[This is a guest post by Bryan Collins.]
Do you struggle to finish what you start?
Do you have projects that have been sitting in a purgatory of incompletion for weeks, months, or years?
That collection of stories that’s been hanging over your head, that sketchbook full of plans that mocks you from the corner of your desk, or those song bits that are still taking up space in your phone, perhaps.
Maybe you’re waiting for a huge void to miraculously appear in your schedule, or inspiration to come down out of the sky and fly you over your current hurdle.
You’re not alone.
It’s easier to be inspired and tinker with an idea in your head than it is to take that idea, wrestle it to the ground, pound it and shape it and finally turn it into an article, a song, or a piece of work that you can be proud to share with others.
When you draw towards the end of a creative project, your progress can slow down and keep you up at night with unproductive thoughts like:
- Am I wasting my time even trying?
- Why is it taking so long? Maybe I’m not cut out for this.
- I’ve taken on more than I can handle, I don’t think I’ll ever finish.
- I know because for years I was a procrastinating writer. I missed deadlines, I didn’t turn up every day and work on my craft, and I stuck projects in the drawer instead sharing them with the world.
There’s one major problem with procrastinating: you can’t get paid for what you spend time on if you don’t finish. This unproductive way of approaching my work almost cost me my job. So, I learned to finish my work because (as a journalist) I was paid to write – and I needed to eat.
If you don’t finish your work, you’ll never experience the sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing a project from beginning to end. This sense of accomplishment is essential if you want become a more confident and productive artist.
The good news is if you’re determined, you can avoid the types of mistakes many people make when they first begin to create.
I’d like to give you three proven productivity strategies from the business world (including one from Jerry Seinfeld) that will help you finish what you start. I’ve used each of these productivity strategies, along with many others, to complete a book as well as numerous blog posts, short stories, and other non-fiction articles.
The good news is these strategies aren’t just for writers. Anyone can use them. They are simple and easy to implement, they can help you become more productive and, most importantly, you can use them to finally finish your creative projects.
1. Never let your most important work fall by the wayside
Productivity gurus like Stephen Covey and writers like Leo Babauta recommend prioritizing your tasks in advance, and this strategy translates well to creative endeavors.
At night, select one to three most important tasks for the following day. If you use a To-Do list manager, star these items or move them to the top of your list.
[Note: If your creative work is a side gig, it’s even more critical to block out your time and plan ahead.]
Your most important task could be writing, working in the studio, or even marketing your work.
Next, prepare for these tasks in advance by organizing your workspace and gathering your tools or research.
Your goal is to make it as easy and as quick as possible to get to work.
The next morning, get up and do this task first thing; that means before you check email, browse social media, or attend to chores.
Once you’ve completed your most important task, focus on your second most important task for the day, and so on.
When you are inevitably interrupted, it won’t matter because you will already have made good progress on your most essential work of the day.
2. Maintain momentum by working like — a comedian?
Jerry Seinfeld popularized this productivity technique to write many of his earlier comedy routines, and it’s a personal favorite.
Seinfeld tasked himself with writing one new joke every day, no matter what. He then tracked his progress on a wall-calendar and went to great lengths to avoid breaking his streaks or chains.
You can work like Seinfeld in five simple steps:
Step 1: Get a large calendar and pin it on the wall next to where you work.
Step 2: Work on your project, for at least a minimum set time. Be sure to choose something manageable, that you can realistically achieve every day.
Step 3: Using a felt pen, mark an X on your wall calendar through the day’s date.
Step 4: As the week progresses, you build up a series or chain of Xs.
Step 5: Don’t Break the Chain.
I’ve used Don’t Break the Chain to write feature articles, news stories, various academic papers, blog posts and even a book.
This strategy is useful at the beginning of larger, more difficult projects. It gets you into the habit of turning up each day and making progress towards completing your creative projects.
Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt touch on the importance of working everyday on a creative project in their excellent book Write. Publish. Repeat., saying:
“A writer’s best friend is momentum. For this reason, Sean recommends writing every day, and I [Johnny] recommend writing no fewer than five days a week.”
Even if you’re not a writer, this kind of slow, diligent work will help you accept that if today’s session doesn’t go well, there’s always tomorrow. What’s more important is that you turn up and keep playing.
3. Get on Track and Stay On Track
Productive entrepreneurs track their progress so they can work on the right things at the right time and hold themselves accountable.
According to the Paris Review, Hemingway recorded his daily word count on a large chart kept beneath a mounted gazelle head.
He did this “so as not to kid myself”.
Tracking your creative projects, accomplishments, and setbacks is a great way of assessing whether you are moving forward, stalling, or procrastinating.
If you want to apply this strategy today, you could:
- Tally how long you spent working on your art in a spreadsheet and then try to meet or beat this tally the next day.
- Keep a calendar of your deadlines and note when you hit or miss them.
- Document the status of various creative projects in a journal and review this regularly.
Quantifying your progress will help become more disciplined – there’s a movement based on this type of self-knowledge – and figure out the type of changes you should make to your creative routine.
If, for example, you find it easier to create in the morning than at night, use this information to orient your day around a more productive morning.
Similarly, a tally of how long you’re spending on a particularly creative project will help you decide later on if this is time well spent.
Pro Tip: Take this strategy to the next level by using the Pomodoro Technique, which forces you to focus in short bursts to get things done.
Get ready to change your artistic life
Learning how to finish is one of the most important things you can do as a creative entrepreneur. Author Neil Gaiman explains why:
“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”
There’s no big secret to finishing, it just takes practice.
You can finish by turning up every day, making sure you are working on the right things at the right time, and by tracking and reviewing your progress. The good news is once you get into the habit of completion, it becomes a difficult habit to break.
I’m sure you hear strategies like these every day – some are effective, others not so much. The tactics I picked are easy to learn and they won’t take up much of your time. The next time you feel stuck, take just one and try it for seven days. Then assess if it worked. If it did, keep going. If it didn’t, try another.
The point is to find an approach that works to get you to “done.”
That’s what I did.
Imagine what your life will be like once you consistently finish what you start.
You can enter competitions, publish your articles and get paid for your work. You can share your music, photos, or designs with the world, get recognition and better opportunities – and whatever your craft, you’ll have the momentum and motivation to start again.
You will become a more productive and creative professional, one with the confidence to get things done.
That sounds like a vision we can all work towards. Now go and get to it!
Photo credit – Philo Nordlund, FlickrCC