Creative Experiment: On finishing what you start

finishing what you startLast week I finally finished the creative experiment that I started way back in November. I got the book Draw Paint Print Like the Great Artists, by Marion Deuchars, for my birthday last year and I decided that I would do every single exercise in the book, and document my progress on Instagram. I thought it would take me 4 months, but it ended up taking 6 1/2. I’m so happy to report that last week I finished the final exercise. Doesn’t this book look amazing? I used the heck out of it.

The point of the project, as I wrote about here and here, was to build up a weekly creative habit, develop some discipline, and see if I could learn to let go of my inner critic and just play with the exercises.

The first few months were great. I couldn’t wait to start working on each assignment and was reluctant to move on to other things once my time was up. However, almost right after writing my mid-project recap, I hit a bit of a wall.I wasn’t finding it to be as fun or exciting. The exercises started to feel sort of pointless and some made me feel downright frustrated and angry.

The section on Frida Kahlo was especially hard. It was all drawing – mostly drawing self-portraits. While I love the idea of drawing in theory and think everyone can learn to draw, I have a hard time making it part of my creative practice because whenever I try it, my inner critic goes a little mental on me. I experience huge amounts of perfectionism and resistance and it’s just not fun.

In this section and in others, there were moments when I wished I could quit and start something new. But I didn’t. I stuck with it and after a few weeks, I started finding joy in it again. When I finished I felt so pleased with myself.

How did I do it? How did I manage to stick with it to the very end, even when it wasn’t fun? If you find that you struggle with finishing what you start, here are some things that I find help me to stay motivated until the end:

I set assignments for myself.

This project was easy in that there were clear exercises for me to complete each day. All I had to do was promise myself to sit down at my craft table Thursday and Friday mornings before breakfast and work for an hour. My larger assignment was to do every single exercise, and my smaller assignment each day was to work for an hour on the book. Getting really clear about your short and long term goals for the project help make it easier to stay focused on it.

I remembered why I started.

When I encountered resistance along the way I was actually thankful for it, because it meant the project was doing what I had hoped it would: it was bringing up thoughts and beliefs that get in the way of my creative process and helping me understand them better. The point of this exercise was never to make beautiful art, it was to learn about myself and my process. Remembering the purpose that I started with helped me to dig into the tough spots instead of turning away from them.

I told people I was doing it.

I created a sort of accountability system for myself by posting on Instagram, and tagging the author of the book. I made a promise, in public, that I would do it. Even thought I wasn’t sure if anyone else would notice, I still didn’t want to risk losing face by giving up. While we certainly don’t want the opinions of others to shape all our behaviour, they can be a powerful motivator when it comes to getting things done.

I never let the ‘will I or won’t I’ battle start in my mind.

When I decided to do this, I decided 100%. I never let the possibility that I might not finish into my mind. Saying that I would do every single exercise meant that I couldn’t skip one because I didn’t like the sound of it. I had to do every single one. If you think to yourself, “I would really like to finish this, but I know I might not,” you probably won’t. Your mind can be your greatest ally if you let it. Make up your mind and don’t waver.

I was flexible.

That being said, when I was really struggling with the Frida Kahlo exercises and feeling so down on myself, I did skip ahead. The point was never to make myself completely miserable. I moved on to something easier and then went back and finished them later, once I had calmed down and gotten some perspective. I also didn’t give up when it became clear that the project would not be finished in 4 months. I just adjusted my timeline and kept going. Sometimes you’ll need to make changes to a project to keep it going. Don’t give up if things start going off the rails, just make adjustments where you can.

I didn’t let distractions pull me away.

While I was working on this, I had plenty of ideas for other projects I wanted to start, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to start them until I finished this one. I wrote them down and kept them out of sight until I finished. Now that I’m done, I have a course and another project that I can jump right into. Our tendency is often to drop one project when another one looks shinier and more fun. But I find that finishing one thing puts me in a better mindset to get started on the next thing. I’m more able to focus and commit.

I remembered that every creative endeavour has at least one low point.

It’s the nature of the creative process: I know that no matter how excited I am at the start of something, there’s a good chance that I will hate it before long. It almost always happens, and I almost always get back to loving it eventually. Things that seem easy at first will eventually feel hard. All you can do is keep working through it until you enjoy it ag. Check out this post for more ideas on how to make creativity feel fun again.

I celebrated milestones.

Each time I finished a section of the book I gave myself a mental high five. I numbered the artists and got excited as the numbers went higher and higher. When I got to halfway I wrote a blog post about it. When you pass a significant milestone in your project, make sure to note it, even if it’s just by smiling and taking a small break. Keep the positive energy flowing.

I was willing to let it suck.

In my case the work really didn’t need to be beautiful – I wasn’t in it for the end product, only for the process. If the end product does matter, trust that it might take you some time to get it right. Iterate, make drafts and prototypes, do it and then do it again until you get it right. Don’t let early mistakes or perfectionism throw you off course.

It took me 2.5 months longer than I expected, but I finished. No one cared but me. But I finished. Some days I really hated it. But I finished. It took away hours that could have been spent on paid work. But I finished. It was embarrassing to put some of the photos on Instagram. But I finished. It feels so good to finish!

As an unexpected bonus, the hardest part of this project – the drawing exercises that I hated so much – have given me a great idea for a new creative challenge. I’m going to spend a year teaching myself to learn to love drawing and making friends with my inner critic, and I really want you to join me. Sign up for my mailing list (on the right) to be the first to find out about the project and learn how you can take part.

Have you ever started a project and then left it hanging? How does that make you feel? What do you do to make sure that you finish what you start? Leave a comment below.

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