May 23, 2016 | Alyson Stanfield

How Do You Motivate Yourself to Finish a Project? (Curious Monday)

Sandra Duran Wilson painting with lotus
©Sandra Duran Wilson, Lotus. Mixed media, 11 x 9 inches. Used with permission.

We all have projects that are part of our lives for longer than originally intended. The more we avoid them, the more monstrous they become.

Procrastination is in charge.

Today's question …

How do you motivate yourself to finish up a project that has been hanging around the studio too long?

Or

How to you face a project that you committed to, but no longer have any interest in?

↓ Please leave a comment below. ↓

About Curious Monday

Curious Monday is a weekly question that is sent only to subscribers.

I'm curious about how you live your life as an artist, how you juggle the demands on your time, and what you're thinking about.

I hope you'll read the responses from other artists. Maybe you'll get some ideas or even feel a little more connected as a result.

Feel free to leave suggestions for future Curious Monday questions in a comment.

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90 comments add a comment
  • I attempt to not allow myself to start on the new project that I’m super excited about until I’ve finished that one. But in practice I stink at it. I have lots of great ideas and unfinished projects. It is hard to focus when there are so many fabulous things I want to try and not enough hours in the day!

  • I either leave the work where I can see it as I walk by or I gesso over my first attempt and start again. When I leave it where I can see it, I am essentially putting it on a back burner.
    I work on other things. I look at the art of others to get some inspiration. What about a new color? Perhaps I need to tweak the composition. All of this is an effort to get me off my duff and finish it up. Or I gesso and start over. I believe that gesso is my friend: it can cover up a lot of bad ideas!

  • If I’ve said I’ll do it, I just get it done. If it isn’t something I’ve said I would do, it may never get done. Accountability helps.

  • I make a deal with myself–I’ll work on the project for a set amount of time, say 30 minutes. Sometimes I can get back into it and keep going, but if not, then I schedule another 30 minutes the next day and so on until it gets done!

  • I’m very uncomfortable with procrastination, so I don’t tend to do a lot. I don’t like the anxiety that comes with putting things off.

    I overcome procrastination when I have it by setting low agendas – a draft of a piece, a sketch, playing in my sketchbook with ideas.

    Also just plunging in and doing it. I just finished a piece that I’ve been sitting with for about a week. I find the sooner I embark on an idea, the less procrastination (thinking) and the happier I am.

    Can’t wait to see what others do!

  • I found the carrot/stick method worked well for me! When I was a high school English teacher facing a stack of essays to be marked, I would make deals with myself – after so many essays, etc, I will phone my girlfriend, make myself a coffee, etc. Small rewards kept me going. It doesn’t have to be expensive or extensive, but just some small thing you would rather be doing! Finish that painting – now I can…

  • If a piece has been sitting unfinished for too long, I give it a deadline, usually about a week. If I can’t finish it to my satisfaction by that deadline, it gets torn apart and/or gessoed over.

  • I put it away so my subconscious can deal with it for a while. If I am procrastinating working a piece it usually means I am unhappy with its progress and it needs percolating. I don’t really have time to procrastinate anything else. I may not get to everything that needs doing immediately, but I do try to prioritize and stick with that.

    I like the gratification of getting things done.

  • The focus of my paintings is landscapes, so when I need motivation, I go outdoors. Hiking local trails always inspires me and the time away from the studio provides opportunity for ideas to emerge. At other times, I may allow myself a mini-vacation; coffee with a friend, window shopping or reading a juicy novel.

  • Anita Heist

    I ‘set the stage’ to do the dreaded thing, whatever it is, then I pick one teeny step and another teeny step and do those- really easy almost stupid little steps. But when I do those it is almost always easy to continue on and finish the whatever-it-was piece/work. If not, a couple more teeny steps will get me going as when those are done I am usually actually well on the way in the piece- and when I see that, that in fact I have already accomplished the hardest part (overcoming the dread and getting acutally *started*) I can complete the work. And be soooo glad!

    • My ‘technique’ is so much like yours, Anita Heist, that I’ll just say ‘Thanks!’ for putting that process into words.

    • Carolyn

      Hi Anita and Victoria! I am the same! Tiny steps… Sometimes a few little swatches or test pieces, simply wiping down my work area and setting out my tools, it’s almost like I’m doing warm up stretches then suddenly I’m working ;-)

  • I add it to my to-do list and eventually I just get in a mood to make the list much shorter! Especially when I’m transcribing the same things week by week to the list (I create a new list every Sunday.)

  • It depends on what the project and commitment is. 1) If it’s an external commitment, I find being overwhelmed with the size of the project is the main driver of procrastination, then I utilize my day-job project manager skills and break things down into smaller manageable chunks. 2) If it’s something I’ve started that I’m not in love with, but see potential, sometimes just setting it aside for a while does the trick. I do art jewelry, so my works are much smaller and easier to set aside. Sometimes that marination period, or landing next to something interesting in the mess of creativity, or just putting it out of sight and then “finding” it again in my stash stokes creativity or allows me to have developed more skills to be able to take the piece to completion.

  • Mary Farmer

    Procrastination, damn you! A little drama to set one thinking. Two things work for me:

    1) my TM Practice. I notice if I slack off and don’t meditate every am things start to slide.

    2) Set a timer; I can do anything for 10, 15, or 20 minutes. So I set a timer get to work and generally, when the timer sounds, I’ve done the work and more.

    • The timer works really well for me. Time management has always been an issue for me and the timer keeps me focused
      Nimi Trehan

  • Larkin Jean Van Horn

    There is a lot of value in accepting that I have learned what I was going to learn from the project, and just recycling the materials. Why leave a boulder hanging over my head? If there is a deadline attached to the project (class sample, exhibition, commission, etc.) sterner measures are called for. Guilt works – I made a commitment and I’m going to finish this thing or die trying – but I’m never happy about that. So, I hang a “carrot” out on a line and keep half an eye on that. Everyone’s “carrots” will be different and personal to them. When all else fails, I spend a little time cleaning up the studio. I work in fabric, yarn, beads, threads, and whatnot, so there is always something to fold or bag up or file away. Just handling my materials will usually get the juices flowing again, and I will get back to work finishing up the UFO (UnFinished Object) so I can start something new. And “new” is very exciting.

  • All the already-mentioned methods – carrot on a stick, low agenda, accountability, heightened exposure, pomodoro-style timer – plus some others like black humor, a coaching call, and/or a buddy to work alongside, have worked for me at one time or another. They are handy tools now and I flip through them until I find the one that works today. It’s still not easy,

    The bigger issue for me is to understand what’s driving the procrastination in the first place. What am I stalling or trying to allay? Fear of judgment? Failure? Existential Emptiness? It’s easy to write that it’s just some form of fear, though, true as that might be. Naming something is just the start.

    Today’s procrastination is not yesterday’s and is ultimately more personal, human and dear. It needs me to be right there with it right now, asking ever-kinder and curiouser questions and listening through the over-thinking. I never want to take the time for this, but the way out is ever only through.

    That has led me to returning a client’s deposit, saying no to an important annual show I “always do,” and even barreling through a dauntingly huge series with new-found gusto. I never know and I guess that’s both the scary part and the redeeming one.

    So, it’s complicated but not impossible to work with my mulish nature and over the years I have gotten a bit more savvy in terms of not only calling myself out on procrastinating earlier and earlier, but seeking the salve that truly heals it.

    • Love it.????
      What a thoughtful, useful and beautiful comment.????
      Thank you????

    • What a great approach!
      I tend to grab a beer, then cycle through most of these options myself. In fact last fall, I started keeping an art journal – photos and random bits of writing related to the artworks in progress. In writing about my “block” in the journal, I was able to discover to root of my resistance to finishing a very large commission. And once that blockage was identified, I was finally able to finish.
      But it still was difficult.

    • I create deadlines for almost everything that I want to accomplish. If I am working on a commission, I will set an approximate date even before I have started- and when I am midway into my project, I will give a firm date/ somehow things do get done and projects finished.
      Being in a group environment and working alongside a buddy also works for me.
      Nimi

  • it’s kind of a momentum thing with me – I break the unfortunate piece into sections or smaller challenges – once I render that portion, I feel compelled to tackle another more challenging aspect of the piece – then it becomes a race with myself – “I bet I can finish this in 3 days” – then as the clock winds down, it’s done! – sometimes I find myself staying up till 3 am finishing something I had previously agonized for weeks about –

  • Denise Van Balen Adams

    I have to say I work better under pressure. A fellow artist was asked what inspired her. I loved her response, “There are two things that inspire me, a contract and a deadline!” That said, accountability is a must! Can I look at myself in the mirror and like what I see? I love some of the ideas already stated here. The little rewards for working on the project for a set period of time works for me also.

  • ✏????????????????????????????????????☕☕☕????????????????????
    Procrastination is a sibling to time management i find!
    I make lists…use my calender…use small.steps…also getting into studio and messing or organizing.
    Also…Alyson’s assignment is bootcamp to write about work each day for at least 5 minutes.
    I use that time to plot out actual things to do on different.pieces or a series…brass tacks….as well as teaching and other tasks.
    If things change…that is OK…but at least i have it top of mind.
    Needs to be specific…not general.
    Theb i have a real road map to follow.

  • “There’s a thing you need to do, so you do something else instead.
    That’s procrastination, right?
    It’s only procrastination if you spit at yourself while you’re doing it.”
    Lisa Baldwin Zen at Play.com

    If I find I don’t want to work on a piece of art, there’s always a reason. I mine for that reason using my journal, mind-maps, stream-of-consciousness drawing, a positive questioning review sheet I designed – whatever will help me discover what’s causing the block.

    Usually I uncover the answer and I’m off on my merry way with the piece again – perhaps changing something important about it. Invariably learning something important about my direction.

    Very occasionally, I decide that I don’t want to finish a piece. A coach friend of mine once said to me “You don’t have to finish everything you start.” I remember when I heard that, I felt such tremendous relief. I had believed I DID have to finish EVERYTHING.
    When I ask myself if I want to let go of a piece of work, I know it’s a yes if I experience that same relief at the thought of letting it go. I know I’ll then move onto better things :)

    • Sandy Sober

      Cherry –

      Your reply about procrastination really hit home for me. Thank you for sharing that “permission” to not have to finish everything.

      Maybe my procrastination is the “NO! you can’t __________ , until you finish what you’ve started” that I grew up with. Logically, I know that I don’t have to follow that admonition, but hearing it from you made a difference for me. I’m going to “lighten my load” and move on!

  • ✏????????????????????????????????????☕☕☕????????????????????
    Procrastination is a sibling to time management i find!
    I make lists…use my calender…use small steps…also getting into studio and playing around or organizing.
    Also…Alyson’s assignment is bootcamp to write about work each day for at least 5 minutes is very helpful.
    I use that time to plot out actual things to do on different pieces or a series…brass tacks actions….as well as teaching and other tasks.
    If things change…that is OK…but at least i have it top of mind.
    Needs to be specific…not general.
    Then i have a real road map to follow.

  • Carol MacConnell

    I start something new and think about the other painting until a solution that I am excited about comes into my mind.

  • I set a goal of “I must work on this piece for thirty minutes” Thirty minutes is usually enough time to reignite the spark that gets me interested again in the work, and if not then it gets set aside for another try later, or a complete do-over (gesso, sandpaper, etc.) There are many ideas that may have sounded good in the beginning, but every one does not come to fruition.

  • Carola Bell

    Perfectionsism is most often the root of my procrastination. I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic” and I’m consciously trying to implement her admonition:

    “Done is better than perfect.” :)

    • I think perfectionism is the ultimate reason for my procrastination too. I just ordered a copy of “Big Magic” this Saturday. If it has advice on dealing with perfectionism, I’m even more excited to read it!

  • Lynne R

    I tend to do things well ahead of any deadline and I don’t take on projects with too tight a deadline. I had too many deadlines in my former computer career and I try to avoid that. With that being said the computer definitely can keep me from painting. Say I was planning to paint today – I will push it off telling myself I will do it another day. The best way for me to avoid that is to get up and get to work before I start something else.

    • I agree Lynne! I call my computer the “Hideous Time Bandit”. Once I get on, reading emails, responding to comments, next time I look at the clock – most of the morning/afternoon has gone. Soooooo, First thing is looking at my To Do List (compiled the night before), add/change from the day before, lay out the paints/tools for that day, sip my hot tea while skimming email for “respond now”, THEN I get to “work”. Getting my most dreaded task out of the way 1st a.m. gives me a sense of accomplishment – yay!
      As for completing an art project (I rarely paint on canvas), I work on several at one time, allowing “percolation” both in my mind and eyes. Paint drying time too. Working too long on just 1 project “muddies” my view and I get sloppy. So, I paint bookmarks, a pet portrait on a ceramic tile, or a giraffe on a step stone. Works for me! Not everyone.
      And of course, I put my studio to “bed” – tidy up, lay out next day project, tweak To Do List – settle my brain and creative side for the evening. What works for others may not work for you. Listen to your own drummer.

  • rosy

    I try to get to the basis of my procrastination. If it’s caused by lack of knowledge or equipment/technical issues I get help or take a course. If it’s simply that I’m no longer excited by the project, then if I’m not committed in any way, I’ll set it aside or even let it go. I console myself that no idea is ever wasted and if it was a good one it will turn up again in a more developed form. If I’m committed it has to get done, sleepless nights ‘n all!

  • Corinne McNamara

    I procrastinate for different reasons, and finishing something may depend on current priorities. I use different strategies to get beyond the impasse.

    –If it is something I need to get done for others (e.g., grading papers on a deadline), I take short breaks and just stick with it.
    –If it is something that isn’t progressing, I leave it in view and set a deadline.
    –If it is something I’ve been working on for myself and I’ve lost interest, I set it aside with a collection of half-done projects. Periodically, I clean out my work space, systematically reviewing all projects – to finish, recycle, or discard. Finishing becomes part of the reorganization process.
    –Then there are the things someone else wants me to do that I don’t want to do – old obligations, family expectations, or requests – that interrupt my priorities or are based on other people’s wants. I used to just try to avoid them or put them off, but I’m learning to say “no” when I can and not feel guilty.

    • Well said Corinne! I find myself jumping from one project to another – wine glass painting, then switch to bookmarks because I thought of a cute one.
      * Setting myself a schedule/routine works best for me. My To Do List in my DayPlanner
      * Talking to my mentor while painting (messaging) – shows progress
      * Saying “no” is getting easier and easier.
      * Learning not to crowd too many shows/sales into my schedule. After all, I AM retired and I should be ENJOYING my work, not making this a JOB.

  • I never want to disappoint people so if I make a very public commitment that will force me to complete on deadline. — making a declaration on my blog

    hosting an art show forces me to finish art
    selling my online classes forces me to finish them on deadline.

    so i make a promost to sell and impose a public deadline

  • If I don’t want to finish a piece, there usually a good reason behind it. Whether it’s just that it needs time for me to think about it or I’m more excited about another. If that piece is needed for a certain exhibit, then a deadline is a great motivator!

  • I never push trying to finish a piece. People can tell when you’ve struggled. My critique group can see it in a heartbeat so I no longer force the issue. I set it aside and start another piece or do whatever takes me out of my own head. Sometimes I don’t go back to it for months, but when I do it usually is so much easier. Fresh eyes are an important part of painting.

  • As said, deadlines are a good motivator for me – and if there’s not an exhibition coming along then often I just leave the work to ‘brew’ – if it’s not getting finished it’s usually because the destination for it is not fully formed as an idea – so it festers and I often will do further research and/or take it along to my monthly art crit group to ‘share’ and get feedback – that’s normally really motivating and gets me back on track.

  • Susan Troy

    I’m using my work right not to keep my sane while I procrastinate learning to use social media and go through all the button pushing learning curves. I’ve spent all winter photographing old work to get my Etsy shop stocked and am now glazing old work that I was letting get too precious to glaze. They came out fine and now I have more room on my shelves. I find I procrastinate when I feel overwhelmed as I do right now trying to get all the online pieces together. I like the idea of working on this a little bit at a time.

  • I find that I beat myself up more by not doing things than it is worth.
    So… I focus on completing my lists.
    If I feel my motivation is beginning to wain in completing a piece, I immerse myself in art by having an ART Day. It can be: going to art museums, galleries, watching fabulous art videos, perusing my art books, a visit to a huge book store with a great collection of art books and a cup of latte, taking a walk in a garden with my camera…
    all these things can kick-start my inner spirit to help me complete a piece. However,
    if I am truly stuck and a painting is hindering my advancing forward on other projects— after weeks and weeks— an art piece might need a ‘time-out’ from my studio .
    Time outs often create an epiphany of how to solve a painting.

  • One time I was stuck on a large watercolor and decided to put it away. About 6 months later, I opened up the drawer and had an “a-ha” moment when looking at it. The painting quickly painted itself (with a changed background) because I had fresh eyes.

    • Fresh eyes are always the best! I worked on a tortise-shell colored cat portrait for 4-6 hours a day, every day for 2 weeks, grew to HATE it. Turned the canvas to the wall for a weekend, and boom! Monday morning saw the flaws – yay! Customer loved it. Haven’t painted that complex a cat again – choices!

  • Gail Folsom Jennings

    I have a drawer in my flat files for unfinished work that I go through periodically. If I pick up a piece that I now consider hopelessly flawed or that I wouldn’t consider showing in a current exhibit, I toss it. But I often find that when I’m feeling stuck, I rummage around in there for something I can pick up and work on, even if only for a short time, so that I’m doing something rather than staring at a blank piece of paper getting increasingly frustrated. I love my unfinished works! My greater problem with procrastination is just getting started on new works. I’ve struggled my whole life with that dreadful “fear of failure” which is absurd considering that, once I get started, I rarely produce work that is hopeless! I have a number of practices (meditation, affirmation, etc.) that I use to live in a less fearful place. I even created a sort of moveable booth I set up around my easel and just use my hands to apply paint to or throw paint at pieces of raw canvas with (hopefully) no investment in outcome.

  • My first approach is to set aside time to work on only one aspect of the painting. For example, since my main subject is shoes, I’ll set a goal to get all of the eyelets right, or the laces, or the heels. Once that is complete, I tackle the next aspect. If this approach is not working, then I tend to set aside the project I am procrastinating on and start a new one. By starting a new piece, I am able to get back in the flow while painting and one of two things happens – I regain my confidence to complete the other project, or I realize I need to start the piece over from scratch and I gesso over it to start anew.

  • First, I decide if I really need to finish it. If the answer is no, I remove it from my to-do list.
    If yes, I set a deadline and then break the work up into more manageable pieces that will allow me to meet the deadline I have set. I do this work before I work on the newer, hotter projects.

    I also try to determine what constitutes “completed” and what it “good enough” as I have been known to fall prey to procrastination cloaked in the guise of perfectionism.

  • I am a procrastinator by nature, but only of things I do not like to do. I LOVE my art process, so typically I take on too much! IF I’m procrastinating on something in that area it’s because I don’t believe in it for some reason and should not have taken it on in the first place. So, with that said, I’ll get it done and make a mental note for the future, to not take on projects that are not to my liking in the first place.

  • I find that FEAR is often at the root of my procrastination! It starts out with thoughts like “I have no idea how to approach this piece”, or “It won’t be good enough”. Then it expands to a fear of mediocrity which grows into “it will be the worst piece of art ever” etc. It gets to the point where I feel like I can’t even create – maybe I’ve forgotten how to sculpt, help! I’m a fraud!! blah, blah, blah. All the negative thoughts paralyze me and I would even rather clean my refrigerator than face those demons. One thing that helps is that I am almost always facing a deadline of some kind – that’s a much bigger fear, LOL. But sometimes even a deadline isn’t motivating, so I review in my head some of the positive comments or accomplishments from recent past to remind myself that I can, indeed, do this. Then I literally, forcibly, make myself start: just sit my butt down, twist some wire, prep some clay, whatever. The important thing is I remind myself that the work is not “set in stone”, so it will be easy and normal to re-adjust and make changes as I go. Even if I have to start again practically from scratch after that, the “wasted” effort has taught me something and brought me where I need to be for the piece. I remind myself that it’s about art, not perfection.

    • Wow, you’re comment really hit home. I wasn’t sure unable to make progress on this painting for months. I couldn’t start something new until I finished this, but I was frozen in fear! Yesterday, I finally just covered up a huge section of the painting with paint. It was so hard to destroy the areas I had work so hard on, but they just weren’t working and I couldn’t seem to move forward. Now, I’m excited again and feel like I can get going again. I’m not sure why I thought all that previous work was so precious! Thanks for helping me move past the fear.

  • I usually finish any projects that I started. I actually have 2 unfinished painting right now that have been going on for years, but I think that I cannot finish them because both were started after really emotional moments. I have no shame to say that I procrastinate like a queen though.

  • First off, if I’ve said I’ll do something- especially if other people are counting on it- I’ll do it. If I’ve had to procrastinate over it, I’ll make sure not to offer my time/services the next time around. Now that I’ve been relieved of a year plus of not having my own schedule, I’ve learned how vitally important it is to determine how I truly want to spend my time. Consequently I’ve zeroed in on the most important of my objectives and nothing is going to take me away from that focus.
    If I’m procrastinating about finishing a piece of artwork, I’ll just turn it to the wall and move on. Ideas of how to finish it percolate in the time away. If I’m procrastinating about a project that I thought was important, I’ll re-examine why I wanted to do it in the first place. If I no longer see the benefit of it, I won’t hesitate to drop it.
    If the procrastination is fear based, the cure is definitely just to jump in and get going. It’s amazing how that simple act will defeat procrastination.

  • I usually try and muddle through, especially with commissions, because I know the middle part is always the most frustrating, but I love the details at the end. Often, projects are set aside because there is another deadline coming up. Right now, for example, I am doing (redoing) details for my upcoming show, so the spring cleaning, summer redecorating, gardening, and personal retreats are all on hold. Oh, yes, I turn questionable art things to the wall, gesso or collage over them, or even toss them.

  • Margit Bu Dominguez

    I used to try to finish each project, but I have discovered that it is better for me
    to start a new project when I get stuck. Most of the time I get new ideas while working on the new project and this leads me to finish the initial project.

  • Mirian

    I follow Daniel Edmondson’s advice, I work on it for about 15 minutes and stop. Little by little, as I see it “shaping”, my interest returns.

  • Katherine

    I’m the perfectionist who procrastinates by planning things in ridiculous detail. Usually, some deadline emerges and I am forced to work without consideration for perfection — only completion.

  • Soni

    Procrastination…wow…my worst enemy in everything…I like the answer that we need to know why..I find there is a lot of anxiety in this also. And then, the why comes back into it. I have to tell myself that I, now, am the boss. I call the shots. I can work or not work. But this is what I chose to do and I should relax and go back to work and don’t think of the outside world. So I clean off my work area and set up all I need for the project that needs to be finished…prepping as if for someone else to start on the next day. Fresh and clean. No commitments, no errands, no chores…no cares…just relax and work on the project that has been sitting there…(altered pages/paintings in ink)…with no thoughts except my own. Sometimes it works…and then again…I will always struggle with this, until I really know the WHY.

  • what usually motivates me to finish a project is a deadline. I usually wait until the last possible minute when I’m forced to work on it or loose because I didn’t finish. Sometimes this has me pulling all-nighters to finish, but I do my best work under pressure anyway. I have never NOT finished a professional project because of procrastination. As far as non-professional projects…well, sometimes they never get done and it’s not because of procrastination, it’s because my art business always comes first.

  • Hi All!
    I’ll have to finish reading all the replies either tonight or tomorrow. My time is limited because I will bet I am older than most of you and I have a darling husband who is still recuperating from a massive heart attack 2 years ago who enjoys sitting next to me and watch the evening news. Holding hands of course.
    Art time is precious to me so I usually don’t procrastinate when I get time every day to work on my art. I postpone action only on other things like reorganizing my studio. It’s a very big job and yesterday I found someone who can help me. She is definitely a good samaritan. I’ve been working on a painting that I started many years ago (10) that I really never had a chance to finish. What motivated me to finish this after all these years? In the news I’ve been reading about Zika and all the damage it has done to newborns. The painting just happens to be a swarm of mosquitoes with a huge bird ready to attack. I love to push the painting until I cannot go any further. ( There is humor in this painting as does a lot of my work.) So I don’t stop until it’s finished. That way I don’t procrastinate. My husband checks my progress and is always supportive.
    I’m lucky that way!

  • Mary Radovich-Miller

    It is good to read from others that art-making isn’t always a barrel of fun. That echoes my experience. I’ve always felt my paintings went through several stages (the terrible two’s, the fearsome fours, teenage years…) and really weren’t much fun until they were almost completed. In the past, commission deadlines or my employer’s assignments always pushed me to complete projects. But I’ve had some major challenges in my life over the last decade, and I’m also semi-retired. Now I’m much less willing to suffer so much in my studio. I’m trying to discover what gives me joy most of the time. I think that means I have to find out what kind of an artist I really am when unencumbered by the need to make money or other people’s opinions and expectations. Right now, abandoning unfinished projects is liberating !

  • Procrastination in general is a different thing than procrastination about a specific piece.I find it better to have a couple of projects on the go -or just do a sketch for a change- or garden and just think about it. If a particular painting is a problem -maybe it just has to be abandoned, considering what was learned from it- just paint over it. Not every effort is going to have a great result. You have to take chances to grow but you have to give yourself to freedom to say “Well that was interesting, but not really me and definitely not a success. ” We are grown-ups and can decide if it is worth seeing through or not. Forcing work takes the joy out of it and then there is no joy for viewers to see

  • Steven Sweeney

    Commissioned work induces procrastination–if not, sometimes, even paralysis–so I don’t seek commissions, though I will accept them if asked. It’s hard to say “no” to a guaranteed sale. I suppose I’m cursed with the fear of “what if this isn’t what they had in mind?” I have in fact recently modified a commissioned piece, at the clients’ request, and it cost me a couple days’ work (after I spent some time setting out the pros and cons of the modification.) I’m much more likely to sit down to work on something that is drawing upon my own aesthetic inspiration and motivation.

    I left an office (okay, cubicle) job last fall to pursue painting full time, and as soon as people learned I had “retired,” the demands to help them out with this or that expanded (because I have a truck, a trailer, a strong back and a lifetime’s collection of tools, as well as–because I’m not “working” anymore, you see–lots of time for such things.) This is my own fault–I need to learn to keep my head down and my mouth shut, except to let people know I STILL HAVE A JOB, producing artwork. But life intervened when I had an office gig, so there’s no reason to assume it won’t also be messing with my painting schedule.

    Key for me is: Don’t let large blocks of time pass without painting. Don’t let days pass without work. Days become weeks become seasons of production lost. You get rusty, and it feeds on itself and the wheels start to come off your plans.

    My most recent motivations include: 1) working gratis on a painting for a favorite organization I support, with the intent of producing giclee prints and notecards as fundraising “premiums” and 2) committing to fill three spots in a plein air exhibition next fall with a state-parks theme. I know the latter will probably require 2-3 times that many paintings to wind up with three “show piece” works, so I know I HAVE to bear down and work with discipline all summer long, when I’d also like to be sailing and all the other outdoors activities I enjoy. My compromise is that some of my outdoors recreation will involve schlepping a French easel around to as many state parks as I can reasonably reach in time available.

    But a Second Key for me: don’t give up everything else you enjoy, or you may procrastinate simply out of resentfulness. Which is why I’ve spent the last couple of days getting the sailboat ready to go.

  • I have found that procrastination typically appears when I am not happy with the direction of the piece in question, or I am stumped at how to get past the hurdle of a problem spot. If I just move on to something else, there will be a nagging in the back of my mind that I left the first piece unresolved. This never allows me to fully engage in the new work. I have learned that a short break of several days is OK, as I may come back with fresh eyes and see what needs to be done. If not, I force myself to just do SOMETHING on the piece, even if it is small. Many times, the idea of making progress helps me to continue working. I either resolve the issue, or end up taking the piece in an entirely new direction. Either way it is a win.

  • WOW! Great comments! Wonderful ideas – Thanks everyone! I thought I was the only one!! LOL
    I have 2 pieces I am majorly procrastinating over. Neither of them had deadlines. One is done except for a small bit of woodworking to finish it up – the tools are hard to get to. I keep saying…I’ll get to that tomorrow or ask my husband to do it for me.
    The other is a freebie for a friend – that one gets put off because I have another deadlines to meet that are more about my own goals for my business.
    What works best for me is to tell myself I’ll just work on it for a few minutes (usually I work on it much longer once I get started.) I also write in my morning pages about it – if it’s something I’m stuck on OR I leave it and start something new. I recently reorganized the studio and put all my unfinished items in a box to get done… having them out where I can see them helps too.

  • There are some paintings that it is very challenging to come back to and finish. When I find myself procrastinating I know that it means one of two things: there is a problem that I have not yet worked out a way to solve, or there was a problem in the very conception of the project. Either way I start off by turning the picture to the wall for a while, and letting myself think about it whenever it comes to mind. After a week or two I’ll turn it back around. If I can see a problem I can do something about I’ll start working on it, a little bit at a time. I’ll promise myself an hour, but it will generally stretch into more. And little by little I’ll work my way through, stepping away to work on other pictures during the process. Sometimes, though, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental problem with the piece – most of the time I’ve tried to cram too much in. Then it’s best to paint over it or, if that’s not possible, just scrap it and go back to the sketch book to work my ideas out.

    Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Sometimes (often) it’s an opportunity to take a fresh look!

  • If a work has been sitting around for awhile, I finally get impatient and do something, anything to it. If a few attempts of that sort don’t generate some momentum, I grab the reliable gesso and paint over part or all of the piece and start anew.

  • I am a world-class procrastinator, although I’m not proud of it. Half the problems in my life would probably be resolved if I could figure out how to stop procrastinating. I also have a very poor sense of time passing and how long things really take to do, which doesn’t help, and makes me late with both appointments and deadlines quite a lot.

    I have found that for me there’s garden-variety procrastination and extreme procrastination, and the reason behind it factors in quite a bit. Nearly all of my work is on commission (I’m a calligrapher specializing in weddings and certificates and such), so I generally don’t have the option to just abandon a piece, and there’s almost always a deadline involved. On the other hand, a lot of what I do is fairly straightforward (address these 100 invitations in black ink in lettering style X), so that only results in garden-variety procrastination. I usually start working on my taxes around April 14, which falls into the same category. In these situations, sometimes I finish on deadline and once in a while I don’t, which isn’t great but it does get done before too long.

    Extreme procrastination for me generally comes from one of five reasons:
    1) I said yes against my better judgement
    2) I feel resentful because I think I’m being seriously underpaid for the work (these two things don’t happen nearly as much as they did when I first went into business for myself, over 20 years ago)
    3) There’s no deadline to at least give me something to push against
    4) I am uncertain about how to approach some aspect of it
    5) It’s a big enough project that I can’t complete it in a day or two, and I lose momentum

    The fact that I’ve been “working on” my website for well over a decade constitutes extreme procrastination, and I can point to the last three of those five items as the why.

    Clearly I have a long way to go to resolve this issue, but when I make progress, it’s due to one of two things:
    1) Breaking the project down into smaller (bite-sized) pieces, and
    2) Just getting started. If I get started, I will keep going for 16 hours straight unless some interruption or obligation stops me. My timer is my friend, because I’m not a natural self-starter.

    • Thanks for your terrific insights. I so relate to your “list” of causes and appreciate your short list of ways to overcome what seems insurmountable .

      My website is number 1 on list of examples of my own procrastination.
      How about I do yours and you do mine- and we set a deadline!!?? LOL!!

      Great you are able to identify causes and how to address them. Thanks for sharing them!!

    • Honey Lea

      What a great analysis!

  • I don’t see any value in soldiering through a project for which I’ve lost my enthusiasm. If I have no intention of finishing the project, and there is no compelling reason to, then I have to decide if there is any merit in keeping it or if I can re-use the materials. I generate a lot of trash. Reclaiming my workspace is my chief motivation for finishing or discarding projects. When a workspace gets piled high with unfinished projects, then I may have to dedicate a whole day to clearing it off, reevaluating whether I still have any intention or whether everything should be discarded. If I have learned all I can from any project, but it still has merit, then if I have space for it, it will get stacked or stored to be reviewed in six months or so to see if there is any remaining value. Managing storage is the challenge. Abandoned larger projects require more thoughtful storage.

  • Ah the enemy, procrastination! I am fighting it tooth and nail by just doing the work. That and occasionally getting outside for a hike with friends. It is not the worst thing in the world. It helps me get a better perspective on what I am doing.

    Sometimes though, sitting on things helps me matriculate out the details of what needs to be done and clarifies a better solution.

    I also feel like it’s best to let time and progress help you in getting the work done. When it’s the right time and I am not rushing I wind up with a better finished product.

  • There’s a few strategies I use, depending on the case…

    1. I put on a deadline. If there’s an exhibition or a publication where my work fits in well, I’ll complete it by the deadline the work must be submitted.

    2. I give it up (for now). I had one painting that was sitting unfinished for over a year, until I felt like finishing it. The works I completed in the meantime had taught me a lot, and I was better equipped to paint it.

    I’ve never scrapped a work completely, but I’m not ruling it out if it’s just not working.

  • Great responses, everyone! I find that the types of things that I procrastinate on vary widely. Housework reigns as the ruler… I have solved that by hiring a cleaning service. Yardwork also gets put off pretty frequently, and my husband has resorted to helping me in this arena!

    For work, deadlines are my best friend. I use the calendar on my computer and assign different tasks for specific days, usually with a cushion so that if it takes longer than I expect, I still have time before the deadline. I’ve even set mini-deadlines on my calendar for large projects.

    I can’t remember where the recommendation for this Ted talk came from… was it you, Alyson? Anyway, I think it is excellent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU

  • Honey Lea

    Really interesting comments!

    I’m not much of a procrastinator usually. But, when I do keep putting something off, it’s usually because the project is causing some anxiety that I don’t want to deal with. Often, if I can get to what that anxiety is all about, I can go forward. Talking with trusted friends can usually get me to the root of the problem, if I can’t figure it out on my own.

    Sometimes, though, what looks like procrastination is just my intuition, saying ” wait, you aren’t ready to do this” and it’s almost always right on target as in Joan’s comment above.

  • John Naber

    Putting many things off, not just my painting, can indeed be irritating. I find several ways to get back to doing what I want to do: 1. read emails only once a day – early in the morning; 2. exercise when I need to break out of my ‘dithering’; 3. no television of course; 4. my wife does not interrupt when I am painting unless absolutely necessary; 5. a telephone answering system including the free “nomorobo” service that screens telemarketing and robo calls; 6. lastly, when stuck on a painting, I move over to one of the 4 or 5 pieces of art I have in progress all the time.

  • Paige

    My tip for the painful, languishing, mind numb artist is to simply go grab a board, a paper, even telephone book, put your music on and let your paint or a marker go take a walk. Nothing specific to draw just let your body groove. This always lets me meet my struggles head on.

  • Wow – talk about a timely article! My situation might be a bit different though, because my deadline suddenly evaporated and now I’m wrestling with a very strong sense of “why bother?” Maybe that’s the root cause of all procrastination? Anyways, people are leaving so many fantastic tips in the comments, I’m sure I’ll find something that will get me back on track soon enough. Thanks, everyone!

  • The conversation here is wonderful! There are so many great ideas. thanks.

    There have been times when I would almost prefer doing the dishes to finishing a project!

    One thing I know is that if I do not schedule my time, it seems to get scheduled for me. And running out of time can make me overwhelmed and want to ignore the issue rather than work through it. So, I try very hard to stick to all my schedules.

    But, my motivation is to realize WHY I do any of my art: its part passion and part eating. Drawing & painting are my passions, but also: “no work – no eat”. (and eating can be very motivational also – LOL).

  • Orla Madden

    a timetable and deadlines and motivating and being motivated by artist friends are what works for me …. and loving what am working on !

  • I try to stick to a schedule and force myself into the studio even when I have little inspiration. I will start another project if I feel the current one is the reason I am procrastinating. I hate the pressure of short deadlines, so having the luxury of time does keep me from stressing as well as doing poor work.

  • Maureen

    I am grateful for all the comments posted–most helpful! And helpful in realizing I am not alone.

    I think how we school children at a very early age could affect this outcome. Our schooling was about following someone else’s deadline; test this Friday, paper due Tuesday. I don’t remember any self-starting assignment.

  • Lisa Carnicom

    These comments have all been useful tools – thanks, everyone! I’m the opposite of a procrastinator about everything except making art, even though that’s one of the activities I enjoy most. I get all necessaries done so that when I install myself in the studio, my mind is completely free of a To Do List. I am retraining my brain to let go of my self-appraisal that I am She Who Gets Stuff Done. I am accustomed to finishing everything I do to a certain level of craftsmanship. I am learning to let go of this tendency in making art because I don’t yet have the skill to be so fussy!

    I’m pretty decisive about whether or not I’m going to finish or abandon a project, so there are few “maybes” hanging around the studio. When I DO decide to return to a “maybe”, I take 3 – 7 deep breaths and put on my art smock. I put a lucky shell, rock, or other object in my pocket. Hey, Costa Ricans schoolkids bring such things to exams, presentations, & other challenging situations. I decided I liked this behavior & thus have adopted it. I flare my nostrils a bit, put my “game face” on, and walk toward the piece as if we are going to wrangle, play, or be tenderly nurtured. Every piece is different; “tenderly nurtured” gets a different facial expression. Usually I melt into surrender to my Divine & chuckle at all my swagger. That’s the only way I get anything good done, so I’m happy this way. Apparently I enjoy going through my father’s ritual cosplay (John Wayne), with love. Usually, then, I begin to feel guided in what to do with the painting or drawing (or, sometimes, an installation). I often wonder if an ancestor is with me. I like to think of myself as embroidered into the weave of humanity stretching far back into history. For some reason, this is both inspiring & grounding. Would you like to see how this works? Test drive it for yourself?

    I have been inspired by reading James Altucher’s take on exercising your “idea muscles”. He wrote that a healthy behavior is writing down at least ten ideas every day. Not only is this good for your brain; it also makes you feel more alive (which would affect all of the body’s systems in a positive way).

    That’s the nutshell version ;) So much happens while we are making art, isn’t it?

  • To overcome procrastination, I break a project into 20 minute tasks, anything longer than 20 minutes is another project.
    I allocate 15-20 minutes to do that task, time-blocking it on my calendar.
    If I continue to postpone working on said project week after week, I get accountable. This might just mean telling my husband I’ve put something off for weeks. Or a friend, if I tell him and still procrastinate.

    That said, there’s one huge project I’ve put off for years, and I’ve decided to claim 6 months to work towards its completion. But due to my show schedule, I am giving myself a start date in October, so I can stay human, and not set myself up for failure.
    There it is, I’ve put it on the internet, so I have accountability to begin in October!

  • I’ve been dealing with this big time on several projects, and greatly appreciate reading how others handle procrastination. If I’m having a really tough time facing something, I’ll sometimes use small rewards, such as a treating myself to a movie if I work x number of hours. One thing that seems to help quite a lot, though, is the simple Pomodoro technique, which naturally I learned about from Alyson. Something about setting that timer on my phone, and hearing the soft tick, tick, tick in the background of doing my work, helps so much. And I don’t know if it’s the actual ticking sound, or the idea of having small deadlines of 25 minutes – or possibly the race against the buzzer, but somehow it helps me to focus and plow thru things better. I admit, though, that I haven’t used if for making art, only for projects around the art making, such as marketing tasks. Having said all this, I’m going to try it this weekend for tackling a new piece.

    • I loved reading through these answers.

      Interested to see The Pomodoro Technique (www.pomodorotechnique.com) mentioned only this once! I use it for bizness, art and life, making the sessions smaller and smaller and smaller — amazing what can be done in 5 minutes! — until I’ve shredded anxiety. And, at this point in my life and career, I understand that procrastination is (usually) the source, and the product of anxiety.

      As far as going that last bit on a project that’s exhausted me, I’m afraid I’m very old-fashioned in my thinking about that — the project is either worth the effort, or it’s not. If it’s not — and I have a novel in a drawer that I believe falls into this category — I move on. There’s so much to make!! And if the project is worth the effort, it will stay with me, nagging, and putting that effort in when I don’t think I can is precisely what separates me-the-artist from me-the-hobbyist: doing it when it doesn’t feel good.

      To juice myself up, motivation by all means necessary: the work of my fellows, accountability, books, pictures, music, beauty –. I am currently turned on by Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert; Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things; and Jeremy Irons reading The Four Quartets (https://jeremyirons.net/2014/01/18/jeremy-irons-reads-ts-eliots-four-quartets/).

      If none of the above works, that mean — horrors! — I’m tired, and it’s time for pulled blinds and a good novel — recent faves include Kate Morton.

  • Bill

    I finish just the way I start. I decide to get going early and put some time in. I tell myself that will free up my time later on. (Then later on momentum often decides to have another go at it.) The other aspect is that there is never, ever nothing on the easel. When I put one panel on the drying rack, another panel goes up and some marks are made. Then the next morning, I’m trying to sort out the marks and get to it all over again.

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