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Having Trouble Finishing Your Labor Of Love?

When no one is nagging you to complete your dream project, it can be hard to stay motivated. How to eradicate excuses and power through to the finish.

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?

Comments (29)
  • Joshua Plant

    I have the alarms, the reminders, and the dream, but since quitting my day job, the motivation has gone out the window. Hell, I am lucky if I get out of bed most days. Self-employment is far more difficult than I had anticipated, at least with regard to staying motivated.

  • Murverine

    Read “The War of Art,” by Steven Pressfield…

  • Chris Spradlin

    In the middle of a book project as we speak! The “ANTICIPATE EXCUSES” is brilliant!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Good advice.

  • Mark McGuinness

    You’re not alone! I’ve met lots of freelance creatives who say motivating themselves to make something of their day is a big challenge, especially if they have been used to working in a shared office.

    Maybe start by asking/reminding yourself why you struck out on your own in the first place. Or – being devil’s advocate – asking why you shouldn’t quit self-employment and look for another job?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Glad it touched a chord, good luck with the book.

  • Tom Allen

    I wanted to follow you on Twitter after reading this article. But I can’t, because I’ve blocked all access to it for a full week (that and a long list of other sites) while editing the 4th draft of my book. It’s working 🙂

  • Jeanette

    Thanks Mark – Great wisdom.

  • Jeanette

    Hi Joshua – I agree. One thing I have done to fight this is to find a person who is doing the same thing. We meet in a cafe weekly to encourage, set goals and stay accountable for those goals. It’s working and we both really look forward to that couple of hours together. We are finding we are having great input into each others businesses and projects.

  • Mark McGuinness


  • Mark McGuinness

    My pleasure.

  • alice simpson

    Determined to complete an Artist Book project that had been in a drawer for more than ten years, a friend and I exchanged quantifiable lists of goals and agreed to check in with one another once a week. My goal was to complete a letterpress, limited edition of 60 signed and numbered books about Queen Elizabeth I in a 16th C. style in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee. I set to my weekly goals.
    “Queen Elizabeth I & Sir Christopher Hatton, THE DANCING CHANCELLOR,” a book about music, dance and the Royals was printed, bound and boxed and promoted by June, in keeping with my determination to stay focused and keep my commitments.

  • Srinivas Rao

    Mark amazingly enough i’m motivated by the ability to surf. When a big swell hits I get much more done. I don’t waste time so that I can spend as much time on the water as possible. But the biggest thing that’s enabled me to get anything bigger done is to break it up into pieces and work on it EVERYDAY without fail. No excuses, no exceptions.

    For example if I need to write, fingers to keyboard every morning. Even if I hate what I’m writing If force myself to power through it. Sometimes what starts out awful turns into my best work.

  • Tannia

    I’m so doing this to finally get to work on my thesis. I have the full idea of what I’m going to write about, but I was making up excuses for not doing it. I think the first two steps for me will be buy Scrivener and find a thesis buddy that can keep me accountable. Thanks for this great advice.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Here are a few other ideas that I’m seen work well for people who struggled with the same motivation issues:

    -Sign up for a class that you have to be at early in the day.
    -Schedule calls with clients or potential clients for the early a.m.
    -Work away from home in a place where other people are being productive like the library or a remote-worker-friendly coffee shop.
    -Make promises to clients that you’ll be motivated to keep.
    -Get a part-time job that makes you get up in the morning and provides structure so that you feel more motivated to use your time wisely the rest of the day.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Arjan

    I started a business that produces designer grill covers. I made everything from the design of the product, the packaging, the advertising, the website, the branding, etc etc. Only the fulfillment was outsourced.
    It was great to do and to go trhough all of these steps. The business was ticking over nicely without much hours to put in. But I missed the camaraderie of a team. You could day I built the business to run *too* efficiently.
    I guess what I try to say is that you never know at what point – under what circumstances – you think of quitting. Which in my case luckily meant selling the business.

  • jbarbacc

    The book looks beautiful. Hopefully it is successful and continues to be in its own Jubilee year.

  • Hibs

    I really needed to hear, or should that be read this, and the comments that followed. I have been self-employed for 6 months now and sometimes, okay, a lot of the times, all I think about is how irresponsible I am working in this way, or not working as the case is sometimes, whilst I worry about filling up my diary with work. But what I tend to forget in those low moments is that I am really motivated to make this way of earning a living work for me, and I know that not every one can turn away from the security of a regular wage. I know deep down that once I get things running, that I will never be happier nor turn back and I just need to remind myself that it will pay off and it is the sure fire way of getting my working priorities met hence why I decided on this path. I am going to dig in and give myself six additional months to really prove I can make sense of this. So, thank you for reminding me that I am not a creative dreamer/slacker but a creative portfolio worker by choice!

  • Sarai Pahla

    Great article – really enjoyed it! I’m currently working as a medical translator, and I am studying towards my certification in both Japanese and German, but I get so caught up in work sometimes that I don’t spend enough time on studying and learning. This was a great reminder to get back to basics and pull everything together. Thanks again!

  • Angelina Sereno

    The self-started project I’ve completed is the creation of my business We just celebrated 6 years in business and we’re growing… so far, so good!!

    My new challenge is learning photography and video production/editing with my sexy new Canon 5D Mark II… Video has always been a strong passion of mine, so it would fill me with so much joy to be able to produce experimental films, documentaries and promotional videos for our clients at the level I envision.

    There is just so much to learn and I can’t seem to figure out how and when to learn everything. I edited video back I college but forgot almost everything. I was never officially trained in either photography or video, but I work with both all the time… We typically outsource these services, so it would actually make us more money to bring them in house. More than anything though, I want to use film to inspire others and fulfill this desire I’ve had for so long…

    I am equal parts excited and overwhelmed by this new venture I’m taking on!


    Great article! As a freelance designer and sound editor I usually tell me friends about projects I start. By putting myself out there and saying I’ve started makes me run home and get to work. As time passes they question me “hey how is this project going along” and it helps to keep me on my toes.

  • AR Grover

    most of the time I am my own obstacle- procrasstination queen about most things and then when I want to do it other things take priority- bored easily unless its a challenage and even then it can be boring- always moving to new things while working on old and every now and again finishing something though rarely do I devote my entire attention to any one thing as if I fail then I am not so much heart broken and the commitment is not so overwhelming-

  • Ishmael Islam

    ¤ This article has arrived in a timely fashion for me. I’m publishing my first collection of poetry in the fall, and am now at the revision stage. I’ve made it public, and I feel eager for the hardest push of the process. Thanks for linking some of the tools you use to stay on track!

  • Jacki Whitford

    Very timely article for me. I was entering a sloth stage and needed a jumpstart. What truly helped me before starting my project and when I find myself spinning my wheels is keeping a time map. Keep track of how you spend your time can help you identify where you squander it and why. Most of us squander time out of fear of success/failure, or out of procrastination/overhwhelm. By identifying what your mental/emotional blocks are you can identify and change your beliefs/habits and create new beliefs/habits that get you moving again with small baby steps so that your mind does not stop you from moving forward. The other thing I suggest is getting out of the house and taking a walk or go someplace else and sit and just write in a journal. Do a brain dump and do not edit what you write. You will be surprised how you may resolve your issues while you are scribbling and get back to your project more motivated than ever.

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