Why We Leave Projects Unfinished (And How to Finish Them)
By Connie Tran | 5 minute read
Why are we passionately drawn to starting new projects but so colossally bad at finishing them?
As someone whose craft room is nearly indistinguishable from an actual Michael’s store and contains about 20 quarter-finished projects, I know the most energizing and exciting part of the creative process is beginning a fresh new project. Almost every creative I’ve talked to about this phenomenon concedes to having handfuls of unfinished projects lurking in their closet or idly sitting on their desktop. Why is it so hard to finish something we were once so excited to start?
I used to think it was some sort of laziness or loss of interest (which might become true if you leave a project unfinished for so long that you don’t even remember why you were excited to start it in the first place), but mostly it’s a question of discipline.
After we get through the initial stage of excitement, we get to that middle, “actually doing the work phase,” which lasts much longer than the initial phase and is much less appealing.
Where We Lose Ourselves
There are a ton of powerhouse designers who never miss deadlines for their clients, so why can’t we take this same discipline and apply it to our personal projects?
We count on personal projects to provide creative freedom because who wants to “work” after work? Avoiding “work” tends to mean we don’t want to have to plan, troubleshoot, critically think through steps for long periods of time, or churn through the most monotonous parts of the execution process, but that is exactly what discipline looks like— it’s (fortunately or unfortunately) the same, personal or professional. So we end up lying on the couch and watching The Office for the 20th time instead of diving head first into our paintings, sculptures, books, or tending to our gardens.
Fear of turning personal projects, which are supposed to provide rejuvenation, into “another work project” seems to slow our creative roll. The project becomes another deadline, but one that you can blow off without “consequences” because you’d only be letting down yourself, after all, if you don’t finish.
We're Missing Our Own Deadlines, But Why is That Okay?
There is value in seeing yourself as someone you should keep promises to — same as any promise you’ve made to your boss or to a client. But how do we take something that’s supposed to be a fun exploration of our creative curiosities through to the finish line, doing as much work as a regular project from our day job?
This is something I’ve personally struggled with my entire life, but in thoroughly examining the reasons behind the personal projects I did finish, they all shared these common points:
The “Doing the Work” Phase is a Form of Meditation
The monotonous phase of the creation process is the perfect time to reflect, think, and be at peace with yourself. It’s not often these days that we have a lot of time to spend with ourselves. I like to think of the “doing the work” phase as a more productive form of meditation. The parts of a project you can do on auto-pilot are parts that you can spend inside your own head quietly or thinking through things that have been nagging at your attention lately. If that is way too much quiet for you, put on some music or a fun podcast to make the situation more lively.
Take Pride from Engaging in a Productive Pastime Rather Than a Passive One
There’s always a place for entertainment binging, but we can all agree that too much isn’t the greatest idea. You can extract both relaxation and productivity from the “work phase” of the creation process, but you’ll have to be intentional about it. Feeling good about myself for doing something productive in my free time has been a good mini-motivator to keep on moving. There is infinitely more value to creation than consumption and of course you should be proud of yourself for putting something out there into the world that didn't exist before.
Cross-Pollinate Through "Adjacent Activities"
What we choose to work on in our free time ends up influencing our work life and skills in a myriad of ways. Even if you're desperate to maintain a wall between "work" and "life," your personal growth seamlessly leads to professional growth. You may not even realize what's happening, but every incidental challenge you overcome and learn something from is one more skill you've acquired that can be applied to work projects and even other personal projects. We "level up" as complete beings, not as a separate work persona and personal life persona. Side note: This is also a good thing to remember if you're running into motivation walls at work. Every new obstacle you tackle at work teaches you something you can be applying to your personal projects. Kelly Harrigan expands on this idea in an excellent article all about cross-pollination in design thinking and innovation.
Remember Why You Started This Project in the First Place and Write It Down
If your life is particularly chaotic it may behoove you to keep a running list of personal projects in a planner or notebook. This way you can log progress so you don't lose your place and, even better, you can remind yourself why this project matters. Nobody dives into personal projects because they hate them. You were thrilled about this for some reason at some point, so hang on to that feeling with a written reminder.
When You’re Done, You Get to Share Your Creativity With the World
Other people wanting to see what you create next is huge motivation... but to get to this point, you have to actually finish the project. If the end goal seems too far away to get the support you need right away, create progress updates so your friends and family can cheer you on as you continue your efforts. For some this is also a great method of holding yourself accountable. If everyone is asking you when your next update is or how long until completion on your personal projects you will certainly feel guilty for not having anything to tell them. Whether you’re a steady milestones kind of person or a “one giant push” kind of person, let the people around you help you get to the finish line so everyone in your community can share in your excitement with you.
There is a Momentum to be Gained by Finishing Projects
What you may not know just yet, but we observe to be true in just about everyone, is that once you complete one big project you’ve been dreading it becomes significantly easier to pick up the next unfinished project, and then the next. Completing even one single item on the “to do” list will make it so much easier to cascade into the next few that you may not even remember why you had anxieties about projects at all. Establishing a cycle of genuine old fashioned hard work followed by positive reinforcement is a back to basics approach that’s unfortunately easy to cast aside, but completely worthwhile.
If you’re still waiting for a sign, here it is:
PICK A PROJECT, GET GOING