My good friend David Szweduik asked an incredible question on his most recent podcast (Episode 16), and the question is "When do I stop?" This is a hell of a question because it's something every maker, creative, and artist struggles with. I had a lot of thoughts listening to him muse on this question, and I decided that instead of tweet-storming my answer, I'd take the opportunity to explore it here because knowing when to stop is something I've worked very hard on over the past 10 years or so, so let's dig in.
At two different points in my life, I've done large streaks of YouTube videos. One was a companion to my old blog where I would talk about various things, or do lifestyle / vlog type videos where I would just record things I did during a day. I did over a year of those, took a hiatus, then did a few more months of it. The second was a video series called Three Minutes or Less, where I would talk about the issues of the day in 3 minute clips. I did that for 16 months, daily (although the last 4 months were done only on weekdays).
Those two projects ended for different reasons. IT.tv ended when I just decided it was too much work and it was cutting into other things. Three Minutes or Less ended when I just decided it wasn't getting the traction I was hoping for. The time investment was simply too large for the return, and I felt like if I kept going it could grow, but it was time to stop, and that's exactly the lesson David was talking about. Had I kept going there was, of course, potential for growth. There's also the potential for viewership to go down, so what do I do? For me the answer was to evaluate the current situation and make an educated guess about the future investment, future return, make the hard decision to cut the project.
It's hard to do that, believe it or not. Sure you see the relief of not having that burden on your back any more, but it also feels kinda bad. When you invest so much time into something, putting it to bed permanently is a sad moment even though it frees you to pursue other things.
I definitely have had projects overstay their welcome because I didn't know when to stop them, though, and getting it out of my life was definitely a good thing.
As a maker, I find similar moments to a different degree, and that's when I'm making a project of some kind. If you've ever made anything out of wood, you know there are two stages in the project where you have to literally tell yourself to stop: sanding and finishing.
Back in June I was working on a cutting board as a gift, and I was in a hurry, so instead of using my random orbital sander (the smart thing to do) I brought out the belt sander (not smart at all) with a 60-grit belt (even less smart). I worked on the board and it knocked down the uneven spots very quickly. Then I got distracted and left the belt sander in place and... Well... The cutting board had a very nice imprint of the sander in it which took hours to clean up. Not smart on my part, but had I known when to stop with the belt sander and switched to the random orbital sander, that gouge wouldn't have happened and I could have moved on quickly. Essentially, I didn't know when to stop. Finishing also becomes a problem. "Just one more coat" is something woodworkers tend to say a lot. "One more. One more. One more." That sounds like it wouldn't make too much of a difference, but it actually does. You could end up with a cloudy finish, or, depending on what your client wants, end up with a plastic shiny finish when the client wants something less shiny, or something similar and while it's fixable, it's time, and time is money.
Even the people I look up to go through this. Knowing when (or if) to stop is tricky even for people with a ton of experience; as this tweet from David Picciuto demonstrates:
Obviously the question here isn't knowing when to stop, but knowing if you should stop at all. Often I find myself in this situation; I know (as best I can) it won't work and I want to see what happens. If it's part of a bigger project, then it gets a little scary and you have to make a risk assessment: do you want to risk it not working and ruining the project and starting over? Or are the results going to be so great that you roll the dice and hope for the best?
Tough call, isn't it?
As with all my posts, I like to leave you with a takeaway you can apply to your own creative endeavors, so here it is: stopping isn't failure. Calling a project done and not pushing it any further is not failure. Understanding diminishing returns is not failure. Freeing your time from one thing to work on something else isn't failure. All of these are the emotions you'll feel when you think about "stopping" whether it's an ongoing project or something you're working on, but then you have to remember another important thing: failure isn't failing.
Failure is an opportunity to learn something and apply that learning to the future, so don't be afraid to fail. There's a good chance if you aren't failing, you aren't pushing your boundaries hard enough and that's even sadder than something not working out. Now get out there and create!