Over the years, I’ve witnessed countless failed projects (many of them my own) resulting from poor self-management. Here is how I recommend one approach hardware projects with the correct mentality.

1. Don’t be Optimistic

“I wonder if that would be an issue… eh, it’ll probably be fine.”

“That could potentially fail, but it probably won’t.”

No, It will never be “fine”. If a thought like that ever passes through your mind you need to STOP RIGHT THERE and correct whatever critical mistake you’re making. No joke. That is a GUARANTEED mistake. You are definitely overlooking something. Believe me when I say that I’m telling you this from experience.

You need to consider every possible way in which your design or solution could be flawed, and then realize that it is flawed. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and there are ways in which it will go wrong that you are not yet even educated enough to understand.

But all of these failure modes can be avoided if you are responsible enough to consider them and then do something about it.

2. Don’t Avoid Unfamiliar Subjects

“This is too hard, I’m not going to understand it. Let’s skip this part.”

“I don’t have time to learn that.”

“I don’t have time to consider that method.”

Avoidance is an easy trap to fall into because it makes your job simpler and easier. The truth is that if you absolutely need to perform your research carefully and deliberately.

Solving an engineering problem requires you to learn everything you can about the subject and underlying system. Take notes if you have to. Ask people questions.

At the very least, you need to know what you don’t know.

What I have found is that most subjects are far easier to understand and quicker to learn than they appear, and yet at the same time they are far more complex than expected. What really holds people back from learning new subjects is not difficulty or time, but fear and sloth.

3. Don’t Get Tunnel Vision

“No, I’m sure I can make this work. I can’t consider other options at this point.”

Too many times have I found myself repetitively performing the same test on a robot, hoping to get drastically better results by slightly modifying parameters. And almost every time, I was eventually forced to snap back to reality because the solution required going far beyond simply tuning parameters. This is tunnel vision. The human brain will do pretty much anything to avoid problem solving and creative thinking. It’s scary.

Don’t get fixated on just one idea. Remember that there are other options, other paths to success. In fact, there is almost always a better way to do something.

4. Be Wary of Productive Procrastination

“I need to perfect this before I can move on to the next stage of the project.”

Oftentimes when we become intimidated by one aspect of a project, we instead focus on perfecting some other aspect of the project, usually a subject with which we are more familiar and more comfortable working on. This, of course, exacerbates the problem further by wasting time. I’ve seen engineers make this mistake all too often, and it’s sad to watch.

In one case, I observed a team spend a month mathematically optimizing one attribute of a robot, a gear ratio, to avoid actually designing the robot. Why? They didn’t have enough design experience, but they were comfortable with the math. As a result, they ended up with even less time to learn how to design and build the robot. Needless to say, the project was a disaster. But they did have some fancy-looking equations.

I myself have made this mistake every which way at some point in the past: I’ve used design to avoid math and used math to avoid design. I’ve used simulation to avoid hardware and used hardware to avoid simulation. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.

There’s nothing wrong with perfectionism, but there is always a time limit for completing a project and you need to budget your time appropriately. This is an extension of #2 (Avoidance), but in this case the avoidance is taken one step further. It’s an insidious, subconscious form of procrastination, one that allows us to avoid a task while still feeling smart and productive. Don’t fall for this trap.