The Tricky Art of Finishing What You Start


Several  comments in last week’s blog post Ernest Hemingway’s Productivity Techniques alluded to the problem of finishing projects.

This was in response to my suggestion of working on a few projects at once as you always have something else to respond to if you get stuck with the first thing you’re working on.


Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

In my blog post Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, I talk about the fine art of finishing, and the typical problems that happen midway through almost any art or craft project, the most common of which is that it looks, uh, kind of terrible.

Or at least not the way you imagined when you started.

This is, however, TOTALLY NORMAL and the way of all long term relationships.

After the initial honeymoon is over and you’ve worked on your project for a while, you turn around to find it snoring on the couch with its mouth half open and a bag of chips slowly sliding off its belly.

Not quite what you imagined when you initially fell in love with your idea.

But hey, in sickness and in health right? For better and for worse.

You’ve got to stick with your idea even when it’s got bad breath and hasn’t showered in three days. This takes commitment and a certain leap of faith.

If you have a tendency to move on to the next romantic, good-looking idea in your brain when the going gets tough, just know that it, too, will soon will be snoring on the couch, slack-jawed and gassy.

But of course, you also have the opportunity to turn your frog back into the prince (or princess) of your dreams–and/or to open up to its own particular gorgeousness just the way it is. Even if it wasn’t what you first thought you wanted.

But the way you get there is by finishing.

You can read about it here.

Resistance in Disguise

But if you think you don’t finish things because you get bored or restless and just like to move on, I’d like you to consider that this really might be Resistance in Disguise.

Resistance is how we protect ourselves from taking risks.

So if you never finish anything, you don’t have to risk determining that it’s “bad” or that you’re “not talented” because it’s not done. Who knows how it might turn out. By not finishing, you protect yourself from your own mean rule.

But we have to trick ourselves to do that.

We conjure up clever reasons for stopping and we convince ourselves that they’re true.

We do it to protect ourselves from the mean pronouncements of our inner critic, or from feeling the “ick” of struggling or working past our comfort zone.

But the real, more helpful work might be to examine the rules you’re protecting yourself from. Is it true that if you make something “bad”, it means you’re not a real artist? Or aren’t talented?

I hope not, because I’ve made more bad art that I can shake a stick at. Which helped me make a lot of other work I love.

If you wouldn’t hold me to such an unforgiving, harsh standard, why are you so willing to do that to yourself?

Let me know what you think in the comments. :-)

Bookmark and Share


  1. Joyce Barham says:

    Finishing has always been hard for me. I like to work on a project until I ‘hit a wall’ and then stop. This year I decided that I would go back and finish up the projects that could be finished. The other projects I sent to a lady who finishes quilts and gives them to charities in her area.

    I had a quilt that I started in 2008. I had put it away cause the pattern wasn’t working out. This month, I decided to scrap most of the quilt and start over. I had my strips all cut and so I began to sew them together. I kept pushing myself and put the blocks up on a design wall when they were completed. Looking at it gave me the confidence to keep going. I emptied a medium sized basket of strips and I’m happy at the way the quilt is turning out. I have 2 more big blocks to finish and I’m excited.

    I’m so excited that I’m planning a new quilt, but I’m also finishing some of my old ones. Each month is a new list and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’m glad my momentum has remained strong.

  2. Padma Ramji says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your mail as it was just how i feel about most of my projects that I start.The initial momentum is lost half way through the project and I need a kick to get back to the same.I am glad to know that I am not the only one who has this problem.
    That does give me a boost to get back to a few of my projects that have been left half way .thanks!!

  3. CathieG says:

    Not finishing a project is one of my biggest problems. I get so excited about creating a certain item then about half way thru I have no desire to work on it. I always chalk it up to ADD but your resistance in disquise really hit home! I often feel I do not measure up to other artists (dare I call myself an artists) and you may very well be right….if I say on a post that I am working on a quilt…I will actually have to post a picture of it….yikes! Thanks again for a great post!

  4. Ellary Branden says:

    I would never have trouble finishing anything, if it werent for the fact that I, at some point in the project, start disliking what Ive done so far. I find it really hard to reignite my interest and find a solution, or go in another direction with the project.

  5. Peg Yates says:

    This has given me the kick in the pants I needed, coupled with the fact that Mr. Husband will be on work travel for 2 weeks beginning this weekend, to finish the UFOs I have. I am going to complete one project completely before taking up another one, beginning with the one closest to being finished. If I get a few nearly done ones out of the way, I will be inspired by the fact that I actually got something done!

  6. Barb Kowalik says:

    Finishing what you start…. This used to be a big bug bear for me, then I moved into an ittsy bittsy condo. There is nowhere to leave unfinished items. I DO however have a one kind of project that I will allow myself time to complete–embroidery, I find that I need the right mindset to work on these pieces. I generally do 1 spirit doll a year and people who want one are told that from the beginning. I will not accept a commission for these pieces, I will only do trades or sales at shows.
    Otherwise, once something is started, I finish it before I go onto the next thing. Tough to do, often once the initial rush of doing something new is over, I would like to set it aside and do something else, but with no room, I could not and now (after 2 years) I find it is no longer an issue. So I guess it was a bad habit – like smoking…..

  7. Finishing used to be almost impossible for me; I seem to have/had *butterfly brain*—-just when you think it’s landed, FLIT! Off we go.
    One of the GOOD things that has come with getting older is a sense of being content with what I have, which in some odd way has lead to finished projects.
    Yes, I work slow. Yes, I may have to put something aside for a while, and let it mentally stew while I do small projects. But there comes an *AH-HA!* moment in that stewing that answers problems and let’s me finish. (this process will be different for everyone, but I believe it IS possible for anyone)
    The other thing is I am not comparing my work to others, and I also do not read a lot of books, magazines, tutorials, etc. that I feel pull me off my path. One of the wonders of the instant connection we have with blogs and the internet in general is there is information overload. For someone taking tentative steps into the art arena, it is enough to send them back behind a rock or trying to do TOO MANY THINGS AT ONCE.
    Slow down.
    Find what you love.
    Do it and if possible, find someone who will support you positively in your work.
    Always consider that you are making the art for YOU. If you try making it to please or meet the standards of others, it won’t go as well.
    Remember to honor yourself and the fact that you took the risk to make art.
    You are totally worthy of finishing that artwork!


    P.S. There are always *bowsers* along the way, that during the stewing process just plain ROT.
    That’s something you’ll learn, when it truly is beyond hope in it’s present form.
    But I save those for collage bases, and sometimes end up with AMAZING pieces! Don’t despair!

  8. i make altered books most of the time, sometimes it is hard to tell when it is DONE, but then again it will tell me and then it leaves the studio and goes on the altered book case……i have at least 10 different books going on right now….all with different themes….i have alot of ufo’s around, will i ever finsh, probably not….maybe i was trying out something new and it wasn’t doing it for me….or i just got plain bored with it…and sometimes getting started on new projects is even harder , by the time i get to do it i already made it in my head.

  9. Excellent post, and I’m going to link to it on my blog. I am a serial starter and not such a great finisher. I finally buckled down and challenged myself to get projects done. I now have a blog party every Friday called “Finished for Friday” and I invite you and your readers to join in. Sometimes getting that pat on the back helps us move forward to finish the next thing. Even if you don’t have a project to share, browsing through the posts of what others have finished can be very inspirational.

  10. Linda Weber says:

    I love your analogy!~ I’m so very much NOT a procrastinator, but this sticks with so many people who are. Your duty to get it done will just fester! I do though, have some projects that I just couldn’t figure out what to do with them part way through. It’s great to force yourself to go back to one, and just go at it, even if you don’t have a plan for it. I’ve found that that unfinished piece from long ago was just waiting for Today, to become the masterpiece it ended up proving to be. And my pile of nothingness but mess got smaller and proved to be a treasure hunt into my own things to create something I now covet.

  11. Cathy Mc says:

    This is the exact reason why I DO have many projects going on at the same time…so that when I do get to that “uugggggghhhh” feeling in the relationship, I shove it aside, and pick up something else (why can’t we do this with our human relationships??? LOL) Ultimately, I find when I return to the discarded project, even if it is discarded several times, it almost always turns out better than I had pictured, and I am usually pleased.

  12. Cathy Mc says:

    One more quik thought…..thanks for the affirmation. When a really screw up a project, even if it is as simple as a greeting card, I tend to feel as tho I am not a good artist at all, and why am I bothering…
    It really helps to know that other artists really make bad art occasionally, too.


  13. Kate Wickham says:

    Sometimes I leave a painting unfinished because it starts too good and I’m afraid of messing it up.

    Other times it just isn’t working and I haven’t figured out how to fix it.

    I always have a series of work in process. Since I work with watercolor & very wet I can only do so much before I have to let a piece dry, so I go on to the next one. This also helps unify a series since the color palette overlaps.

  14. Lorri says:

    What a great post!
    It really is food for thought. Luckily, I do finish things – not everything but at least half haha.
    I have so many UFO’s and this has inspired me to complete the incomplete :)

  15. Sandra L. says:

    Man, do I know what you mean! I’ve got UFO’s all over the place, including a wedding album/altered book I started 2 years ago. I am not sure if I’m afraid to finish because I’m afraid of the end result, or if I’m just a major procrastinator! Or sometimes I just burn out on a piece. Or sometimes there’s just no “good” reason.

    Thanks for addressing this one!

  16. Sharon says:

    Oh My Goodness!!! This is me!!! I so appreciate seeing that there are others who do what I do. It gives me strength too to pick up that UFO and get it done. Thanks for the encouragement and happy finishing to you all!

  17. Vyara Kaneva says:

    Прекрасна дискусия! Моето мнение е, че има неща , които ще си остават за “отлежаване”, докато един ден, с напълно различен поглед и отношение, просто за минути ще довърша… Но сега е излишно да губя ценно време- ако съм лишена от идея за “заключителен акорд”… Успех на всички!


  18. Christine says:

    Over and over and over, this is me. Many UFOs. Nearly always reach a point where I intensely dislike and am ashamed of the piece I’m working on. This became especially clear to me last year when I began making Zentangle® black and white drawings. My drawing experience is very limited, but I was drawn to the doodle-ish style and decided to try. Because the drawings are small and intended to be finished in a sitting, I was finishing this art at a much more rapid pace than my usual, eons-long quilt and bead projects. However, I experienced the same dislike of my work in progress, and usually wanted to stop midstream. Each time, I continued to draw in spite of my resistance, and each time, I loved the finished result.

  19. Dana says:

    ADD meds have really helped me with finishing what I start. Procrastination is a big part of my problem, but it’s also a big part of the ADD.


  20. Becca Chopra says:

    True, being afraid that the finished product might not be perfect has kept me editing “The Chakra Diaries” longer than I thought it could ever take! Always a class to teach or an article to work on or a yoga pose to strike instead. But this morning I set a deadline! And picked a publisher! And I hope you all read the finished product by the end of the summer. If you want to read the short intro and give feedback (and receive a free ebook when it’s done – soon), please go to Namaste!

  21. Bobbi says:

    I read all the comments and wish I had gotten just to those stages. I see something I want to do and buy the paint or beads or??? and never get it off the ground. I just plain have more sit down and stop, than get up and go! Every week I read your post and can feel it affecting me in small bits. Maybe one week the stop will go.

  22. Finishing projects is always a challenge. We see it often from our longarm quilt clients who had a project underway and stopped. Suddenly, they need it for a gift. We get it at the last minute and have to rush to get it finished. That said, its always fun to see the creativity of people and how they approach their projects. We just received a quilt from a lady who had it in the back closet for three years because she was not happy with her work and now the quilt fabric was out of date. She decided to finish it anyway and it was really beautiful. The message is dont get discouraged and give in.

  23. [...] And I write sometimes about the funky middle, and how resistance protects us from finishing something that might be bad. [...]

  24. Carol Stover says:

    I laughed when I first saw this topic, because I think I have more unfinished “great art ideas” and projects than finished ones. Never thought of myself as a non-completer, and always pushed to finish any other sort of task. But it’s interesting how I’ve had a block to finishing my own personal art projects that were for no other purpose than my own fulfillment.
    During the course and resolution of a life-threatening health issue 4 years ago, I entered a period of intense dreams and introspection, that led to a working list of a dozen or so art pieces that I knew I had to create. Not just to process what was then happening to me, but also to process areas of my life that I had never addressed with my art. Suddenly, it didn’t matter to me at all what anyone would think or say of what I was painting or drawing or writing. The issue of it being “good” by anyone else’s standards seemed foreign and superfluous, and the idea of expressing myself for my own purposes felt like it was enough. Sad to think that a scary event had to be the catalyst for that, but actually I am grateful for the journey it inspired for me, and I intend to continue that process. I’m even planning to hold a gallery showing of all my crazy pieces that present no explanation or theme other than, “yeah, here’s what that felt like at the time.” Where and when will this be? No idea. What will people say about the work? Finally, I don’t care. I’m just going to dress up in something weird and fun, and sit there watching everyone look at all of it. And just in case, I’ll have an open bar!

  25. Sarah says:

    Wow Carol, thanks so much for sharing this. Truly, truly inspiring–and I love your plan for a show–fun, open-hearted, and completely on your own terms!

Leave a Reply