In my post about letting go of unfinished projects, I suggested that you identify 3 projects to work on over the next 3 weeks.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up my mother was big on finishing one project before starting another. My post might have wakened a gremlin that said just that to you.
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. It doesn’t matter if you don’t knit. One creative project is much like another. Writing an academic article is a creative project. Stick with me here while I go through an extended analogy.
I have had various points in my life where 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.
Several years ago 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 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!
Not all parts of the project require the same kind of attention
When I say that I have multiple projects on the go, those projects are not all the same type of project.
I love to knit lace and find the process almost meditative. But I have to be undisturbed. Lace is complicated. You have to count and really pay attention. I can’t knit lace on the bus. Or in the doctor’s waiting room. I need to be alone. No interruptions. And it takes a while to get into the rhythm so it isn’t good for short time periods.
Socks are a different story, especially plain socks where I just go round and round and round for ages. I can knit those almost anywhere, even for very short periods of time. On the bus. In a waiting room. In a meeting. I even know people that knit socks in the dark at the movies.
They are small. They fit in my purse. I can knit comfortably even squished in a bus seat in the winter. I can also knit socks while talking to other people. They are easy to put down and pick up so I can do them when I might be interrupted.
Then there are projects that fall in between. Maybe I need undisturbed time to get them started but once I’ve established the pattern, I don’t mind distractions or interruptions. Maybe parts of a sweater require a lot of concentration but others don’t. And starting a sweater sleeve is much like knitting a sock — small, portable, easy to pick up and put down. But when the sweater gets bigger, it becomes less portable.
Your writing projects are like that, too.
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.
This means that there is more time available for writing. You don’t just have the high quality creative time. Suddenly other bits of your day or week have potential as writing time.
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 at a more interesting stage.
The fact that you enjoyed that writing time, 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.
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A version of this post was first published on March 18, 2009. It has been edited.