How To Finally Finish That Creative Project You Started

I don’t know of any creative person, no matter how successful or prolific, who hasn't experienced some kind of creative block.

I can’t tell you how many college papers I started a few hours before they were due … or how actively I’ve avoided rewrites on projects — even when I was being paid.

Whether it means never getting started, finding yourself trapped in the middle, or abandoning the race right before we cross the finish line, the truth is that we can get stuck at any phase in the creative process.

When I’m not working on my own writing, I often coach writers. Gleaned from my own experiences fighting procrastination and lack of inspiration, these are my best tips to move through any creative jam:

1. Just show up.

I often invoke a favorite Picasso quote: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

One of the most helpful books about creativity and discipline is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. In this short, inspirational volume, he brilliantly argues that what Woody Allen said –– “80 percent of life is showing up” –– is perhaps most true for the creative person.

When you are feeling most discouraged is when you most strongly need to (gently) force yourself to sit down and make peace with the blank page.

2. Walk away.

Yes, one of many great paradoxes of living creatively is that you have to show up steadily, but you also have to know when to walk away.

There are scores of examples in art and science of great breakthroughs happening only after the person walked away from his or her work.

Perhaps the most classic is Archimedes crying “Eureka!” (“I have found it”) in his bathtub, realizing that the displacement of water he witnessed gave him the method to solve the king’s problem of measuring the gold in his crown.

On the topic of bathtubs, the modern designer Tom Ford is famous for taking up to four baths a day.

Given the speed and intensity of a life in the world of high fashion, baths provide the meditative retreats Ford needs to recharge his creative juices.

One practical tip I often give writers is to always stop writing for the day only after they know where they'll start tomorrow — someplace that feels like a manageable entry point. Walking away knowing that you have a smooth beginning for tomorrow makes showing up the next day infinitely easier.

Hemingway said, “I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

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3. Find someone to hold you accountable.

Often we get stuck on projects for which we have real passion and genuine inspiration because we don’t have accountability.

For years, until I had systems of accountability in place, I’d have an ongoing to-do list that went: “Pay Phone Bill, Pick up Dry Cleaning, Write Screenplay.” Guess which two items on that list got checked off?

As a writing coach, I offer critical insights and marketing experience. But perhaps my greatest service is accountability. Beyond coaches and mentors, you could also explore a writers group. Just make sure the dynamic is genuinely supportive versus competitive and unhelpful.

4. Reconnect with your inspiration.

At any point in your project — from the first blank page to the final draft — it’s easy to get bogged down, potentially overwhelmed, and maybe even entirely derailed by minutiae.

In other words, we lose sight of the big picture — what got us excited about the project in the first place.

That’s why I recommend coming up with some kind of daily warm-up ritual (like working on a vision board) to reconnect you with your inspiration and remind you of your project’s heart and essence.

When your inspiration seems to have vanished, it’s vital to have an effective way to track it down and reconnect.

5. Give yourself permission to fail.

Often our inner perfectionist holds us back more than we realize. That’s the voice that tells us that nothing less than a fully formed work of genius should ever be expressed. And it’s one major reason people don’t start or sometimes don’t finish their projects.

Instead, I suggest you explore the “bad idea.” Try out the way you’re absolutely sure will never work. Give yourself an impossible challenge such as writing an entire chapter in a half-hour and see what comes out. If it feels like fun, write out an actual permission slip for yourself that allows you complete freedom to explore without risk or judgment.

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6. Embrace the messy parts.

One of the pieces of advice that got me through the messy middle of one of my projects was this: “Being creative is like baking a cake.” A cake starts out as completely separate ingredients having no relationship to each other. Then, for 90 percent of the cooking process, it’s a goopy liquid.

Only at the very end, during the last few minutes of baking, does everything congeal into something recognizable and delicious. While most bakers don’t “give up” on their cakes halfway through the process, it’s unfortunate that many writers do.

Ultimately, I’ve come to see that being stuck is part of the creative process.

Just as cars have both gas and brakes, if we let ourselves learn and be served by our downtime (without getting permanently derailed), those rest stops can make the journey — and our work — much more valuable and rewarding.

Related reads:

Edward Vilga has had seven books published and has a new one on the way. He also offers a few free 20-minute consults each month to creatives.

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