and builds creative momentum.

So what does building mean in this context? It's probably different for every person and project. A few things that come to mind, in ranked order of "work-ness":

  • Decide on a name
  • Design a logo
  • Design a mockup in Figma
  • Build a landing page
  • Set up an email capture or newsletter
  • Write a draft (for a blog post)
  • Write code

Whatever the work is for your project, it should create some kind of artifact that you can point to, iterate upon, or ship on its own. Buying a domain name doesn't count!

So instead of this:

Tweet → Build → Tweet → Build → ...

Try this:

Build → Tweet → Build → Tweet → ...

Here are a few examples of times this has worked well for me in the past:

  • When starting Design Details, we recorded five interviews before the first one was ever published. This gave us a good buffer time to get feedback from listeners and schedule the next set of guests.
  • When kicking off Staff Design, I shipped a landing page with an email form before tweeting about the project. I also had my first interview already scheduled on the calendar.
  • When writing the post about how my website works, I had already written ~2,000 words before tweeting about the post idea.

Build a little bit first, then share.

I believe in "working with the garage door up," but I'm also painfully aware of how the practice puts me in the position of getting too much positive feedback too early. With the two tricks above, however, it's possible to avoid fulfilling the Side Project Prophecy.