How to (Actually) Finish A Creative Project
It’s not magic. It’s dedication.
The rush of a new idea is exhilarating; from the electricity of their arrival, to the waves of inspiration that carry you to the land of dreams. Ideas are fun and exciting, encoded with a sense of adventure, breadcrumbs for mind-made trails of discovery. But how often have you had a new idea, one that feels revolutionary and world-changing, only to become stale long before manifested into a reality?
Bridging the gap from idea to completion is an arduous task. The majority of ideas remain as ideas, long-forgotten or never followed up in the minds of people who say, “I thought of that once, but never did anything about it.”
The tech guru who thought of Facebook before Facebook, the writer who had the idea for Inception but didn’t put pen to paper, the musician who hummed a tune strikingly similar to the newest pop sensation… They all have one thing in common: they had the idea but didn’t execute.
The excitement, the exhilaration, and the spontaneity of creative inspiration have to be harnessed into discipline, consistency, and dedication, to make something, whether it’s a creative career or exciting side hustle. This article will provide a broad overview to show you what’s required to turn ideas into reality.
Deal With Your Commitment Issues
In a previous article on creative ideas, I mentioned shiny object syndrome, the allure of new or novel ideas that distract from the tougher parts of a creative project. In the beginning, sparks fly with a specific idea. Everything is new and exciting. The possibilities feel endless. You enjoy the honeymoon period. Over time, you start to consider the idea, long-term. Cracks start to appear. What you initially envisioned starts to collide with reality. The honeymoon period ends, and reality strikes.
It can be tempting to be attracted to ideas that appear less demanding and more exciting. Sitting down every day to write, learning how to code an app, letting your creative urges spill into the canvas when your work has been rejected time and time again, all take effort. Finishing a creative project requires commitment.
Not commitment for commitment’s sake, but the determination to see it through, through the hard times and the bad — just like building a relationship with another living, breathing human. The project has to be seen and accepted in all its flaws and unmet expectations, and the deeper fulfillment of staying loyal to an idea over the long term has to replace the thrill of chasing new ideas.
Develop an Ideas System
Your life will be easier if you have a system, in order to know what to do with the ideas as they arrive. This doesn’t have to be highly structured, but to operate as a protocol when new ideas arrive. I’ll use the example of a writer, as it’s what I know best. When I get a new idea, I give it space, to allow myself to consider where this idea might go. Is it its own article, connected to a wider body of work (such as a book), or a fragment that will find its way somewhere, when the time is right?
Such a system is needed in completing a creative project because it allows you to delegate new ideas that surface whilst in the later stages with older ideas. A classic example of this is, when researching or writing a book, discovering material that is beyond the scope of the original outline. The ability to say “enough is enough” makes all the difference.
Ask yourself: is this idea a distraction? Is it relevant to the project I’m working on? Can I simply let it go, or save it somewhere for another time? What format is this idea, a social media post, a course, a video? Do I need to bookmark an idea for another time?
A trap many people fall into is feeling each new idea has to be actualized. The creative process operates with its own form of divine timing. When you’re committed to a project, and seeing it through, you have to say no, or ‘maybe later,’ to a whole host of ideas and new projects. A system allows you to work with this, without feeling new ideas are wasted.
Learn What Projects Are Worth Pursuing
“The more important the project we take on, the more difficult it is to find certainty that our work will succeed before we begin. We can begin with this: If we failed, would it be worth the journey? Do you trust yourself enough to commit to engaging with a project regardless of the chances of success?”Seth Godin
18 months ago, I structured, planned, recorded, edited, and created an online course on self-compassion. What started as an idea became a five-module course. It has worksheets, exercises, guided meditations, video tutorials, and an infrastructure to allow anyone, anywhere in the world, to enroll. In many ways it was a success. Yet upon launch, it felt like a failure. Few people signed up, and the project I’d put my heart and soul into didn’t meet my unconscious expectations.
Whilst I wouldn’t change the process and what I learned during that time, it was a wake-up call. Part of completing a creative project means knowing what ideas are worth following and developing. Once you know which ideas are worth developing, you have to gauge when they’re worth developing, placed in the context of your life and your priorities.
Again, this is a highly personal process. But in my experience, the best way to determine this is to either go for what’s optimal in terms of input and results, or for what excites you the most. I use these two basic categories because, as a creative, you need both. You need the projects that are optimized, just as much as you need space to work on your passion without worrying too much (or at all) about optimization or outcome.
Consider, at any given moment, what projects are best with your time, attention, and energy. What skills will you learn that can be applied elsewhere? What will you gain financially, intellectually, or spiritually by following it through? Does it conflict with other things in your life? Are there other people you could work with, to share responsibilities and offer mutual support?
Plan the Project Like a Professional
If you’re just starting out, finishing one article, or one melody, or one social media post, might feel like a project in itself. As you evolve, and your ideas along with you, the projects will expand in scope — perhaps an entire novel, album, or online course. The bigger the project, the more planning required. If you work alone, and don’t have access to a coach or mentor, you’ll have to become your own project manager.
Organizations use project managers to make sure projects are complete, and their process can be used as a source of inspiration. I see this as an inner archetype to connect to, the structure to creativity’s spontaneity. The workflow of actual project managers can come in handy here. According to Coursera, there are typically four stages of any project:
- Initiating: the beginning stage requires a clear definition of the project. What goals will be required? What tasks will have to be carried out? Is it feasible?
- Planning: the nitty-gritty stage requires you to assess how the project will come to life.
- Execute and complete tasks: this is the process of achieving the goals and processes initially identified.
- Close: this includes reviewing the process, finishing any final tasks, and looking at what comes next — be it marketing a new product or integrating the lessons learned.
This demonstrates the skills and tools that will be needed to complete a creative project. Harnessing your initial creative energy means finding consistent time to put in the work, setting and achieving goals, working to deadlines, and keeping on track. All of these apply, when working alone. The difference between those who complete projects, and those who don’t, is that the former approach their creativity with the same mindset as a professional.
That doesn’t mean this approach has to be taken by all creatives. If you’re content with the joy of the process itself, and have no desire to share with the world, monetize, or have something material, a ‘complete’ work, then all is well. But if you’re reading this article, I’ll safely assume you’ve confronted the frustration of struggling to complete your project in a way that feels satisfying.
Know Perfect Is the Enemy of Good
This aphorism highlights how striving for perfection becomes a hindrance, not support. It’s vital to have high-level goals. Numerous studies show that this does add motivation, even if those goals aren’t met. But perfectionism is something different. Perfectionism is unattainable. It’s always one more edit, one more draft, one more fine-tune away from the final thing. Seth Godin, one of the world’s most successful bloggers, popularized the term ‘ship it’ to describe getting a project out there.
In his guide, ShipIt, he asks questions such as ‘what does perfect look like,’ and ‘what does good enough look like’? These are two highly valuable questions to ask. It’s crucial to find the sweet spot between rushing, to complete for the sake of it, and taking too much time to make the project perfect. There’s a need for discernment, to say, this is it, it’s ready, and ship it.
I love Godin’s approach to creative work. He says that “Any idea withheld is an idea taken away. It’s selfish to hold back when there’s a chance you have something to offer.” In other words, if you have something you believe in, then the world needs it, even if it’s one person who benefits from what you’ve created. Completing the work — shipping it — has to be a priority.
Beware of the Sunk Cost Fallacy
I’ll end with a caveat: sometimes projects have to be canceled. Perhaps they’re too ambitious, or the timing isn’t right. Perhaps it wasn’t the right call to pursue. There are many reasons why a project you choose to pursue can, later down the line, turn out to be a mistake. That’s okay, it’s part of the learning curve. However, when this starts to become apparent, beware of the sunk cost fallacy.
This is a cognitive bias whereby people tend to stay committed due to costs already invested, like a gambler chasing losses. Those costs can be time, money, emotions, and much more. I’ve written one book, and since then, I’ve considered what I’d like to write next.
Recently, I had an idea for a follow-up. I spent a lot of time researching obsessively, building a theme, working on chapters, and writing. But my gut feeling was the time wasn’t right. Despite having planned to complete this year, I stopped.
A few months later, it became clear why: my energy is better served elsewhere, for now. None of the work is lost — it’ll find a home. But I realized the hidden benefit of cutting losses; you actually gain. You gain all the additional time and energy you would’ve spent working on the project, which can then be better used elsewhere. There are always more projects. No project is ‘the one.’ Plenty more fish in the project sea.
Dare to become someone who can ideate, plan, and execute projects. This will build confidence that when you pursue ideas, they will lead somewhere. Get to know the cycles of a project, from the initial excitement to the roadblocks along the way. Know that no creative work is a breeze from beginning to end. For every brainstorm, there’s summer drought.
Every creative work I make has a period of tension or difficulty, where I consider giving up, or procrastinate. Usually when I’m near the end. I used to fear this, and bemoan how it wasn’t as fun as the earlier stages. But now I’ve learned that this isn’t a bad thing, but part of the natural ebb and flow. And pushing through this stage leads to a much deeper sense of fulfillment and achievement than always starting anew.
Learn how to push through, stay loyal, and ship it. Maybe someday, there will be people out there saying if only they’d followed their ideas, if they knew how to execute like you did, they would’ve beaten you to the idea that changed the world. And you’ll tell them: it wasn’t magic, I just taught myself how to complete my projects, and then the magic happened.