How to finish that big creative project? That’s what I’m asking myself right now.
Having big creative ideas is easy. Starting with enthusiasm is easy. But seeing creative projects through all the way to completion, turning up day after day when the prize of finishing still feels so far off?
Not so much.
Last year I won the William Littlejohn Award from the Royal Scottish Academy (woo hoo!). My proposal was to use the award to develop some larger scale pieces. So, just before Christmas I dipped into the award money and ordered four big aluminium panels to work on.
They have just arrived from the fabricators. Here they are, stacked in my studio, waiting for me to get started…
Now I’m wondering if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Starting on a big project like this always feels daunting. It’s especially so because when you are a self-employed creative, nobody else really cares all that much if you actually finish it or not.
Build in accountability
Okay so there is, in this case, the small matter of showing my work in the Royal Scottish Academy at a yet-to-be specified date later this year, which does focus the mind (gah!). I feel like I have a measure of accountability, a specific outcome to aim for.
I find it’s always helpful if I can build in accountability to any project, even if, like now, there’s already some there. It really helps ensure I get it finished. Even this blog post, and the occasional updates on work-in-progress I’ll be putting out on social media, are ways for me to set in place a level of accountability that will help make sure I show up and do the work, even when the going gets sticky.
But really, when it boils down to it, I know that nobody else cares all that much whether I finish or not.
Studio work-in-progress, 2022
So how do we stay the course? How do we ensure that we devote sufficient time to the creative projects we want to do, even need to do, but which keep on getting pushed off the to-do list by other work/life/distractions?
Decision has the same root as incision. It involves cutting something out.
First of all, let’s get the bad news over with. As Oliver Burkeman has written so eloquently, we don’t have unlimited time. Life is short. We simply can’t do everything we want to do. It’s just impossible. We need to decide where to focus our energies. If we want to allocate serious time to our creative work there is always going to be something else we are not doing with that time. Something’s got to give, and we will each have to make a considered decision about what that is. The word ‘decision’ has the same root as ‘incision’. It involves cutting something out or off.
But here’s the good news. We may think we need long unbroken chunks of time to get any creative work done, but the reality is we probably couldn’t concentrate that long anyway. 3 to 4 hours of quality concentration in a day is, apparently, as much as anyone can manage.
A comforting thought, I find.
Studio work-in-progress, 2022, an hour’s worth?
So maybe what we need to cut out isn’t anything major, but just a case of being more mindful of the time we fritter away on social media, Netflix, snoozing on the sofa (ahem).
Get those dopamine hits!
Yes, but I hear my inner whiney-voice say, that’s just bits and pieces of time! You can’t expect me to get any serious work done in 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there…
Stern self-talk coming up:
Firstly, yes you can.
Barbara Hepworth managed to maintain her creative momentum while raising triplets. Her method was to work in intensive bursts whenever she could grab them, throughout the day, an hour here, 30 minutes there. This meant she could keep a train of creative thought going in the back of her mind, while spooning food into a toddler or doing housework, and pick it up again readily whenever she could snatch a moment back in the studio.
Secondly, it’s better tackled that way anyway.
Anthony Trollope maintained a truly formidable level of productivity in a career spanning 38 years: 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction, 12 short stories, 2 plays, and an assortment of articles and letters. Okay, chances are he never had to spoon food into a recalcitrant toddler, never mind three (three!) or even poach his own eggs for that matter, but still, that’s quite some output.
How did he do it? Instead of measuring his progress in terms of books completed, he broke his working day down into 15-minute chunks, aiming for a set word count each time.
Working on a big project means getting to the end of yet another day without the satisfaction of completion. It’s disheartening to reach the end of the day and know there’s still a mountain to climb, and we start to lose heart. Trollope’s approach allowed him to enjoy small moments of satisfaction each time he completed a 15 minute chunk and enjoy a little hit of dopamine.
It seems a small thing, but it helps us to feel positive, like we are getting somewhere. And that helps us to keep going.
Better to get your dopamine hit from ticking off another 15-minute chunk of creative work than from 15 minutes checking your post recent Instagram post for new likes. *wags finger
Studio work-in-progress 2022. 15 minutes worth?
Crack that ice, every day
Each time we sit down to work on a creative project there is a slight resistance to overcome. It’s almost as if a film of ice forms over the thing while we’re away from it. The longer we leave it the thicker that film of ice grows.
Creative work is, by its very nature, is often uncomfortable. We have to make thousands of tiny decisions to progress, each one cutting off thousands of other possibilities, and each one feeling like the difference between glorious success and miserable failure.
Creativity guru Eric Maisel suggests creating a ritual of actually breaking an egg each time you start back on a project. It’s a bit wasteful to do that physically (unless you really, really like eating scrambled eggs), but as an image it seems about right to me. We have to break something open and get in amongst the mess of it, all the bits, the ooze, the yuck factor, the sheer unruliness of the unfinished thing, before we can get to work on it.
Habit is your friend
So, when I talk to students, I’m always a big advocate of ‘little and often’. Break that ice, every day, even if you only have 20 minutes to work on it. Just do it. Just notice the resistance, yeah, yeah, whatever, and get on with it anyway.
Do it again tomorrow.
And the day after that.
And the day after that.
Let the momentum of sheer habit start to gather and it will get easier to start each time.
Habit is your friend. Piggy-back new habits onto existing ones – write for 15 minutes while you drink your morning coffee. Or do a direct swap – instead of reading the news at the end of the day, shut your laptop and draw for an hour.
The observant reader will have noticed that I am actually talking to myself here.
And now I better go and practice what I preach, or I’ll never finish those panels. Feel free to hold me accountable!