We tend to think of projects we’re working on as documents: we open the project file, do work, save the file, and close it for the day. Then repeat.
This mental model is fine if we have no time pressure, and no other projects to work on. But how often do we have that luxury?
Often, we start a project, we find that it’s taking longer than expected, and when conflicting priorities come up, we must put this project on “hold”.
But there is no such thing as putting a project on hold.
- Every unfinished project becomes a consistent and nagging drain of attention.
- You can never simply pick up exactly where you left off; you must always backtrack and relearn before you can move forward again.
The Level Checkpoint Model
Because of this, a better mental model to have is this: your projects are like those first-person shooters where you can’t save the game until you reach a new level or checkpoint.
Stopping at any other point is a waste of time, because you’ll lose everything you’ve done since the last checkpoint.
What can this teach us?
Checkpoints happen at satisfying rest points.
The key difference between a checkpoint and a stopping point is that a checkpoint happens after you complete something meaningful that contributes to your overall goal.
It’s not just an arbitrary task from your list, but a well-defined “whole”. If you were to abandon the project, you should be able to say “well, at least I got X done.”
Compare the feeling of stopping in the middle of a game because you’ve just been brutally killed, versus stopping at a checkpoint just after killing a level boss.
Even hard games become easy, if you can save at any time.
Even easy games become hard, if you can’t save regularly.
Strive to create as many meaningful checkpoints as possible in your project, and you’ll assure that it will get done.
Having frequent checkpoints means that you can switch to other games/projects if you need to, without abandoning progress on this one.
If you get stuck, you can always go back to your checkpoint and try a new approach.
Have you ever saved a game right in the middle of a firefight? Kind of limits your options, doesn’t it?
More Generative Analogies
These are just a few of the ways that this mental model can change how we look at projects. Here are a couple more, in the same vein:
1. Physics: Think of your project as a quantum object that needs to go from a low energy state to a higher one. It can only do so in discrete jumps, and it’s exponentially harder to do one big jump than many smaller ones.
2. Biology: Think of your project as an evolving species, where each generation is one checkpoint. How can your work be useful enough at each generation, for it to be an advantageous improvement?