How to finish your work and diminish guilt

Illustration: Lan Truong

Creatives tend to have a ton of ideas and are typically effective at getting projects off the ground.

When we can’t stop thinking about something, we’re driven to make it happen. But then life happens. Work gets busier, school starts, everyone has a birthday the same month, kids finish up camp, etc. Or, we realize we’ve taken on more than we can chew. Or we become less excited about it because it’s now out in the world, no longer living in our literal dreams.

There’s a myriad of reasons why we don’t finish our projects.

And then the guilt builds.

When we’re working on one thing, we’re distracted by thoughts of another. When we choose exercise or social activities over working on creative endeavors, we’re unable to enjoy the moment. The projects we were once so excited about weigh on us. Not because we’ve lost interest in them, but because we can’t find the time to finish them.

How do we break the cycle? In a future article, we’ll break down ways you can design your workflow to complete projects efficiently. For now, we’ll focus on the warm and fuzzies. Below are a few practices we can put into place to get over the emotional hurdle many of us are met with after tackling a creative project. Try them out and let us know what you think.

Create an action plan

The concept of breaking down a huge project into bite-size chunks isn’t new. Gary Keller wrote a pretty good book about breaking down your end goals until you reach one thing to focus on today—not this week or year, but today. It’s simple advice but easy to forget when our brains always want to dwell on or dream about the bigger picture.

Writing down a list of tasks can overwhelm even the most peaceful mind. But it’s an important start for creating an action plan to complete your project.

Try breaking your project into specific to-dos, then add a deadline to each. Consider keeping this deadline flexible to avoid adding more stress. It’s an exercise in making your project attainable in the time life has allowed you.

Do you have 20 minutes in the morning? Use that time to brainstorm collaboration ideas, edit a track, work on album art, research publishers, etc. Put it in your calendar so it becomes a commitment (the good kind).

An action plan will hold you accountable for making incremental progress. And incremental progress tends to motivate us to keep moving forward, at least in my experience.

Limit and streamline decisions

Decision fatigue leads to overwhelm. From deciding the overall direction of your project down to choosing a hard-hitting kick for your track, it all adds up. Combining those with the decisions you make throughout your daily life can be exhausting. It’s no wonder our creative endeavors sit there unfinished.

Do what you can to streamline or eliminate decisions wherever possible. This could be as simple as picking out your outfits or meal prepping for your week. Saving samples you like so you have a go-to library when working on a track is another example.

Scheduling out your week in advance also helps with decision fatigue. Try putting everything in your calendar—from workouts to social outings to creative time. That way, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into for the week and won’t be faced with decisions.

This approach isn’t for everyone. Some people get stressed out by a full calendar, but it’s worth a try. Life, in many ways, is all about experimentation.

Another part of streamlining decisions is focusing on one project at a time. If you find yourself with so much to do, unable to finish any of your projects, it’s probably time to simplify. Try prioritizing your projects and focusing on one at a time.

Delegate what you can

I’ll share a personal anecdote for this one. I have a podcast I’ve been working on for over two years. It’s a lot of work. I often take extended breaks from it for that reason. Then, I feel guilty about it because I love working on it, but also because I worry about losing listener / follower engagement. We have so much old content to share on social media, but I don’t have time for that and also am not very good at it.

This year, I made a change. I hired someone to help curate our social media with content from our archives and what guests share on social media. I’m not able to pay them what I’d like to or what they should be paid; it equates to about one meal/week. I got lucky and found someone who’s happy to be paid a minimal rate to work on something creative during their commute to their day job.

It was tough for me to find money from my personal budget but it has been so worth it. They’re doing a stellar job (much better than I would’ve), our engagement on social media is way up, and the activity re-motivated me to make time to edit our next season.

Look at your list of to-dos from your action plan mentioned above. What on there can you delegate? What are you not that great at or not able to do quickly or effectively? What feels like the biggest burden?

Identify these things, then look for people or tools / software that can help you. If you’re a musician, commonly delegated activities include press / public relations, sync pitching, publishing, digital distribution, and poster design.

There are so many programs designed to help you complete tasks faster available at affordable prices. Take time to research what and who can alleviate some of your workload. Plus, working with people adds a layer of accountability and fun to your project.

Find an accountability partner

If you’re uncomfortable delegating or if the nature of your work doesn’t allow you to, find someone to be an accountability partner. This can be a friend, mentor, mentee, colleague, coworker, a person from your songwriting club—anyone.

This should be someone you can share your milestones with and report back to on a regular basis with your status report. The cadence—weekly, bi-weekly, monthly—is up to you. The intent isn’t for them to shame you if you don’t reach your goals. Rather, it’s for them to help you find solutions to your challenges or workflow issues.

The idea is for you to provide them with mutual support as well. Thinking through someone else’s challenges can often spur a lightbulb moment of your own. Plus, being helpful is a gratifying experience.

Schedule a standing creative work date with yourself

Can you carve out one morning or afternoon a week, every other week, or month to work on one creative project? Try taking a day every other week to power through a certain part of your project or number of tasks. Dedicate this day as a creative workday. Consider treating yourself to something as a reward for carving this time out for yourself and the project.

Take it easy on yourself

Forgiving yourself is so essential to alleviating guilt and overwhelm. You’re doing a lot and you’re doing great. Try making it a practice to reflect on what you have accomplished every week. Take breaks when you’re feeling burnt out. And of course, celebrate the small wins.

Do you have any strategies that work for you to finish your projects? Let us know in the comments.

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July 24, 2019

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.