How Do You Motivate Yourself to Finish a Project? (Curious Monday)

Sandra Duran Wilson painting with lotus

©Sandra Duran Wilson, Lotus. Mixed media, 11 x 9 inches. Used with permission.

We all have projects that are part of our lives for longer than originally intended. The more we avoid them, the more monstrous they become.

Procrastination is in charge.

Today’s question …

How do you motivate yourself to finish up a project that has been hanging around the studio too long?

Or

How to you face a project that you committed to, but no longer have any interest in?

↓ Please leave a comment below. ↓

About Curious Monday

Curious Monday is a weekly question that is sent only to subscribers.

I’m curious about how you live your life as an artist, how you juggle the demands on your time, and what you’re thinking about.

I hope you’ll read the responses from other artists. Maybe you’ll get some ideas or even feel a little more connected as a result.

Feel free to leave suggestions for future Curious Monday questions in a comment.

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90 comments to How Do You Motivate Yourself to Finish a Project? (Curious Monday)

  • I have found that procrastination typically appears when I am not happy with the direction of the piece in question, or I am stumped at how to get past the hurdle of a problem spot. If I just move on to something else, there will be a nagging in the back of my mind that I left the first piece unresolved. This never allows me to fully engage in the new work. I have learned that a short break of several days is OK, as I may come back with fresh eyes and see what needs to be done. If not, I force myself to just do SOMETHING on the piece, even if it is small. Many times, the idea of making progress helps me to continue working. I either resolve the issue, or end up taking the piece in an entirely new direction. Either way it is a win.

  • WOW! Great comments! Wonderful ideas – Thanks everyone! I thought I was the only one!! LOL
    I have 2 pieces I am majorly procrastinating over. Neither of them had deadlines. One is done except for a small bit of woodworking to finish it up – the tools are hard to get to. I keep saying…I’ll get to that tomorrow or ask my husband to do it for me.
    The other is a freebie for a friend – that one gets put off because I have another deadlines to meet that are more about my own goals for my business.
    What works best for me is to tell myself I’ll just work on it for a few minutes (usually I work on it much longer once I get started.) I also write in my morning pages about it – if it’s something I’m stuck on OR I leave it and start something new. I recently reorganized the studio and put all my unfinished items in a box to get done… having them out where I can see them helps too.

  • There are some paintings that it is very challenging to come back to and finish. When I find myself procrastinating I know that it means one of two things: there is a problem that I have not yet worked out a way to solve, or there was a problem in the very conception of the project. Either way I start off by turning the picture to the wall for a while, and letting myself think about it whenever it comes to mind. After a week or two I’ll turn it back around. If I can see a problem I can do something about I’ll start working on it, a little bit at a time. I’ll promise myself an hour, but it will generally stretch into more. And little by little I’ll work my way through, stepping away to work on other pictures during the process. Sometimes, though, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental problem with the piece – most of the time I’ve tried to cram too much in. Then it’s best to paint over it or, if that’s not possible, just scrap it and go back to the sketch book to work my ideas out.

    Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Sometimes (often) it’s an opportunity to take a fresh look!

  • If a work has been sitting around for awhile, I finally get impatient and do something, anything to it. If a few attempts of that sort don’t generate some momentum, I grab the reliable gesso and paint over part or all of the piece and start anew.

  • I am a world-class procrastinator, although I’m not proud of it. Half the problems in my life would probably be resolved if I could figure out how to stop procrastinating. I also have a very poor sense of time passing and how long things really take to do, which doesn’t help, and makes me late with both appointments and deadlines quite a lot.

    I have found that for me there’s garden-variety procrastination and extreme procrastination, and the reason behind it factors in quite a bit. Nearly all of my work is on commission (I’m a calligrapher specializing in weddings and certificates and such), so I generally don’t have the option to just abandon a piece, and there’s almost always a deadline involved. On the other hand, a lot of what I do is fairly straightforward (address these 100 invitations in black ink in lettering style X), so that only results in garden-variety procrastination. I usually start working on my taxes around April 14, which falls into the same category. In these situations, sometimes I finish on deadline and once in a while I don’t, which isn’t great but it does get done before too long.

    Extreme procrastination for me generally comes from one of five reasons:
    1) I said yes against my better judgement
    2) I feel resentful because I think I’m being seriously underpaid for the work (these two things don’t happen nearly as much as they did when I first went into business for myself, over 20 years ago)
    3) There’s no deadline to at least give me something to push against
    4) I am uncertain about how to approach some aspect of it
    5) It’s a big enough project that I can’t complete it in a day or two, and I lose momentum

    The fact that I’ve been “working on” my website for well over a decade constitutes extreme procrastination, and I can point to the last three of those five items as the why.

    Clearly I have a long way to go to resolve this issue, but when I make progress, it’s due to one of two things:
    1) Breaking the project down into smaller (bite-sized) pieces, and
    2) Just getting started. If I get started, I will keep going for 16 hours straight unless some interruption or obligation stops me. My timer is my friend, because I’m not a natural self-starter.

    • Thanks for your terrific insights. I so relate to your “list” of causes and appreciate your short list of ways to overcome what seems insurmountable .

      My website is number 1 on list of examples of my own procrastination.
      How about I do yours and you do mine- and we set a deadline!!?? LOL!!

      Great you are able to identify causes and how to address them. Thanks for sharing them!!

    • Honey Lea

      What a great analysis!

  • I don’t see any value in soldiering through a project for which I’ve lost my enthusiasm. If I have no intention of finishing the project, and there is no compelling reason to, then I have to decide if there is any merit in keeping it or if I can re-use the materials. I generate a lot of trash. Reclaiming my workspace is my chief motivation for finishing or discarding projects. When a workspace gets piled high with unfinished projects, then I may have to dedicate a whole day to clearing it off, reevaluating whether I still have any intention or whether everything should be discarded. If I have learned all I can from any project, but it still has merit, then if I have space for it, it will get stacked or stored to be reviewed in six months or so to see if there is any remaining value. Managing storage is the challenge. Abandoned larger projects require more thoughtful storage.

  • Ah the enemy, procrastination! I am fighting it tooth and nail by just doing the work. That and occasionally getting outside for a hike with friends. It is not the worst thing in the world. It helps me get a better perspective on what I am doing.

    Sometimes though, sitting on things helps me matriculate out the details of what needs to be done and clarifies a better solution.

    I also feel like it’s best to let time and progress help you in getting the work done. When it’s the right time and I am not rushing I wind up with a better finished product.

  • There’s a few strategies I use, depending on the case…

    1. I put on a deadline. If there’s an exhibition or a publication where my work fits in well, I’ll complete it by the deadline the work must be submitted.

    2. I give it up (for now). I had one painting that was sitting unfinished for over a year, until I felt like finishing it. The works I completed in the meantime had taught me a lot, and I was better equipped to paint it.

    I’ve never scrapped a work completely, but I’m not ruling it out if it’s just not working.

  • Great responses, everyone! I find that the types of things that I procrastinate on vary widely. Housework reigns as the ruler… I have solved that by hiring a cleaning service. Yardwork also gets put off pretty frequently, and my husband has resorted to helping me in this arena!

    For work, deadlines are my best friend. I use the calendar on my computer and assign different tasks for specific days, usually with a cushion so that if it takes longer than I expect, I still have time before the deadline. I’ve even set mini-deadlines on my calendar for large projects.

    I can’t remember where the recommendation for this Ted talk came from… was it you, Alyson? Anyway, I think it is excellent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU

  • Honey Lea

    Really interesting comments!

    I’m not much of a procrastinator usually. But, when I do keep putting something off, it’s usually because the project is causing some anxiety that I don’t want to deal with. Often, if I can get to what that anxiety is all about, I can go forward. Talking with trusted friends can usually get me to the root of the problem, if I can’t figure it out on my own.

    Sometimes, though, what looks like procrastination is just my intuition, saying ” wait, you aren’t ready to do this” and it’s almost always right on target as in Joan’s comment above.

  • John Naber

    Putting many things off, not just my painting, can indeed be irritating. I find several ways to get back to doing what I want to do: 1. read emails only once a day – early in the morning; 2. exercise when I need to break out of my ‘dithering’; 3. no television of course; 4. my wife does not interrupt when I am painting unless absolutely necessary; 5. a telephone answering system including the free “nomorobo” service that screens telemarketing and robo calls; 6. lastly, when stuck on a painting, I move over to one of the 4 or 5 pieces of art I have in progress all the time.

  • Paige

    My tip for the painful, languishing, mind numb artist is to simply go grab a board, a paper, even telephone book, put your music on and let your paint or a marker go take a walk. Nothing specific to draw just let your body groove. This always lets me meet my struggles head on.

  • Wow – talk about a timely article! My situation might be a bit different though, because my deadline suddenly evaporated and now I’m wrestling with a very strong sense of “why bother?” Maybe that’s the root cause of all procrastination? Anyways, people are leaving so many fantastic tips in the comments, I’m sure I’ll find something that will get me back on track soon enough. Thanks, everyone!

  • The conversation here is wonderful! There are so many great ideas. thanks.

    There have been times when I would almost prefer doing the dishes to finishing a project!

    One thing I know is that if I do not schedule my time, it seems to get scheduled for me. And running out of time can make me overwhelmed and want to ignore the issue rather than work through it. So, I try very hard to stick to all my schedules.

    But, my motivation is to realize WHY I do any of my art: its part passion and part eating. Drawing & painting are my passions, but also: “no work – no eat”. (and eating can be very motivational also – LOL).

  • Orla Madden

    a timetable and deadlines and motivating and being motivated by artist friends are what works for me …. and loving what am working on !

  • I try to stick to a schedule and force myself into the studio even when I have little inspiration. I will start another project if I feel the current one is the reason I am procrastinating. I hate the pressure of short deadlines, so having the luxury of time does keep me from stressing as well as doing poor work.

  • Maureen

    I am grateful for all the comments posted–most helpful! And helpful in realizing I am not alone.

    I think how we school children at a very early age could affect this outcome. Our schooling was about following someone else’s deadline; test this Friday, paper due Tuesday. I don’t remember any self-starting assignment.

  • Lisa Carnicom

    These comments have all been useful tools – thanks, everyone! I’m the opposite of a procrastinator about everything except making art, even though that’s one of the activities I enjoy most. I get all necessaries done so that when I install myself in the studio, my mind is completely free of a To Do List. I am retraining my brain to let go of my self-appraisal that I am She Who Gets Stuff Done. I am accustomed to finishing everything I do to a certain level of craftsmanship. I am learning to let go of this tendency in making art because I don’t yet have the skill to be so fussy!

    I’m pretty decisive about whether or not I’m going to finish or abandon a project, so there are few “maybes” hanging around the studio. When I DO decide to return to a “maybe”, I take 3 – 7 deep breaths and put on my art smock. I put a lucky shell, rock, or other object in my pocket. Hey, Costa Ricans schoolkids bring such things to exams, presentations, & other challenging situations. I decided I liked this behavior & thus have adopted it. I flare my nostrils a bit, put my “game face” on, and walk toward the piece as if we are going to wrangle, play, or be tenderly nurtured. Every piece is different; “tenderly nurtured” gets a different facial expression. Usually I melt into surrender to my Divine & chuckle at all my swagger. That’s the only way I get anything good done, so I’m happy this way. Apparently I enjoy going through my father’s ritual cosplay (John Wayne), with love. Usually, then, I begin to feel guided in what to do with the painting or drawing (or, sometimes, an installation). I often wonder if an ancestor is with me. I like to think of myself as embroidered into the weave of humanity stretching far back into history. For some reason, this is both inspiring & grounding. Would you like to see how this works? Test drive it for yourself?

    I have been inspired by reading James Altucher’s take on exercising your “idea muscles”. He wrote that a healthy behavior is writing down at least ten ideas every day. Not only is this good for your brain; it also makes you feel more alive (which would affect all of the body’s systems in a positive way).

    That’s the nutshell version 😉 So much happens while we are making art, isn’t it?

  • To overcome procrastination, I break a project into 20 minute tasks, anything longer than 20 minutes is another project.
    I allocate 15-20 minutes to do that task, time-blocking it on my calendar.
    If I continue to postpone working on said project week after week, I get accountable. This might just mean telling my husband I’ve put something off for weeks. Or a friend, if I tell him and still procrastinate.

    That said, there’s one huge project I’ve put off for years, and I’ve decided to claim 6 months to work towards its completion. But due to my show schedule, I am giving myself a start date in October, so I can stay human, and not set myself up for failure.
    There it is, I’ve put it on the internet, so I have accountability to begin in October!

  • I’ve been dealing with this big time on several projects, and greatly appreciate reading how others handle procrastination. If I’m having a really tough time facing something, I’ll sometimes use small rewards, such as a treating myself to a movie if I work x number of hours. One thing that seems to help quite a lot, though, is the simple Pomodoro technique, which naturally I learned about from Alyson. Something about setting that timer on my phone, and hearing the soft tick, tick, tick in the background of doing my work, helps so much. And I don’t know if it’s the actual ticking sound, or the idea of having small deadlines of 25 minutes – or possibly the race against the buzzer, but somehow it helps me to focus and plow thru things better. I admit, though, that I haven’t used if for making art, only for projects around the art making, such as marketing tasks. Having said all this, I’m going to try it this weekend for tackling a new piece.

    • I loved reading through these answers.

      Interested to see The Pomodoro Technique (www.pomodorotechnique.com) mentioned only this once! I use it for bizness, art and life, making the sessions smaller and smaller and smaller — amazing what can be done in 5 minutes! — until I’ve shredded anxiety. And, at this point in my life and career, I understand that procrastination is (usually) the source, and the product of anxiety.

      As far as going that last bit on a project that’s exhausted me, I’m afraid I’m very old-fashioned in my thinking about that — the project is either worth the effort, or it’s not. If it’s not — and I have a novel in a drawer that I believe falls into this category — I move on. There’s so much to make!! And if the project is worth the effort, it will stay with me, nagging, and putting that effort in when I don’t think I can is precisely what separates me-the-artist from me-the-hobbyist: doing it when it doesn’t feel good.

      To juice myself up, motivation by all means necessary: the work of my fellows, accountability, books, pictures, music, beauty –. I am currently turned on by Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert; Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things; and Jeremy Irons reading The Four Quartets (https://jeremyirons.net/2014/01/18/jeremy-irons-reads-ts-eliots-four-quartets/).

      If none of the above works, that mean — horrors! — I’m tired, and it’s time for pulled blinds and a good novel — recent faves include Kate Morton.

  • Bill

    I finish just the way I start. I decide to get going early and put some time in. I tell myself that will free up my time later on. (Then later on momentum often decides to have another go at it.) The other aspect is that there is never, ever nothing on the easel. When I put one panel on the drying rack, another panel goes up and some marks are made. Then the next morning, I’m trying to sort out the marks and get to it all over again.