How to Emerge a Better Version of Yourself After a Big Project

Last month (March 2021), the exhibition I’ve been working on at my day job opened to the public. I have been part of this team since 2017. It was an awesome and rewarding experience that gave me so much confidence in my abilities and demonstrated how my love of technology and art can work together.

Now, a couple weeks later, I find myself both tired from the push to complete it and feeling lost:

  • I have ideas for things I want to learn and work on next…but I’m tired and unmotivated.
  • I can function at my day job…but I can’t imagine doing the kind of various side projects I was doing a few months ago.
  • I have rested (both mentally and physically)…but even after what feels like “a lot” of rest, I haven’t felt quite rested enough.

This has all gotten a little better over time.

As I’ve navigated my way through this in-between space the past weeks, I’ve identified 4 things that are helping. I share them here with the hope they might be useful to you, too, and help you emerge a better version of yourself after you complete a big project, program, or other kind of effort over an extended period of time.

1. Clean up the garbage

When you’ve been working on something for a long time, you might put things on hold. When there is so much to do, it is easy to say, “I’ll think about that in X weeks, years, etc.” But what happens when that comes?

When first I joined this project, I was working on making a career transition by studying JavaScript in my free time. I was in a sort of jack-of-all-trades web/UI design career identity that did not satisfy me, and wanted to move toward a more focused software development track — that was something that excited me, that I knew was my calling but for many years was too scared to start working toward. Then, when the project started picking up speed, I did not need to study on my own time because I was learning so much on the job and doing exactly the kind of work I wanted (first using JavaScript, then moving to C#). Sounds perfect, right?

Yet, part of my studying a lot was not just learning the skills, but trying to shake a feeling of not being competent or valuable enough in the tech field. I had a sneaking feeling I’d like to partially or fully move away from design and into development in the future, and at that point in time was very far from feeling like I could be taken seriously as a developer. What I gained through studying was very valuable, inspiring, and necessary skills-wise — in fact, it is a key part of what allowed me to complete my work for the project in the following years — but that feeling of lack was never quite addressed.

So here I am a few years later, confronting these feelings again. Now that I’ve recognized them, they haven’t gone away immediately — and that’s OK! But I do want to banish those nasty feelings of lack sooner rather than later, and to not bury them again.

2. Be unapologetic about what you want next

Being extra assertive is important in an in-between time, where things are still malleable and a number of things may have drifted unintentionally following a busy stretch. I find myself more vulnerable to fall into directions I don’t want to go while I’m still in the process of resting, adjusting, and building myself up again.

For me, the solution has been being sharing with others (in and outside of work) my need to stay laser-focused on my software development path. I know from experience that spending significant amounts of time on other things would put me into the career ambiguity I had a few years ago that made me unhappy. With next year (2022) marking a decade since graduating from college, going for depth rather than breadth feels more important than ever (perhaps I will write more about this in the future).

When I shared this idea prior to writing this post, someone commented that this is a form of setting boundaries, which I didn’t think of at first, but is absolutely a great way to look at things.

3. Be specific about what you gained between point A and point B

For me, saying to myself “You did an amazing job with that project” does not internalize what I actually gained or give me context for what new things I bring to my next projects. Being tangible, getting into specifics of what you gained can make progress feel more real (especially if you, like me, suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time).

Here is the list of what I learned fall 2017 – spring 2021 that I wrote up for myself. (I felt awkward about posting it publicly but promised myself I would follow through and do it!)

  • Went from beginner to proficient in C#, object-oriented programming, and game loops
  • Working with Unity packages
  • Working with inputs from an Arduino
  • Writing and uploading sketches to an Arduino
  • Designing and implementing a multiplayer game
  • Using text-to-speech technologies to narrate game play dynamically
  • Routing audio from Unity to different speakers
  • Conversion of Unity projects to newer versions
  • Serializing and deserializing XML in Unity
  • Building and installing applications
  • Setting up computers to run an application on startup
  • UDP communication
  • Adobe After Effects basics

I plan to read and re-read this list (and add anything I forgot) over the next weeks to celebrate what I learned and bring with me to my next projects. I encourage you, too, to celebrate all the little details of your wins.

4. Rest more

Don’t give yourself a timeline for when you think you should feel rested. Chances are, you have been working harder than you think, and haven’t rested as long as you think you have.

I admit while writing this post, I first described the project as opening “a few weeks ago” when it was only opened less than two weeks ago. Maybe it was the strange COVID world flow of time (which can feel both fast and slow) that confused me. Maybe I felt like I needed to recover quickly so I could move onto the next things ASAP. (Most likely, it was a combination of both.)

I know I need to rest a lot more, and there is no way around it. To celebrate this, I treated myself to some new pillows (and didn’t realize until they arrived just how unsupportive and worn out my old pillows were!) 🙂