Kick Your Procrastination Habit

How Artists Can Finish Projects and Move Forward in Their Work/Career

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

“I just want to be getting stuff done!” is something I hear a lot in coaching consultations and foundational sessions with my clients.

Procrastination is an ongoing challenge for artists and creatives. We are easily distracted by shiny objects, the thrill of new ideas and/or the external demands on our time and energy that we determine to be “more important” or urgent. We start new things with a burst of energy and enthusiasm, but that, unfortunately, often dwindles as time goes on. Other times, we make too many commitments and spread ourselves too thin to be able to finish what we have started.

How far along are you with projects you’ve begun this year?

If you are like many artists, you might need friendly advice to kick you back into gear. Here are five actions you can take to help you finish your art projects and move forward in your work and career:

Prioritize! As an artist or creative there could be lots of things that are important to finish including making your work, administrative tasks, submitting for professional development and/or funding opportunities or art marketing and outreach projects that are necessary to get your work out there. As you know, there is a fixed amount of time in a day, a week or a year; so, it's important to consider what to focus time, energy and creativity on, and why it is important to you.  

In considering your priorities you might ask yourself:

  1. What are the projects or actions that are MOST important to finish before the end of the month, quarter or year? What could wait?
  2. What projects or actions are an integral part of any specific GOAL you set for yourself as an artist this year?
  3. What is REALLY a priority to finish in the bigger picture of your ambitions for your artistic practice, creative business or career?

Define what “finished” looks like! Clarify your specific deliverables and identify what needs to be done for completion to avoid the procrastination traps of perfectionism or project spread that many artists and creatives fall into. I’ve noticed my clients tend to get stuck in these procrastination traps when they don’t have externally defined project parameters or deadlines that hold them accountable. My clients recognize this too! Without deadlines and parameters, my clients tend to keep creating “improvements'' or more ideas under the guise of “making their artwork better. ” They lose sight of the expense of not completing these projects and being able to move forward. Unintentionally, their creativity results in constantly moving the finish line further out.

Consider this… recently, I worked with a design focused creative professional who was developing a new website platform that was key to launching a project that he hoped would position him to transition his career toward becoming a self-employed creative entrepreneur.  Independence was something he desperately wanted to achieve. However, he was struggling to move forward and recognized that he kept creating new ideas to add to the project to make it better. Sound familiar? Together we worked to dial back to the core of his project and idea in order to prioritize the aspects that were absolutely necessary to complete so that he could launch the platform. Looking at the project through this lens helped him to decide what “ready to launch” looked like and allowed him to focus his creativity in service of getting to that finish line. Achieving launch ready was a very big step toward transitioning his creative career to where he wanted to take it.

Create dedicated focus time to execute. My advice? “Don’t just put it on your to-do list. Put it in your calendar!” I recently coached an artist who had a to-do list that was six pages long! Long to-do lists can tempt you to pick easy, quick wins and lose track of your true priorities, which was my client’s situation. Her days kept slipping away as she crossed creative and household tasks off her list without putting in the time to create a new body of drawings which was an important priority for her.

Allocate windows of time in your calendar to get specific aspects of a project or important tasks done. Take care to consider:

  1. What time of day are you at your peak to be your most focused and productive for the type of work you need to do?
  2. Are you giving yourself enough time?

My client with her six-page to-do list was in the habit of judging herself for not drawing every day. When she really considered the above questions, she realized she had the best results and experience when she could devote a large chunk of time to draw. For her, that was really only feasible on Fridays. Once she dedicated a large portion of her Fridays to do just that, she was on a roll, consistently finishing drawings.

Another client, a dedicated mid-career painter, sought my support to “up her marketing game,” because she regularly procrastinated when it came to that activity. Through the course of our work together, we talked about the best way to approach working on marketing initiatives in combination with more in-depth reflection and consideration about her lifestyle and workflow. Through our coaching conversations she came to the conclusion that what works best for her is to set aside a few weeks two or three times a year to focus on marketing related projects such as documenting new work, updating her website and submitting applications for exhibition, art fairs and other opportunities. She recognized these activities required a different mindset and type of focus from studio work and that she could achieve a better sense of flow and productivity when she mapped out time for these activities in this way. The win-win was this approach also helped her to be more focused when she was in the studio painting knowing that she’d taken care of marketing. Dedicating focused time helped her up her marketing and painting game and get more of both finished!

Manage your interruptions

  1. What actions can you take to pre-empt or minimize interruptions? (i.e. turn off notifications and schedule times when you will check email and/or the phone)
  2. What do you need to communicate to others so they're aware you won't be available or online at certain times?

A ceramic artist and mother, who was struggling to get work made while balancing family life, realized through our coaching that she could better protect her studio time in the same way she manages maintaining her daily yoga practice. “Knowing I could create a daily, supportive practice in one area of my life made me realize I could do it for my art practice too.” This helped her create, communicate her needs to her family, and stick to a schedule of (mostly) uninterrupted studio time.

Build in time on a regular basis to reflect, prioritize and plan. Daily, weekly or monthly make it part of your creative practice and process to acknowledge steps you have taken, reflect on what's working or isn't working, and set your focus on your next steps towards completing priority projects. This is something I practice personally, and I share how I do this with my clients and support them to customize and build reflective and planning practices that work for them.

Personally, I have a weekly ritual of sitting down with a cup of tea and a notebook at the end of every week to reflect on a series of questions based on my personal priorities to be creative in my work and life, build and maintain connections in the creative community at large, grow my creative business, skills and tools and have work/life balance. This usually takes me 15-20 minutes and helps me to be accountable to these priorities, see my progress to keep motivated, strategize and also set my focus for the coming week. It is true… I sometimes miss a week or occasionally even two. Rather than beat myself up about that, I try to just pick up the next week and continue on. These are the questions I use weekly to help me reflect, prioritize and plan:

What did I create?
Who did I connect with?
In what ways did I grow my practice or grow as a creative professional?
What contributed (or didn’t) to my sense of work/life balance?

As I answer these questions, I make note of what worked or didn’t work. To wrap up and help me plan ahead I also make note of:

What do I need to focus on next week?

Based on your priorities as an artist or creative, what questions might you create to practice regular reflection and planning?

I hope this article will help you create some new strategies to kick your procrastination habits and finish projects that are important to you. There is such an incredible sense of accomplishment when we finish something. Completion feels good and helps us build our confidence and move forward in our careers as artists and creative professionals.

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.

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