Working on a side project is a unique joy when it comes to being in tech. Our imaginations are ignited, the day-to-day is broken up, and we are rewarded with the satisfaction of knowing we’ve created something that could help someone down the line.
However, as many of us might be able to attest, this does not speak to their completion. Like a famous painter once said, "art is never finished, only abandoned." The same can also be said about software. Oftentimes, as engineers, we can feel pangs of guilt at the thought of GitHub repositories gathering dust somewhere in the cloud.
Let’s explore the art of letting go, why it’s okay to do so, and lay out a few strategies to leave side projects — along with the guilt — behind for good.
The side project rollercoaster of excitement
Let’s use software development as an example. Who doesn’t love that feeling of a brand new generated app? Setting up those dependencies, creating a new GitLab repository, picking a colour scheme… It’s a joy!
After getting a very early stage version up and deployed, we take to our social media platform (or web platform!) of choice and announce it to the world. We watch the stars, likes, hearts, etc flow in. We’ve done it, pals.
Starting a new side project is also oftentimes a great time to try out that new framework or tech stack everyone is talking about or pick up some new skills or knowledge along the way.
Weeks pass, months pass, and your side project, while certainly further along, does not feel complete. What was initially excitement and motivation driving you forward, fueled by the instant gratification of external validation, helped. But as the novelty fades, the external response slows down, and the momentum fades.
There are a number of factors that can get in the way of a side project reaching a finished state. There’s also an argument to be made as to what “finished” really means! For instance:
- Life happens. Priorities change. The new and/or shiny is neither new nor shiny anymore. A newer, shinier tech tool is out!
- Maybe you discover that the project isn’t helping others in the ways you thought it would.
- Maybe the project feels a lot messier or more imperfect to you than you’d like it to be. A fear or failure can definitely throw a spanner in the works!
It’s what makes letting go all the more difficult.
Letting go of side projects (or anything else) is hard
Here’s the thing: we’ve all been there!
The weight of an unfinished side project often has an impact on our well-being, creating mental clutter, a reminder of our unfulfilled aspiration. We sometimes even stifle our creativity for new projects. Thoughts such as, “I can’t start a new project, I still have this old one (and maybe a handful of others like it) lying around!” begin to emerge.
The weight of an unfinished side project often has an impact on our well-being, creating mental clutter, a reminder of our unfulfilled aspiration. We sometimes even stifle our creativity for new projects.
Worse still, we take to our doomscrolling platform of choice and are met with nothing with success and inspiration. “Ugh, person I follow X has launched yet another finished, polished, perfect project,” we say to ourselves. Comparing our unfinished projects to their immaculate creations only diminishes our confidence and motivation further.
Strategies for letting go of your side projects
There is no one-size-fits-all way to let go of projects that’s going to work for every situation and person.
What has helped me in the past is to take a series of questions and reframe things:
Question 1: Is this a high priority?
Let’s face it: our priorities can shift over time. Something that might have excited us in the past might just not be as significant over time. And that is 100% okay.
It’s critical that you let yourself move on from projects that no longer are aligned with what you want to be doing.
Question 2: Can you LFC (look for contributors)?
Just because you’re no longer working on a project, doesn’t mean others can’t! Plenty of folks will put up their projects up for adoption, which can be as straightforward as putting a contact in the project’s README, or even archiving the project for forking!
It can be so tempting to compare ourselves to others, forgetting that they too abandon or exchange loads of projects!
Question 3: What can others learn from this?
A lot of what we do is valuable for our personal growth and fulfillment, but it’s equally valuable to consider the impact that we can have on our peers. Sure, the project is unfinished, but the insights and lessons learned are evergreen!
Collecting these and sharing them in our preferred medium also has the secret advantage of helping us understand concepts better by teaching them!
You might hear a lot about learning in public, the concept that emphasizes the benefits of sharing your process, struggles, and accomplishments with the world. It enables transparency, vulnerability, and accountability. It invites others to join you on your path, offer support, and create a sense of community.
It especially helps to combat the trap of comparing yourself with others, when you discover that we all go through these troughs.
Final thoughts: Sunsetting side projects
It’s important to remember that the act of letting go is not a sign of failure. On the contrary, it’s a testament to one’s ability to prioritise and adapt. To embrace the courage to release unfinished projects and redirect your energy towards endeavors that truly matter to you.
It’s important to remember that the act of letting go is not a sign of failure. On the contrary, it’s a testament to one’s ability to prioritise and adapt.
Our creative journeys are unique, and by focusing on projects that align with our passions, we can create a fulfilling and meaningful path forward, doing so in a way that lifts those around us up, too!
Ramón Huidobro is a developer advocate and developer education enthusiast. He thrives on lifting others up in their tech careers and loves a good CSS challenge. Always excited to talk about teaching tech, especialmente en Español, oder auf Deutsch.