What To Do When You Can't Seem To Finish A Project?

Written by Michaela MacBlake Matthews

Procrastination… Analysis Paralysis… Artist’s Block… Writer’s Block…

Mortal enemies of both the left and right sides of the brain. I’d imagine each of them hold underground meetings, throwing darts at the headshots of superheroes and sulking around on a muddy dirt floor. They creep up and make a muck of work, creativity, hobbies, goals, wreaking havoc on the streets of You-Town. How can we fight against them? Never fear, these inner-battles can be won!

Man standing in front of brain, with grey on the left side and rainbow on the right, trying to choose between the two.

Phase One: Is it a have-to, or a want-to?

If you don’t do it, what’s the worst that will happen as a result? …And if you don’t do it today, does that consequence come tomorrow? Next week? Years from now?

If you’re working on a creative project, there’s a good chance you have no immediate consequences. You’ll miss out on the feeling of accomplishment, or neglect the self care that comes with creating freely… but that doesn’t always serve too well as a motivator to get started now. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

If you’re procrastinating on a work task, knowing exactly how much time it will take and when it needs to be done is half the battle. If we set false deadlines in our minds, we usually don’t fool ourselves very well. A deadline represents the last possible minute, but a goal has a reward at the end. If you’re setting earlier deadlines than truly necessary, your brain is going to demand an incentive of some kind. You might have to do something, but want to get it done early.

Phase Two: What are you doing?

If you’re relaxing, or doing something recreational, you shouldn’t feel like you’re fighting with yourself to accomplish goals. Creative projects can go astray because they’re expanding into your living space and you start feeling the need to tidy them. The problem with that is, when the want sneaks into becoming a chore… we don’t want to do it anymore. We start to feel obligated.

Likewise, if you’re working on something, it should be making some progress! If you put time into a project, but the project doesn’t move forward, you’re either unsure of what you’re doing or of why you’re doing it. 

If either of these lines are getting crossed, you may be better off to take a few minutes or an hour, and either knock out the have-tos to make room for the want-tos, or vice versa, indulge the want-tos to make mental space for the have-tos.

Two people sitting at a desk, one with plans and schematics, the other with craft paints creating art.

Phase Three: Dig down to the why.

No matter how far in the future, or how subtle and emotional the goal is, you are doing everything for a reason. Creative blocks and procrastination go hand in hand, because they are both a separation between an idea and the motivation to complete it. The ‘why’ is the fuel to get going! Are you making a gift for a friend? Spending time in your creative mind to care for yourself? Saving toward a goal?

Whatever the ‘why’ that started you on a project is, take a moment to call it into your focus. How do you want to feel? What does this reward do for you? No matter what the project actually is, in some way shape or form, it most likely ties back to enjoying your life in the long term.

Spiral fan crochet doily in rainbow blue pattern.
Spiral Fan Doily Crochet Kit

Let yourself feel that reward, even while you’re working toward it.

Once you have the ‘why’ in mind, ask yourself, ‘Is this task steering me toward my end goal?’ If the answer is yes, go ahead and look for the smallest first steps to get back into the project, and then give it another try.

If needed, take breaks to remember your ‘why’ and keep an eye on how this project fits into the larger picture of your life. Will you be done at a certain point, or by a certain time? Are there other things you need to do later today? These sorts of questions will help you stay present in this task and help keep it from carrying on into the next.

Whether you’re struggling to make time for what you love, or trying to do more with the time you have, knowing where you’re going will always help you get started.

Meet the Author

Close up of the author, Michaela Matthews wearing red lipstick and a poofy red scarf with white flower arrangement in background.

"Mac" is on the Lifestyle Team here at Darn Good Yarn, and loves taking a ‘teach a man to fish’ approach to creative therapy. She is certified in neuro-linguistic programming, and is also the surreal artist and author behind Surrealismac.