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Embrace the limitations to complete projects

As makers and creatives, we hate it when bosses and clients put limits on what we can do when we build new software. We believe that we should be free to try anything we want with the code and the features, and that we would automatically build and innovative software that could rival Apple’s if only we had a bit more freedom.

Yet, somehow, it’s the project with deadlines and strict requirements at your day job that end up shipping, while your own unfinished side projects languish on a GitHub repository. The code of your side project is elegant, with 100% with a complete test suite and all the latest technologies. Unfortunately, nobody uses it while old legacy code you’re ashamed of keeps going!

It’s counterintuitive, but limitations are important and will teach you how to build software that works. A large project where everything is wide open and that has no clear deadline will often end up with you in the weeds, polishing a useless detail to perfection or upgrading just one last library.

My best learning experiences were at work with projects that HAD to ship: the stakes were higher and I had to get moving. I would learn the basics and then get started working immediately on the most important parts of the project. I could learn just in time what was required, without focusing for hours on theory or parts of the framework that were not very useful in the end.

Somehow, this is really hard to put in practice when we’re working on our own projects for the sake of learning. There’s always a better way to do things, or one last missing feature, and with nobody to stop us this can go on for a while.

If you’re working on a project by yourself and don’t see any progress, creating your own limitations can help you complete it. You don’t want to take on a project that never ends, so choose the technologies you’ll use and what features you’ll implement before getting started, keeping it small and simple. After this, put your head down and work on your first version, making sure you don’t let yourself be distracted by new shiny technologies that don’t add to your project.

Upgrades and new features can wait until you’re done, and you should welcome any occasions to reduce the scope of your application. Since you’re working on this alone, limitations are your friends and will help you reach your goals.

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  1. You could consider the agile approach for personal projects – small incremental releases. I have a few projects (and project ideas) that I’m sure will never amount to a single dollar of income. But I am doing them for fun and for myself and for the learning possibility. Still, I try to come up with a very small working program and then tweak it along the way. This lets me still have fun and play with the tech and gives me something to see, quickly.