I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up my mother was big on finishing one project before starting another. In my life, I’ve found that this kind of advice isn’t very helpful.
What tends to happen when I get stuck and try to “not give up”, “push through”, “drive on”, or whatever, is that I start feeling guilty and inadequate. I get paralyzed. Instead of actually finishing the thing I am working on, I get stalled. I either spend a lot of time not doing anything productive with it. Or I set it aside. I don’t work on this project and yet I don’t start another one because I should finish this before I start something else. The longer it’s been since I worked on the project, the harder it is to pick it up again. Now it has all kinds of negative emotional associations attached to it as well.
As laudable as it sounds, finishing one thing before you start another is not efficient and effective for many people. If it’s working for you keep doing it. And stop reading this post and get on with your writing.
If not, you have my permission to leave that unfinished paper in a folder for a bit and start something else.
Multiple projects can lead to more finished projects
I first discovered this in relation to knitting. Stick with me here while I go through an extended analogy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t knit. One creative project is much like another. Writing an academic article is a creative project.
At various points in my life I have stopped knitting altogether for several years. Looking back, I realize that sometimes this was because I got bored or frustrated with a project and put it down. Because I thought I couldn’t start another project until that project was finished, I didn’t start another project. I didn’t pick up the project in progress either. I just didn’t knit. I know academics that have done the same thing. They have months or even years when they just don’t write.
In 2003, I started knitting again. I met a whole new community of knitters online. Many of those knitters had several projects on the go. Some of them had unfinished projects in their knitting baskets (or cupboards, or under the bed) that had been sitting there for over 20 years. Despite the plethora of UFOs (UnFinished Objects) they were knitting things. And they finished things.
I tried it. I gave myself permission to knit something else if I didn’t feel like knitting a particular thing. Magically, I started finishing more projects. If I had time to sit and knit, I would pick up the project I most felt like working on at that moment. I would make progress. It would be closer to finished.
Because every time I sat down to knit I enjoyed it, I found it easier to find time to sit and knit. That’s the kind of vicious spiral you want: doing something makes you feel like doing more!
Writing is complex and varied
When I say that I have multiple knitting projects on the go, those projects are not all the same type of project. This is probably also true of your writing projects.
Some stages of a writing project are more intense than others. Sometimes you need a good solid chunk of time to get into it and get the ideas out. Other times, you can work on a small section for an hour and make substantial progress. Other times, you have a list of little things you need to check that you could work on in 15 minute slots if necessary. You could start on that list during an office hour and not feel bad if students actually come to see you, yet accomplish something if they don’t.
Having several projects on the go, means that you can pick the one most suited to the time available. You don’t just have the high quality creative time. Suddenly other bits of your day or week have potential as writing time. That means more total time you can devote to writing.
Not only that, but when you get stuck on one project, you don’t have to sit there staring at the page, descending into the spiral of negativity and procrastination. You can put it aside and pick up some other project. A project that is more compelling today. The fact that you enjoyed your writing time, and felt productive, means that you will continue to make time for writing.
If the key to finishing writing projects is sitting down to write, then whatever you can do to make it more likely that you will sit down to write is a good thing.
Sometimes what your project needs is to be left alone
In writing, as in knitting, sometimes you get to a point in a project where you aren’t quite sure what to do next. You know it isn’t right but you aren’t sure how to fix it. Or, you fear that fixing it is going to involve ripping out a quite a lot of the work you’ve done and more or less starting over. You’d love to avoid that even if you think you probably can’t.
I put knitting projects in Time Out and you can do the same with a writing project. Pack it up with all the notes and put it away somewhere. Move on to another project. Remind yourself that you do know how to do this and you can finish things. At some future point, you can pull that project out of hibernation and set it next to the other things you could be writing and make a decision about whether you want to abandon it completely or pick it up again and finish it.
Not only do you not have to finish one project before you start another, you don’t have to finish everything you start. The time you put into it was not wasted. Writing is a cognitive process. You learned things about the process and the topic that you will apply to other writing projects. Some of those ideas might live on in another project. Some will turn out not to be as interesting or important as you first thought.
A version of this post was first published on March 18, 2009. It has been edited in Jan 2013, and February 2016.