How Artists Can Finish Projects Without Deadlines

By Chris Mitchell, Life, Career and Professional Development Coach for Artists and Creatives

Ahhh, the feeling of starting a new project. It’s exciting! We feel pumped and inspired getting started, but as artists and creatives we often face these projects alone in the studio or at the computer. There is no one but ourselves to hold us accountable to finish projects we start. Without external deadlines, collaborators, a boss or team to report to, it is easy to get distracted and move on to a new idea or put passion projects or strategic endeavors on the back burner or even abandon them altogether. But as artists and creatives we must ultimately build our capacity to hold ourselves accountable to finish projects. Our success really depends on it!

Clients often come to me for support to finish projects artistic and strategic, big or small, that are important to them. Together we navigate what it takes for them to become more self-driven in order to get these projects finished. This typically begins with the practical steps of setting specific realistic actionable steps, timelines and self-expectations, but also includes building new awareness of habits and behaviors that get in the way of or empower them to finish projects. Through talking these things through and inviting experimentation, I help them to evolve “how” they work and build strategies and their capacity to be self-driven not just deadline driven to finish projects.

If you are an artist who is struggling to finish projects, here are some strategies that my clients have had success with and some questions to help you think through and possibly experiment and create strategies that work for you:

First, pick a project that would be satisfying to get finished.

Start with getting a clear picture of what needs to be done in order to get that project finished.

What are all of the things you need “to do” to complete the project?

Break it down! Artists and creatives are really good at conceptualizing and visualizing the finished project, but sometimes have trouble breaking down or acknowledging all of the steps involved (especially for projects that are not about making new artistic work, like creating or updating websites, getting new work out into the world or self-generating new opportunities). Not having a clear picture of what needs to be done to finish a project can result in oversimplifying in our minds what is actually involved which can lead artists to poor planning and unrealistic expectations. Or an exaggerated vision of what’s involved which can lead to feeling overwhelmed before they even begin.

Some of my clients like to use the concept of the “brain dump”, which is simply writing down every step or action or thing that needs to be done (small or big - everything you can think of), to create a comprehensive to-do list.

Getting your “to-do’s” all down on paper can make it easier to appreciate the actual scope of a project - perhaps that it’s actually less involved or more involved than we’d been thinking. It also makes it easier to identify what tasks require more or less time or focus, preparation or resources and what order tasks need to happen in. Your comprehensive project to-do list can then be used to help you organize, prioritize, plan and schedule to execute project related tasks day-to-day or week-to-week.

Granted this can be challenging with really big or multidimensional creative projects or if you are taking on a project where you don’t have the expertise or experience to immediately know what the steps are like developing new income generation strategies, creating your first artist website or a project that involves working in a new artistic medium or discipline. In these cases, start with broad brushstrokes of what you do know and also listing what you need to figure out. You can fill in details as you get deeper into the project and gain knowledge to get more granular about what you need to do.

The brain dump can be a great practice and tool for artists to kick start management of projects large and small AND a living tool as they move through the project. It can be as simple as a list on paper or mapped out on a whiteboard or wall of your studio to give a physical and visual day-to-day presence to projects that you want to stay focused on and to add and cross off to-do’s (to help you stay on top of what is done and needs to be done). Try it out and bring your own creativity to leverage the brain dump.

Consider more holistically what it will take to finish the project.

Being self-driven to finish projects requires more than just having a comprehensive to-do list. You might need to create structure or adjust your daily or weekly routine to help you prioritize time to work on the project in ways that feel meaningful. Or you might need to experiment with how you can stay inspired.

What behaviors, habits and mindset are critical to finishing your project?

One way to tackle thinking this through is to envision how you want to experience being accountable and self-driven to finish your project. Are you aiming for a sense of dedication, immersion, incremental progress - one foot in front of the other? How can you create that for yourself?

For example, one of my clients who was working on a book and also wanting to make her personal creative projects more of a priority in her life in general, learned through our coaching conversations and experimentation that she needed to “touch” the project and work on it in some small way daily, even if it was just fifteen minutes. This helped her to feel she was taking small steps everyday. And she found that she also needed to schedule blocks of time for deep dives into the project to bring more focused creativity and thought to developing the story and characters and to have a deeper feeling of immersion in the project. Alongside these structures she recognized that her old habit and mindset of keeping personal creative projects to herself until they were fully realized wasn’t serving her. With encouragement she started to share with her students, work colleagues and other artists that she was working on the book. Sharing vs keeping it secret helped her discover unexpected support and excitement towards her and her project which gave her confidence and invigorated her own commitment to the project. This combination of behaviors of taking daily action, doing deeper dives and shifting her mindset to be more open to share what she is working on is helping her make significant progress towards finishing her book.

Experiment with new tools or asking for help to get your project finished.

Do you need an accountability partner, tracking tool, or do you need to set some boundaries with other people (and/or yourself) around time, space or interruptions? This could be as simple as creating a project thermometer and adding a line to move the thermometer up and closer to the finish line every time you complete a task. Or team up with a friend who’s also challenged to finish projects and set up in person or virtual check-ins to support each other. Get creative and think about what you might like to try to help you finish your project.

What other tools or support do you need to get your project finished?

Practice acknowledging and celebrating your progress rather than focusing on just the finished project!

Create some little rewards along the way. One of my clients creates “carrots” for himself - little prizes to help him stick to deadlines he sets for himself for various tasks or phases of his projects. He rewards himself with a celebratory dinner with his family or an excursion or treat for himself for finishing a challenging task or getting to a pre-identified milestone related to his project.

What steps or milestones will you celebrate and how?

Create a project mantra.

Mantras can be powerful when you need a quick positive jolt or gentle reminder to yourself of your commitment to this project and why it is important to you. I invite you to come up with a two to three word motto or mantra to support your resolve and focus to finish your project.

What mantra will serve to inspire you to keep focused and finish your project?

Lastly, remember it takes time, trial and error and attention to figure out what works for us and to build our capacity to see projects through as artists and creatives. Keep trying, keep noticing, keep at it and you will finish (even without an outside deadline).


Chris Mitchell is a professional coach who provides collaborative, results oriented support to artists and creatives at pivotal points when they need help to take their practice or career to the next level or a new direction and helps them build sustainable and fulfilling lives as creative professionals. Her professional experience has evolved over three decades of leadership positions in creative and arts-based businesses and non-profit arts organizations. She holds a BFA and is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) through the International Coaches Federation. Chris is based in Toronto, Canada and works with clients across Canada, the U.S. and globally. Learn more and contact Follow @chrismitchell_coachescreatives



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