Why Don't I Ever Finish My Creative Projects?



Dear Sara,


I’m a poet and composer and photographer.  I’ve always got a zillion projects going, which is very energizing to me, but the problem is I never seem to finish anything.  When a project comes close to being done, something always comes up that distracts me and I do that instead.  Somehow, I never get back to finishing what I started.  I feel like I’m working on stuff all the time but never have anything to show for it, which is bumming me out.  Any thoughts on finishing stuff?  - Unfinished

Dear Unfinished,

It sounds to me like you may be suffering from what I call the sidewinder syndrome – a particularly popular strategy with multiply creative folks like yourself.  The sidewinder syndrome is a strategy that you've adopted to avoid one of the four big crisis points in the creating process:  the crisis of completion and release.  

Here’s how sidewinder syndrome works:  When you get to that place where the normal anxiety of completion begins to rise up, you have learned to avoid it by moving sideways into another project, rather than building the muscle to push through your resistance to completing and see a project all the way through.  

To begin building the muscles of completion, it helps to understand the nature of the resistance you are strengthening yourself to overcome.  Here are some of the flavors of completion-resistance I've run across – see if one or more of these rings a bell for you:

1.  Completion Invites Judgment.  As long as a project is “in process,” it is your own and it is still potentially perfectible, but once it is “done,” it is a declaration that it is as good as it is going to get.   And it is inevitably imperfect, because that’s just the deal with being human.  And other people will look at it.  And maybe they’ll think it’s not so great.  Or maybe they’ll think it’s wonderful.  And YOU will look at it and it will almost certainly not live up to your own vision.  I’ve never forgotten one client who described his view of completing things in terms of “frozen failure.”  Yikes!  Completing things forces you to grapple with the gap between your ideal vision and the reality of your creation, with your own imperfection, and with the reactions and judgments of others.  

2.  Completion Is Sad.  If you are someone who finds great joy in the creating process itself and love the stages of creating in which things are in flux and discoveries are flying a mile a minute – finishing something is sad, because it means you don’t get to play in this particular sandbox any more.  If you are deeply attuned to the dynamism of creating, you may also find the notion of completion itself suspiciously arbitrary.  Finishing marks the end of a very enjoyable ride.

3. Completion Is Followed by Emptiness.  In the cycle of the creating process, the stage that follows completion and release is stillness, emptiness, “the void.”  Sometimes we hold back from finishing things because we fear the experience of not knowing what will come next.   Will anything come next?  This liminal, in-between feeling can last a minute, a week, or a year, but many of us humans find it more than a bit uncomfortable.  Completing things exposes you to a natural experience of being adrift, unmoored from the project that has provided your days with focus, purpose, and meaning.

4.  Completion is Hard Work.  There is a special kind of work involved in finishing things. Often, the completion phase calls for a more detail-oriented approach, and a more detached, objective view of your creation that enables you to make final adjustments and fine-tunings.  The completion phase takes a particular kind of patience and stamina – at the exact time when you may be feeling most eager to avoid the consequences of completing. Completing things requires patience and rigor just when your energy for the work is starting to wind down.

Do any of these sound familiar?  Which forms of resistance do you relate to?

Once you get a sense of what kinds of anxieties are underlying your unique brand of completion resistance, the only way to build the muscles you need for seeing your projects through is to practice.  (At least until they invent a pill...)

The way to begin your practice is to set yourself a small completion goal and make a commitment to see it through, all the way, to the very end.  Maybe your goal will be a single finished poem, or a collection of photos, or maybe just a sink full of dishes.  The key is to approach your completion practice as an experiment – allow yourself to really notice what completing is like for you.  What specifically is hard about it for you?  At what stage do you feel the urge to sidewind coming on?  And, on the sweeter side of the equation, what does it feel like to have the pride of accomplishment?  Enlist a trusted friend or a creativity coach to help you stay accountable to your goal – and don’t forget to develop a celebration ritual or reward that you can count on to add the sweet to the bittersweet experience of completion!  

Happy Endings,