“Scope Creep” will Poison Your Projects!

“Scope creep is poisonous,” a client of mine recently said after finally finishing an academic paper he had been procrastinating on for more than three years.

He had a full spaghetti snarl of reasons for not getting it done–and remember, our reasons for procrastinating are always valid–but after he worked through them and started to write he encountered one more obstacle: a frequent temptation to add new bits and pieces. This is called “scope creep,” a huge problem for many programmers, engineers, and others. Sometimes, as in the case of my client, we do it to ourselves, while other times others do it to us. (Bosses or customers often tack on extra bits to projects, all the while expecting you to finish it on the same deadline and using no extra resources.)

Thankfully my client was able to recognize and resist the temptation to expand his paper’s scope. That’s not always easy, particularly when “the creep” is whispering at you, “C’mon! It will only take a few minutes to add that, and without it the work will be incomplete!” But just as you should never listen to the harsh voice of perfectionism, you should also never listen the seductive voice of scope creep. One reason is that its “it will only take a few minutes” message is not just antiproductive, it’s almost certainly a lie: everything takes longer than we think it will. (See also: Hofstader’s Law.)

Another reason to resist scope creep is that, if you indulge, you’ll likely get a worse result. Sometimes that’s because you get rushed and/or resentful due to all the additions. But it’s also because the additions can junk up your original conception. My client reported that his paper was actually better for being shorter and more focused.

Instead of succumbing to scope creep, use your interesting tangential or digressive ideas as seeds for other projects. (You did say you wanted to be prolific?) My client also cleverly summarized his extra ideas in a speculative “Recommendations for Future Work” section that didn’t require much analysis, detail, or discussion. Used in that way, the new ideas bolstered his original paper’s thesis instead of detracting from it.

This incident also illustrates how the line between high standards and unreasonable standards can look trivial or incremental, but is, in reality, anything but. In my book-in-progress How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss and Other Important Goals I write:

“Unachievable standards for success often seem just slightly or incrementally more ambitious than achievable ones, but that’s a misconception. There’s an absolute wall of possibility separating the two categories.”

In weight loss that wall could be between trying to lose one pound a week (high standard) and two (unachievable standard). (Obviously, what’s “high” and “unachievable” varies from individual to individual.) In writing, the wall could be between writing a difficult paper under a tight deadline (high), and then adding a few elements to that same project (unachievable).

“Scope creep is poisonous,” my client concluded after his experience, and he’s right. It is poisonous, and can literally kill your project.

I think scope creep is a huge cause of procrastination, partly because perfectionists reflexively set too-high goals and partly because they distrust success when they think it has come too easily. Both tendencies would naturally lead to scope creep.

Is there a project you’ve stalled on where you may have added extraneous elements? If so, jettison them. You’ll be glad you did.

January classes

New Englanders! Register now for my winter Grub Street Writers classes!
1) How to Write a Lot, 6 Tuesdays, 10:30a – 1:30b, starting Jan 8
2) The Time of Your Life, Sat Jan 26, 10:30a – 6:30p

Everyone! Register now for my next online class!
The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, 4 weeks beginning Monday January 7
Online classes are easy, cheap, convenient, and fun!


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