I’ve been working on something for a while and it doesn’t feel like I’m making any significant headway. At what point do you decide it’s no longer worth pursuing?

A student recently wrote to me, asking:

I’ve been working on something for a while and it doesn’t feel like I’m making any significant headway. At what point do you decide it’s no longer worth pursuing?

Here’s my advice:

If a project is not making significant headway, it’s important for us to first evaluate and identify the reason(s) why:

If it’s something that requires inspiration, like writing, then I’ll be a lot kinder to myself and take breaks to do other things so that I can come back to it with a fresh mind. Just forcing yourself to make progress in such a situation isn’t going to work. You can’t force it.

If the problem is that you’re stuck because you don’t know how to proceed further, then reach out to people. Outside perspectives are important in generating new leads for you to make headway.

If it’s because you lost meaning or motivation to work on it, then drop it.

If it’s because of factors outside your control, e.g. disruptions in the supply chain, then I’ll just put a pause to it until conditions are in your favour.

If it’s because you keep trying, and it’s not working, then you should do two things: (1) figure out why; and (2) talk to people for ideas even if it is to help you figure out why. If the diagnosis is the realisation that you are trying to do something much higher beyond your current abilities, then I wouldn’t throw it away so quickly. It’s worth thinking about what skillsets or knowledge you need in order to get there.

I have a feeling this is the problem you are facing? You can talk to me if you like. :)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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