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December 3, 2014 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I have lots of neat ideas for creative projects – cool websites to build, little indie games to make, music mixes to assemble, "maker" projects to create – but I'm terrible (terrible!) about follow-through. My hard drive and apartment are littered with unfinished projects that I started with enthusiasm, and have since only fiddled around with half-heartedly, if at all. How can I get better about this?

Part of the problem, I think, is that I'm a perfectionist: as soon as I'm confronted with a decision that requires compromise, I lose interest. It's easier for me to continue imagining the ideal thing in my head than to accept a real, but imperfect version of it.

This is, of course, absurd and self-defeating: any creative project of any significance will involve some compromise, and the trick to making great things is to choose the right compromises, not to avoid them altogether (because that's impossible). Anyway, to expect perfection on your first draft is unreasonable: sometimes you have to build a flawed thing before you can see how to overcome some of the flaws.

But I don't think that's the only problem. I just have a hard time sustaining motivation for projects: I'll have a great idea, bang out some preliminary work on it during that initial rush of excitement...but then I find myself unable to imagine that all the work between "here" and "completion" is worth it, that the payoff will be worth all that trouble.

It's also hard, in This Modern Internet Era, to imagine that any creative effort is worthwhile – with the thousands of songs, games, blog posts, and other projects competing for attention every day, is there really any point in adding to the din? (I mean, receiving external validation from an audience isn't the only reason, or even the main reason, that I want to create things. But to the extent that it is one of my reasons, it doesn't seem like a very good one.)

Lastly, I just have so many distractions. I'll sit down to put in work on a project, and twenty minutes later I realize that I'm actually browsing MetaFilter, or playing with my phone, or playing a game, or doing some of the housework that I feel like I should be doing. Or – ironically – I'll get distracted by some other, newer, shinier creative idea (which eventually falls victim to the same issues).

Given all of the above: how can I learn to focus on projects, sustain motivation beyond that initial moment of inspiration, accept the compromises that will be necessary to realize my idea, and follow through in general?

Your personal success stories in overcoming these obstacles are totes welcome. Thanks!
posted by escape from the potato planet to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
I have the same problem you do. My most successful projects are those for which I've found a collaborator who has the qualities I lack. The ones that I manage to do on my own are the ones for which I manage to have an externally-imposed deadline: an event at which I am selling the items I've crafted, a story/art exchange with a hard deadline, or someone who's commissioned me to create a work and is waiting for the results.
posted by telophase at 9:02 AM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Re: Compromise and bad first drafts: You've got this one down; good.

Re: Motivation and distractions: You need to set aside the time to work and push yourself through when your motivation and enthusiasm is gone. Every artist goes through losing interest in and even hating his project. It's very normal, but the only way out is through. The satisfaction of really finishing something will give you motivation for the next time.

Re: "It's all been done.": No, it hasn't. We've been making art as a species since we crawled out of the ocean. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Trust me, we are not running short of possible songs or books or anything. There will always be something new to say (or more accurately there will always be new ways to say the same things, and art is "how," not "what.")

My personal way of avoiding distractions is to leave the house and go to a coffee shop when I'm writing, though this may not work if you're doing something you need more equipment/space for. In general, my rule is to not beat myself up for getting distracted, but simply to physically remove myself from the things that might distract me.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:16 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


This was me when I was younger. The biggest thing I learned was to start Project Managing my projects.

Make lists. Figure out what resources including time you have and then do what you can.

I don't know about you, but I've got "THE LIST" of projects and I sure hope someone can prolong the human life span so I can attempt to get most of it done.

Don't over commit. This was my major thing. I'd get so excited and fired up about the new, the previously new got left behind.

10 years ago I started managing projects at work. Can't use my normal excuses there, so I just had to STFU and get s*** done. My biggest problem was me.

I've applied that thought to stuff at home. OH! Project Idea. Write it down. How much time/effort/resources will it take? Can I do it now? No? Later? Maybe. Should I plan for it or should I let it cool on the back burner for a bit? I then revisit these older project ideas. I found for me some of the excitement had worn off and it really wasn't as great a project as I initially thought.

It was the NEW SHINY that I was addicted to doing.

Overall, do less projects at once, and get more of them done in the long run.
posted by PlutoniumX at 9:16 AM on December 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Also forgot to add:

For distractions when I find myself on my third buzzfeed listicle, I really sit down and ask myself: Self, is this listicle important, even if it amusing, or in the end is my time better spent doing x that I want to get done.

For me it really was about forcing myself to follow through. The completion reward then started to become something I chased instead of the new shiny.
posted by PlutoniumX at 9:19 AM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, and seconding PlutoniumX, pick one thing at a time and stick to it. One project plus a normal job/life is an incredible challenge. It's very normal to have the "grass is greener" syndrome where as soon as you have a problem with the current project, you blame the idea and wish you could quit this crappy idea and move on to the brilliant one you had this morning.

Don't. It's so tempting because ideas are incredibly easy, and execution is incredibly hard, but the only way to finish is to stick with one idea.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:22 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm sure you'll get tons of good advice, but the aha! moment for me was the acceptance of shrugging at the muse. It's totally OK to have 'Projects' and 'bits'. I have folders and folders of recorded musical 'bits'. Sometimes these get shoehorned into preexisting songs, sometimes they become songs on their own, sometimes they just stay in the 'bit' folder, collecting dust. I have folders of literary 'bits' - sometimes they're collected around a subject, sometimes it's a bare text file with a paragraph about random stuff.

My Projects are usually well thought out, have a beginning middle and end, have a sense of progress to them, etc. I limit myself to a certain number of ongoing projects, and keep records on them - notes, articles I've found, etc. I date the records, just to get an idea of how I'm progressing (or not), and every year (and for certain projects more frequently) I check up on how they're doing. If I feel that it's just run out of gas, the whole shebang goes back in the bits folder. For some reason, having the ability to say 'Y'know, that wasn't as {fun|inspired|good|deep|lively|whatever} as I thought. Oh well' was revelatory for me. Thank goodness for (almost) limitless disk space these days!
posted by eclectist at 9:24 AM on December 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

If your ability to eat or pay rent isn't tied to these projects then simply don't worry about it. You are under no obligation to finish these projects. If they were that important you would have the motivation to finish. Giving yourself permission to get bored and not finish very well may help you see something through to completion. Or maybe it won't. It doesn't really matter.
posted by COD at 9:25 AM on December 3, 2014

Have you been screened for ADD? You basically described me when I'm not on my ADD medication. Adderall changed my life.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:30 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

how can I learn to focus on projects, sustain motivation beyond that initial moment of inspiration

Personally speaking (and I might very well be an outlier here), I find it actually can help to "work" on projects in short bursts - that way it feels more like "fun" and less like "work." Like, do an hour on a project, watch an hour of a TV show, put away the laundry, go back to the project. Or tonight is "project night", tomorrow is Netflix night.

To some extent I think I'm "project managing" myself, although I don't really keep notes or lists, much. A lot of times each hour (or whatever length of time) on a project is about accomplishing a small part of the project; if I keep adding up all these small parts of the project, eventually the project is done.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:31 AM on December 3, 2014

Read this book: Refuse to Choose. It gives you some concrete ideas to try depending on what kind of 'scanner' you are. Also, it's ok to not finish projects! The book points out that what you actually want to get out of a project may not be an 'end result' or 'perfect piece', it might the knowledge you gain and the joy of the learning process in the first half, or third, or even first 10min of a project.
posted by atlantica at 10:20 AM on December 3, 2014

Hey! I'm the exact same way! *high five*

Off the top of my head, a couple of things that have helped me actually accomplish and create things:

Start small. Create/build something small. Something that maybe only takes a couple of hours but that you can finish and that you will always have around to look at and feel good about. I spent an hour drilling holes in an aluminum bar to create a rack for my small screwdrivers. Now, whenever I'm down in my shop I can look at it and know I built it and it's not perfect but it's solid and I finished it. It's also very useful and it solved a problem that I had.

Have a reason to finish something. Promise it to someone, give it as a gift, whatever. The only cigar box guitar I ever finished was one I gave out as a gift. I started another one for myself and then sort of got lost in the process when things weren't looking perfect. The one I gave out was FAR from perfect but I finished it because I had to.

Commit to something publicly. Tell people what you're doing and how awesome it will be when it's done. I'm currently working on the most ambitious non-home-improvement project I've ever undertaken. I'm documenting it on a blog and also doing it with my son. People are aware that I'm working on it and even though it constantly seems overwhelming and I'm terrified I'll get bored, I also feel like I'd disappoint people if I didn't finish it. I won't actually disappoint anyone if I abandon it, but it kind of feels like I will. That's motivation.

Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Repeat that to yourself. Write it down and hang it somewhere. Believe in it.

Don't be afraid to start over if something isn't going well. Every single time I've done that I was so happy I did it. I do it all the time. Assuming the materials you're working with aren't super expensive it's almost always worth it in the end.

Maybe you just need to do something with your hands and/or brain and as long as you're doing that, that's all that matters. So what if you never finish something? You're still creating, using skills, learning new skills, refining other skills, and keeping busy. Go watch Fraggle Rock and pay attention to the Doozers. They just built and built for no reason, because they HAD to. Be a Doozer. Doozers are THE SHIT. I have a basement filled with half-finished projects. Some I will one day get back to, others I will eventually dismantle or throw out. But all of them kept me occupied and I enjoyed the process of working on them.

Yeah, get checked for ADD.

If you get distracted after 20 minutes be glad you just spent 20 minutes being creative. Cut yourself some slack.

Set yourself up for multitasking. Make a little work area that has storage for multiple projects. Work a little on one, set it aside, and work on something else. Have everything ready to go as soon as you get the urge so that you don't have to spend time setting up your stuff. I would often set up my work area and by the time I was actually ready to work on something I'd be bored. So I've set up my shop with various stations so everything is out and ready for whatever I feel like working on at that moment. Not everyone has this luxury, but you could do it to some degree. Get a little case (a fishing tackle box would work) with the tools and materials you might need for the various types of projects you want to work on.

Half the time when I'm working in my shop I'm re-organizing my shop to make it easier to work in. The shop itself is a project that keeps me busy yet is never finished.

Know that you're not alone. There are thousands of people just like you, several even in this thread. We still manage to find satisfaction in the things we DO accomplish and often just find the process of working on something to be the satisfying part. Most of the projects I eventually finish will hardly be used. Working on them was what I needed to do, I didn't actually need to finish.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by bondcliff at 10:25 AM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Reading The Now Habit might help!
posted by backwards guitar at 10:27 AM on December 3, 2014

I am this, too! Anecdotally, I also have been diagnosed with ADD.

Here's how I deal: I am a list maker. I am also a deadline person. If I have a due date, I usually get it done, especially if that due date is attached to something. For instance, I am a HUGE Hallowe'en fan. I do up my entire house and yard. Obviously there is a deadline. Kids are coming on October 31st and by now, they totally look forward to seeing what I've created. I start a list of all of the haunt projects I'm going to do in May or June. I try to do as many of them as I can but only I will know how many of them I've actually finished. The kids in the neighborhood have no idea that they missed out on some brilliant other thing that I really wanted to do and they think I'm awesome. Then I can do the other awesome thing for next year's haunt.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:41 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Launch a small, unambitious project. Complete that, come what may. Then gradually select bigger, more ambitious ones. Practice, in other words, focusing and sticking-to-it.

Alternative: pick a humungous project and put so many chips on it that you absolutely can't quit.

In any case, per my answer here, don't let your running inner narrative about what you're like and how you behave and how things usually turn out enter into it. Stay in the close-up view of the doing, not the long view of self-narration.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:16 AM on December 3, 2014

Throw those shits on github, and let someone else finish them. You'll get the credit you deserve, and the world will be a better place.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:24 PM on December 3, 2014

It's easier for me to continue imagining the ideal thing in my head than to accept a real, but imperfect version of it.

Because of this, I've given myself permission to let ideas stay in my head. It's not only easier, but I enjoy it more: in my imagination, I can play with ideas indefinitely without committing to one version. For me, creativity is primarily entertainment; it doesn't necessarily need to be turned into something concrete or shared with an audience.

That won't help you stick with the ideas you do want to turn into reality. But it can help you narrow down which ones to pursue.

For developing better follow-through on projects, practice on ones that require some perseverance, learning, and creative energy, but that aren't sparked by that magic bolt of inspiration. Like knitting a scarf or redecorating your living room. You'll still get the experience of slogging through and achieving something, but you won't have that intimidating ideal version built up in your head, nor will you have that rush of initial excitement that wears off and leaves you stuck. And you'll get used to sticking with something that often isn't exciting or easy, which you can apply to the things that do excite you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:44 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm also a relentless creative idea-generator, but I've mostly come to terms with it. I'm just actually much better at starting things than maintaining them. I like starting things better, too. A lot of my work focuses on starting things and also doing short-term things (exhibitions) so I don't have to live with them too long. I would first of all question whether you really need to finish these things to enjoy satisfaction from them. If there are some things that really need finishing, give yourself a long timeline and a lot of space to complete them, change your daily routine to allow that space, and get a "bucket" or two ready to hold all the creative ideas that are going to occur to you while you work on the central one. When the ideas inevitably pop up, shunt them off to the "buckets" - you can go back to them later.
posted by Miko at 12:47 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Now Habit. I'm listening to the audiobook right now and I think it's going to have a real and immediate positive influence on my life. I know that sounds overly dramatic but I think it might be true.

Anyway, it talks a lot about perfectionism and gives some good and (to me at least) novel advice. And it specifically talks about folks who have problems finishing, as opposed to starting, projects.
posted by pennypiper at 4:13 PM on December 3, 2014

My project abandonment rate is brisk, and I don't give a shit.
posted by garry.smith at 8:52 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

2nding deadlines. Real ones, not made-up ones - a competition, a public event - something with actual potential gains and actual consequences for not following through. Helps if you can make commitments to people you don't want to let down.
2nding one thing at a time (vs. multitasking). Deep serial immersion. Don't drop it until it's done. Done done.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:46 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think maybe a reframing might help. Popular opinion puts a lot of emphasis on coming up with good ideas, as if this was the key to genius. You see this at Q&A's during writer fests - someone who is usually a novice writer will ask that dreaded question: "Where do you writers get your ideas?"

But generating ideas is the *easy* part. It's execution that matters in the end. So perhaps the first thing is to accept that execution will always be difficult. It's meant to be. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Just because one has good ideas, doesn't give one a leg up on the implementation.
posted by storybored at 9:51 PM on December 4, 2014

Whoops and I forgot to add my recommendation for a good book on execution.

The War of Art.

If you're looking for real-life advice, this is it: Pressfield overcame chronic procrastination and became a best-selling author.
posted by storybored at 9:58 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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