This is part of my series: American Zombie: How To Stop Being A Mindless Consumer.
Can I tell you something? I love starting new projects and learning new skills! I might buy a book on the Elixir programming language, enroll in a Spanish course, or order a slow cooker cookbook. The first 20 minutes of any new endeavor is incredible as I imagine the endless things I will make and do. In my mind, projects always have amazing outcomes and never have boring parts.
Can I tell you something else? I crave novelty and quickly get bored. My instinct is to drop projects as soon as they become boring. Or tedious. And this inevitably happens after 20 minutes. (Yes, my attention span is that short!) Learning Spanish is a dream but requires hundreds of hours of study, listening, and practice. Why stick with a laborious task when I can have the rush of starting something new?
Constantly starting projects thrills me but comes with two significant drawbacks:
- I don’t master anything. Or even become proficient.
- I spend lots of money on books, courses, and materials.
Now, the first downside is obvious. Dabbling in something is the opposite of becoming competent. It’s like always flirting but never committing. Completing projects and mastering skills takes prolonged effort. This is common sense but not common practice. (For me, at least—maybe you’re different!)
The second drawback is one people seldom discuss: new undertakings come with a price tag. For me, it’s books or gadgets or online courses. For you, it could be board games or woodworking tools or cross stitch patterns or golf clubs.
To be clear, spending money to start a project is completely fine. You need books, materials, and tools. There’s nothing wrong with buying stuff unless you’re like me and you start something every time you have a day off.
Through lots of trial and error, I discovered two ways to combat this problem:
1. Will I spend 5 hours each week on this? — In my dreams (aka delusions), I can learn new skills with no time and no effort. I simply think of an outcome, and BOOM, it’s there. I picture myself with Spanish friends in a café in Madrid. I see myself teaching others this new programming language. And I enjoy amazing slow cooker recipes, never get take-out again, and as a result, lose 30 pounds.
In contrast, just one of these aspirations requires dedication and prolonged effort. Learning Spanish takes hundreds of hours of tedious memorizing, listening, and practicing. Testing slow cooker recipes requires planning, shopping, chopping, and the occasional stomach pump when recipes go awry.
This disconnect between daydreams and reality causes me to start dozens of hobbies and drop them as soon as they get boring.
I bridge the chasm between illusion and reality with one question, “Will I work on this for 5 hours a week for the next 6 months?” Will I spend 5 hours every week learning Spanish? Nope. Will I spend that much time testing slow cooking recipes? Not a chance. I barely have time to read, exercise, and doom scroll Twitter.
This single question forces me to corral my fantasies and live in reality. As David Allen said, “You can do anything, but not everything.”
2. Don’t burn the boats — Legend has it that when Cortés landed in the Americas, he ordered his crew to burn the ships. This act removed their way home and forced them to move forward, conquer native peoples, steal their gold, and build new boats.
All-or-nothing attitudes are reasonable when you stick with something for the long-haul. But it’s a problem when you constantly switch projects.
So before you go all-in on an expensive language course, or outfit your woodshop, or buy a boat, just dip your toe in the water. Find an inexpensive way to determine if you will stick with this latest endeavor.
For example, a friend recommended a few writing courses on SkillShare. They have two subscription options: $30/month or $168/year. The annual option felt like a much better deal, but my spidey-sense whispered, “Just try it out.” So I signed up for one month and felt stupid as I binged courses the first day. I believed that I’d fly through the content. (I was wrong.)
The next day I got distracted with work and writing and Netflix and family drama. Life happened, and I didn’t log in to SkillShare for ten days. In the end, I completed the recommended courses and canceled my subscription right before it was renewed. At the time, it felt wasteful to pay $30 for one month, but it was the right move because I wasn’t ready to commit to one more thing.
Do you love starting new projects but struggle to stick with anything for more than the time it takes to watch a Seinfeld re-run? Did you drain your retirement account to buy books and tools and materials for fantasies you gave up on? Is your spare bedroom or garage a graveyard for abandoned pursuits?
If you answered Yes to any of these questions, I have a solution for you. (And if you answered No, tell me your secret!)
The solution has two parts:
- Ask yourself, “Will I work on this for 5 hours a week for the next 6 months?” (Honesty is kind of important here!) Are you really going to spend 5 hours every week mastering the meteor hammer?
- Don’t burn the boats. Avoid all-or-nothing attitudes and find inexpensive ways to try out a hobby. Give yourself a $30 budget to try learning Russian. And double the budget when you’ve stuck with it for three weeks.
These strategies will prevent you from wasting money on projects that you have no time to pursue. Better yet, you’ll have more money for the hobbies you do want to pursue and less crap in your garage.