Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Having Trouble Finishing Your Labor Of Love?

Everyone thinks they have a book inside them, but not so many make the time and effort to bring it to birth. For ‘book’ you could substitute ‘screenplay’, ‘album’, ‘startup’, or ‘crocheted iPad case for your Etsy shop’.

All of these are self-started creative projects – labors of love that we feel inspired to do in spite (or maybe because) of the fact no one is pressuring us to get them done. If you can actually see a project like this through to completion, it’s one of the biggest creative buzzes you will ever experience.

But getting it done – without a boss or client told you to account, and with precious little spare time or money – is one of the biggest challenges you’ll ever face.

This was brought home to me recently when I decided to write a book, in the middle of running my own business and being responsible for two blogs and two toddlers. I’ve now finished the draft, and am in the process of revising it for the editor. So with in the end in sight, I thought I’d share a few of the principles that helped me get this far.

1. Make it worth the sacrifice.

Unless you have more spare time and resources than most of us, you will have to sacrifice something to make room for your project. If you’re self-employed, there could be a financial hit if you take time away from paid work. And whatever your situation, you will probably have to miss out on time with friends, family or your other interests.

So make it worth the sacrifice. There’s no point doing something you ‘kind of’ fancy doing. For one thing, it will be much harder to stick to your plan when the pressure is on. And even if you do succeed, what will you have gained?

Pick a big challenge, and list everything that will be great about finishing it – whether creative satisfaction, money, fame, opportunities, or all of them at once. Keep the list handy for those days when you need a reminder.

2. Do a time budget.

You wouldn’t embark on an expensive project without doing a budget (would you?). So don’t start a time-intensive one without doing a time budget, to estimate how much time you will need and whether you can afford it.

Questions to ask include: How long will the project take? Where will the time come from? Where will it fit in your schedule?

Once you’ve estimated how much time you will need for the entire project, calculate how many hours you have available per week. That should give you an idea of an end date, and whether it’s realistic. (If you’re looking at completing in 2030, you may want to have a rethink!) Having a realistic deadline in place can galvanize you to put in the hours every week.

3. Anticipate excuses.

On one side of the sheet of paper, list all the excuses that are likely to come into your mind when it’s time to knuckle down and get started. Then on the right hand side, give the reason why each excuse is bullshit. Keep this sheet of paper within arm’s reach of your workspace at all times!

If you are ever tempted to use an excuse, take the sheet of paper out and remind yourself why that excuse is no excuse. If you find yourself dreaming up fresh excuses, add them to the list plus the reasons why they don’t count.

4. Make yourself accountable.

First and foremost, setup reminders to hold yourself accountable – such as a note above your desk, an alarm that rings when it’s time to start work, or an email to your future self. You know yourself better than anyone, so use a medium and message that will remind you of how vitally important finishing this project is for you.

Secondly, tell a trusted friend, partner or peer about your project. With their permission, give them regular reports about your progress. This works even better if you pair up with someone working on their own projects, and hold each other accountable. (Just remember to promise yourself to complete even if the other person wimps out!)

Thirdly, consider a more public form of accountability, such as forum thread, NaNoWriMo (for writers), or telling your blog readers/Twitter followers about your plan and progress. If you need funding, how about a crowdfunding platform such as Kickstarter? When you make a public statement and/or take people’s money you tend to feel very accountable.

To begin with, I just told my wife about the book. Then I told my mailing list subscribers when I was 90% through the first draft. Now I’m into the revision, I’m telling you. I guess there’s no going back now!

5. Tick off your progress.

I’m writing the book using Scrivener, which has several neat little features for tracking progress. Not only does it give word count for the whole document and individual chapters, it lets me see all the chapters laid out in order, and even add little coloured flags to indicate whether they contain notes, first draft, second draft etc. So I can see at a glance how much I’ve done of each stage. Childish but effective motivation!

Find an equivalent way of tracking progress for your project, that is easy to quantify and see at a glance. Even if it seems trivial, try it and see what difference it makes.

6. Get good at catching up.

You are not superhuman, so you will likely get behind on other things during the project. This isn’t a big problem as long as (a) you know which are the vital things you MUST not neglect, and (b) you have robust productivity systems that allow you to deal with the backlog effectively.


Over To You

Have you ever completed a self-started creative project? If so, how?

If not, what’s the biggest obstacle that stands in your way?

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a coach who helps creative professionals create more, suffer less and attract more opportunities. He is the author of the popular blog Lateral Action and the book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.
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