Sticking with Long-term Projects

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.
– commonly attributed to Bill Gates

First, a working definition: a long-term project is anything that requires sustained effort over long periods (many years, decades, or even an entire lifetime). This effort can be additive—doing something, for example, exercising regularly—or subtractive—not doing, for example abstaining from alcohol.[1]

In my life, the following situation has played out often:

  1. I set out on an ambitious long-term project.
  2. I quit.[2]

This is very frustrating because if you asked me initially whether I really meant to stick with it, I'd say something like, "Hell yeah!". But soon, my initial motivation would start fizzling out, and challenges would start popping up everywhere. These challenges would quickly become overwhelming, and I'd quit.

However, long before I noticed myself doing this, I saw the behavior in other people—and not just in some people—but in almost everyone around me: my parents, friends, colleagues, and extended family. So I think this problem is more or less universal.

When I look back at the last five years of my life, I've embarked on more than fifty so-called long-term projects. I have only not quit on two: I meditate every day, and I read a lot, regularly. This realization struck me. I didn't notice until I started writing this post, until I started writing this very paragraph: those two habits over the years have compounded massively!

My life today—how I spend my time, and my mental and physical health—looks very different from five years ago, and it's largely due to those two habits. Reading regularly has turned the torch of my natural curiosity into a forest fire. Even though I've loved playing video games all my life—and nothing was more engaging—these days I find myself being drawn away from masterpiece games, like Elden Ring, to reading books![3] Similarly, meditation has profoundly impacted my wellbeing, making me more equianimous and less distracted.

This makes me very hopeful. In spite of turning over long-term projects like toilet paper at Costco, just sticking to two of them has made such a huge difference. What could my life be like if I stuck with just a handful more high-impact long-term projects? This is why I'm writing this post. I want to figure out how to stick with more of these projects. But first, I want to understand what makes it so hard to stick with them: despite my best intentions, why did I quit on so many of them?

Why is it hard?

The way I see it, there are two kinds of challenges in sticking with long-term projects: (1) intrinsic and (2) extrinsic. Intrinsic challenges are those that are inseparable from the projects: they are part of the projects themselves. Conversely, extrinsic challenges can and should be separated from projects: they are either inefficiencies that can be eliminated entirely, or are optional/configurable parts of a project.

Having to put in work regularly and consistently is a universal intrinsic challenge to all long-term projects. This consistent effort is especially challenging because most projects have a mismatch in the timescale of effort exerted and reaped rewards. You exert effort every hour/day/week to accrue noticeable returns in several years or decades. For instance, lifting weights for a day, or even a few weeks, may not produce any visible results, leading to a loss of motivation.

A universal extrinsic challenge is spreading too thin over long-term projects. If you are doing too many long-term projects in addition to other demands of everyday life, you're unlikely to stick with them. It is extrinsic because if you focus on fewer projects, the problem goes away without changing anything about the projects themselves. This challenge was perhaps the biggest factor for why I kept quitting on projects. For example, I tried to do four time-intensive projects in addition to regular grad school work (I quit on them all of them eventually).

Here are some more examples to make the distinction clear. Not enjoying running is an intrinsic challenge to the project of becoming a runner: you would have to work on acquiring the "taste" of running. However, for a broader project of becoming more fit, enjoying running is extrinsic since you can just pick another exercise. Although regularly playing itself is intrinsic to becoming a violin maestro, practicing playing every day at 5pm is a self-imposed extrinsic challenge (which can seem insurmountable if your kids come back from school at 4:30pm).

Setting the wrong long-term project or the wrong extrinsic challenges can make projects fail before they even begin. Conversely, it is essential to think about the parameters of the project you're about to set.

To summarize, any long-term project is difficult because of intrinsic and extrinsic challenges. Being aware of what they are can help guide the long-term projects you set on. Now let's get to how you can improve your odds of success with long-term projects.

What we can do

As I mentioned before, I have experience with both sticking to long-term projects and quitting them.[4] Over the last few months, I spent a lot of time figuring out what made some projects more successful than others. I found the most effective methods are: (1) knowing why the project is important to you, (2) designing a custom process, (3) making continuing easier and quitting harder, and (4) focusing on and prioritizing a small number of projects

I. Know your why

The ultimate superglue for sticking with a long-term project is to have a very strong reason for why you want to do it. So if you already have an unrelenting drive for a given project, you probably don't need any additional methods. Yet if it were easy to have or develop such a strong drive, this post would be much shorter. For many projects, you don't discover a strong reason until you've stuck with that project for a long time. Now, this is a textbook catch-22 situation: you need the drive to stick with a project, but sticking with a project is what helps you find that drive. The way out? The other methods can help you get started, even without a strong drive.

II. Design a custom process

Designing a custom process, by far, has been the most important contributor to sticking with long-term projects for me. I cannot overstate its importance. It is because I let go of the conventional method of reading books—one by one, cover to cover—I expanded my reading volume and quality.

There are numerous resources/guides that lay out, in great detail, how to do        , where the blank can be anything from investing, exercising, cooking, writing, learning how to code, etc. But I've found that, sooner or later, I fail to persist when I follow someone else's method. I hit a roadblock that their method doesn't foresee--which is inevitable since my life circumstances are different from theirs--or I simply get bored of following a static procedure.

With a custom process, you can always change things up to keep them fresh and fun and make modifications to deal with your personal roadblocks.

Designing your own process doesn't mean that you have to start from a blank slate, although you most certainly can. I love learning about the processes of people I admire. Many successful people talk about their process in interviews, podcasts, books, etc. You can also deduce parts of their process by observing their craft closely.

I've found that these process insights from other people usually take two forms: modules and templates. Modules are components that can be added to (or removed from) a process to make it better. By itself, a module is just a small part of the entire process. Some examples of process modules are applicable principles, nuggets of wisdom, sound assumptions, subskills, and tools (software or physical). In contrast, a template is a fully functioning process with a few missing pieces, if any. You can start using it right away with minor adjustments.

So you can build a new process by bundling together borrowed and original modules, or you can add or remove modules to/from an existing template to make it yours. I will go through some examples later in the post.

Designing a new process can be fun and stimulating (it is for me). But you should be wary of falling into the trap of mental masturbation. Designing a process for something can almost feel like doing that thing. James Clear talks about this in his article on being in motion vs. taking action.

Further, many ideas that seem like they could work in theory may not work when you actually test them. Thus, to avoid merely feeling good about a process, it is essential to execute, test, and iterate on your process in the real world.

Finally, as you start getting the hang of it, you might consider designing a process to design other process.[5]

III. Make continuing easier and quitting harder

As I wrote in a post about indecisiveness, we have a strong preference for conserving our energy. We also have a limited amount of willpower and fickle bouts of motivation. There are simple strategies that can help conserve willpower and make motivation unnecessary. But before we get into the strategies, it is important to distinguish between psychological and actual effort. The former is what often matters.

Meditating every day for ten minutes is laughably easy[6] in terms of actual effort. The psychological strain of "yet another task on the to-do list," however, can be substantial. Similarly, even a ten-minute commute to an unremarkable gym can be a giant psychological barrier to exercising regularly.

One way to reduce the psychological effort is to bring down the "effort to start" to as low as possible. In the case of meditation, you could aim to meditate for just one minute a day. Let anything more than a minute be optional. Eventually, meditating for longer will become easier. Getting versatile exercise equipment (like quick adjustable dumbbells) at home is one way of bringing down commute time to zero.

Another way to bring down the psychological effort is to make the activity more enjoyable/less boring. When starting out, guided meditation makes meditating more accessible. Playing a sport and joining classes (like yoga, Orangetheory, climbing, etc.) are some options for the same with exercise.

One of the most potent motivators for any project is visible progress. Conversely, no apparent signs of progress is a great de-motivator. If, every time you ran 5 miles, the next time became 50% easier, you would start to enjoy running almost immediately. If smoking a cigarette had a 50% chance of making you cough blood instantly, quitting would be easy.

But when progress is not intrinsically apparent, we can introduce artificial progress. An effective and popular method of doing this is using a habit tracker. James Clear has a great guide on habit tracking on his blog. There are many cool habit-tracking apps on both the App Store and the Play Store. A word of caution from personal experience, though. Overusing a habit tracker (using it for too many things) can make you feel like your habit tracker's slave, which can lead to burnout.

Introducing consequences for quitting can also be useful. For example, I promised myself that if I didn't write at least two posts this month, I would donate $1000 to a cause or company I can't stand behind.[7] Causes like anti-climate change or companies like Fox News and BuzzFeed. Some people also like using an "accountability partner": get a friend to help you be more accountable towards your project. You can even ask them to introduce consequences (like I do for myself[8]) if you don't do something.

IV. Focus and priortize

As I said above, spreading too thin over projects was the biggest single contributor to my quitting so many of them. You have to be realistic about how much time you have. It's better to focus on one or two long-term projects and doing them well rather than botching seven of them. Prioritizing ruthlessly is key. Yet, this is much harder done than said.

We live in a world with a staggering number of opportunities available to us. It is very hard to put on your blinders and resist the torrent of potential new projects, the imagined possibilities, the alluring novelty, and the fear of missing out (FOMO). And honestly, I'm not very good at prioritizing yet and am still learning. Reminding yourself that your current projects have value and trying to anticipate how a new project might lose its allure as its novelty wears off can help somewhat. If you feel very strongly about a new project, consider it, but be realistic about your time. Consider eliminating an existing project.

Examples

I preach what I practice. In writing the above methods, I drew from what I have tried or am currently trying. This section will go into the specifics of some of my current long-term projects.

Disclaimer: My intention is to make the above methods more clear and concrete. I am not prescribing what I do to anyone. But feel free to pick bits and pieces if they suit you. Also, I don't get any compensation whatsoever from the individuals, books, products, and services I mention below.

Reading regularly

For most of my life, I read books one by one. I didn't start a new book until I finished the previous one. I never thought about doing it any other way. This really slowed me down, and there were entire months and years where I didn't read a single book (apart from coursework). Then four ideas changed my reading life forever:

  1. It's okay to quit on "bad" books.
  2. Don't think twice before buying a potentially good book. The returns from even a single great book can more than make up for the money spent on hundreds of bad books. (from Ramit Sethi, in a podcast with Tim Ferris)
  3. There is no need to read just one book at a time.
  4. Follow your curiosity. There is no need to read a given set of "must-reads." Your curiosity will eventually take you to the "classics." (from Naval Ravikant)

Borrowing from the "modules" of Naval Ravikant and Ramit Sethi, I designed a reading process that worked very well for me. I have about five books in the "currently reading" state at any given time. I pick whichever one I feel like at a particular moment and start reading.

But as I started reading more, I realized that retention was becoming a problem. After reading a book, I'd walk away with insights but soon forget them. So I started taking notes when I read. But this was too much friction for me. Writing notes wasn't always convenient and created a psychological barrier that made reading harder.

Around the time of that struggle, I found Readwise and fell in love. It automatically grabs highlights from books I read and puts them into a spaced repetition based recall system. This made reading regularly much easier, enjoyable, and profitable (in terms of retention). Finally, in writing this post, I've noticed how my reading habit has had compounding returns which helped build a strong reason for why I want to continue reading.

Meditating

Nearly everyone starts with a template for meditation from either in-person or digital teachers.[9] One day, I just decided that I wanted to try meditation. I downloaded an app, tried it for a few days, didn't like the app, downloaded another, and so on until I found something I liked.

I really wanted to understand the logic of meditation. Some apps didn't get into that at all, some were too woo woo for my taste[10], and others just explained some surface-level stuff like how it helps reduce stress.[11] I plodded along like this for a few weeks until I heard Sam Harris talk about mindfulness in a podcast. He explained how by paying clear attention to the present moment, you cease to be tossed around by your thoughts and emotions while still experiencing them fully. I started using his app, Waking Up, soon after.

Currently, I meditate on my own sometimes and use Waking Up other times. I meditate for at least ten minutes every day and occasionally meditate for an hour or longer. Once I understood the logic of mediation, the psychological effort of practicing went way down. And after practicing it for many years, and experiencing firsthand what I only knew intellectually before, I have built a very strong reason to continue practicing.

Writing

The project of writing is much more recent than the previous two: it started in February of 2022, about four months old at the time of writing this post. I started writing once before in June '21 but failed to stick with it after three months. I made many mistakes then—not having a process and juggling too many things being the two worst. My stake in the ground this time: I will delete this post if I don't continue writing regularly. What a charlatan I would be otherwise!

The core of my writing process is made from David Perell's writing process. David teaches online writing and goes deep into the various steps of his process. It can't get any more "templaty" than this. I've been iterating on the core process by adding modules from other sources.

One such source is Tim Urban's blog Wait But Why; I love his playful writing style, and the illustrations make me giggle. I often re-read his posts just to study his writing style.

Another source is Stephen King's memoir On Writing. It has a ton of directly actionable advice on writing, which I try to incorporate here.

An idea that I came up myself with was working on multiple posts at a time: having three-five "currently active" posts and switching between them at my whim. It worked for my reading, and I thought it could also work for my writing.

Finally, I'm also constantly working on improving my writing by taking courses, reading books, etc.

Conclusion

I strongly believe that the best things in life are made of compounded effort. This post is a gift to my future selves for helping them to soldier on with their long-term projects. I hope their projects include many of which I'm currently working on. I also hope that this post helps many others who read it.


  1. related philosophical puzzle: is meditation additive or subtractive? ↩︎

  2. usually within a few weeks ↩︎

  3. Letters from a Stoic and The Personal MBA at the time of this writing ↩︎

  4. even if my experience with quitting probably outweighs sticking by fifty to one ↩︎

  5. I haven't done this yet, but it sounds fun. ↩︎

  6. you literally have to do nothing ↩︎

  7. this pact made me more than a little nervous ↩︎

  8. insert joke about me not having friends ↩︎

  9. this made me realize how counterintuitive meditation is; coming up with it from first principles seems so...out there ↩︎

  10. things like meditation connects you with the divine in you ↩︎

  11. while reducing stress can be immensely beneficial, I thought it was a "surface-level" reason because I couldn't imagine people two thousand years ago practicing meditation simply as a stress-reduction technique. The main reason had to be more fundamental. ↩︎