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Today’s episode covers a topic that is really better explained by the story Sarah shares than by a snappy title – but Unfinished Projects kind of encapsulates the feel of what we mean.

Sarah’s writing story

Having been struggling with not really feeling her current project, Sarah shares the story of being pulled back into an old writing project, one she’d started more than a decade ago.

This sparked a conversation about starting & stopping creative projects, and how we know when we need to, or when we could (or should – except we don’t like shoulds!) pick them up again or leave them be.

Listening to intuition

We talked about how to know when to pick up a new project and put down the one you’re finding hard going – and how this fits with showing up for your creative practice regardless.

How to tell the difference between being bored and being done – and that weird space in between where you know you just need to show up to finish it.

Productive procrastination – when you’re working so hard at avoiding something, you actually get loads of other stuff done instead. It’s a feeling we’re all familiar with, but how does it fit into this particular thorny topic?!

Recognising that you haven’t picked up a particular project for a long time and exploring why can be a good start – because sometimes it will just be practical reasons why you haven’t touched it, and other times it might be that you’re not feeling the love for it and that’s why you’re not making progress.

You don’t have to do it daily

We touch on the differences between how people tackle longer projects anyway – some people religiously stick to a daily practice, and some couldn’t consistently show up daily if their life depended on it, because their brains just don’t work that way. We’ll let you guess where we sit (or listen to confirm!).

The baby bird theory

Carla has a theory which fits this quite well. Some time ago, someone (she thinks Kristen Kalp, but can’t find any reference to this snippet anywhere, so has either dreamed it or it’s inside a course somewhere) talks about creativity being like a baby bird.

Because you nurture it,. you feed it, and you might go without things yourself in order to keep it alive and raise it.

Carla’s creativity is indeed like a baby bird, but not for those reasons. Photography is her baby bird because she kept kicking it out of the nest, rejecting it as a career choice because she was terrified, and it kept bloody well coming back. It was, and still is, the thing she can’t not do.

Sarah’s baby bird is one she finds on the floor after it’s been booted out of the nest and she tries to go near it and it rapidly retreats away from her.

And we think most creatives have something that fits of of those baby bird definitions. To extend the analogy (have we found a single analogy that represents all of creativity?!), if you’ve been nurturing something and you’re just not feeling it any more, it’s totally ok to chuck it out of the nest (ie stop doing it for a while). It will either be replaced by something else or it will come back – and then you can decide what to do with it if it returns.

The fear of never returning to a project

We talked through that fear of realising you’re not working on a project and you’re no longer drawn to it, and the fear that you won’t ever go back to it.

It feels wrong, somehow, that you’ve put in so much work and then it might just sit there forever in an unfinished state. But what we have learned over the years is that it’s ok to leave something in an unfinished state – you’ve still learned from the process, you’ve still gained something overall, and we all have such precious limited time to work on our joy things.

Showing up is important, but showing up endlessly when you’re not having fun isn’t necessarily the end goal. And there are so many shoulds floating around this discussion. (our transcription software kept correcting it to sheds, which made me laugh while writing these notes – Carla)

The illusion of all or nothing

We can, as creatives, sometimes feel as though there’s no point to doing something unless we can put our all into it – but actually, not everything has to be all or nothing.

Having said that, if you’re feeling more nothing than all, you’re unlikely to enthusiastically resume working on whatever it is.

We are talking about the heart and soul, the emotional connection we have with our work – but the caveat applies to physical space and time, too.

The processes of putting a project down

A really interesting tangerine tangent to this conversation was a discussion about the moment when you stop work on a project and put it to one side.

For some of us, it’s temporary and may perhaps become permanent, but we make sure we have the information, materials & resources available and safe so we can pick it up again at a moment’s notice in the future.

For others, it may be intended as temporary, or it maybe that we’ve got what we needed from it and we know we’re unlikely to return to it – but we are generally a bit less specific about where we save it. So it can be picked up again in the future, but only after a bit of a treasure hunt trying to find all the relevant pieces!

Purpose and why

This is, as you can probably tell from the notes, not our most rational, measured or scripted discussion – we were both feeling our way through the subject as we talked.

One of the words that came up again and again was why – why did we start it, why did we stop it, why did we fall out of love with it after putting so much into it.

Switching projects unexpectedly

Carla talks about her recent exhibition, the plans she had and was working on for more than a year beforehand, and the new series that just appeared out of nowhere and overtook all that careful planning in the three weeks immediately before the exhibition opened.

Interestingly, this was less of not feeling the love for the original work and more having a sudden rush of enthusiasm and inspiration for a new one – possibly productive procrastination at its finest?!

She’s now working on both series simultaneously, and is still unsure what caused the sudden brain takeover – but felt it was a good illustration of the utter randomness of the creative mind, and that there sometimes isn’t an explanation for switching focus to a different project.

Big Magic

A few years ago we both went to see Liz Gilbert live in London, while she was touring with her book Big Magic – and we feel this whole topic is quite reminiscent of that. Inspiration can hit you, or can tickle your memory and vanish – and you never quite know whether it’ll appear and poke you and wave to see if you remember it, or if it’ll just whoosh in and take over.

Multipotentialites and unfinished projects

Multipods are the QUEENS of the unfinished – of juggling, plate spinning, putting things down and picking them up again. If you leave a project in a state of suspended animation, it’s both easier to pick up if you do circle back to it, and easier to leave because you’re not saying a deliberate stop or goodbye.

This section of the episode is an excellent example of the fact that this is the first time we’re articulating some of these thoughts – so easier to listen than to try and catch what we said in these notes. Voyages of discovery, skips, and confused comparisons to giant piles of paper, silt, pearls and jellyfish all ensue.

If you figure out what we actually concluded, please do let us know!

Growth, skills and old projects

We’ve established that sometimes you’ll go back to an old project and be filled with excitement to pick it up again. But what if you do that, and you still love the concept, but your skills have improved so much while you’ve been working on other things that you also sort of hate it?

This can actually contrarily be a really positive experience – because we tend to improve incrementally and gradually, there’s nothing quite like seeing a piece of your creative work from years ago to remind you how much you really have grown, improved and changed in that time.

And it’s ok to not just continue on as you were, but to chop and change, tweak and adapt, and make it into your current project – not simply your old project that you’re doing some more work on.

Pinpointing the trigger

Is there one moment when you know you need to switch from a current project to an old one, or a new one? When you know you’ll be putting this one down unfinished and moving on in some way? Do you need a transition phase between projects and commitments?

We talk about limerence – we actually mean liminal, but it was a late recording after a lot of life stuff so please forgive that bit of confusion!

A point we identified sort of relates to procrastination – if, to take the example of a writer, you find for a period of time that you’d rather not write than write that novel you were working on – that probably means it’s time to put it down and pick up something else.

The sunken cost fallacy

This felt really important to mention, but also was a really weird thing to try to define – so bear with us (or listen in, because it comes across better conversationally than written up!)

The sunken cost fallacy is, to borrow a definition from Oxford Languages, “the phenomenon whereby a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when it is clear that abandonment would be more beneficial.”

In other words, when people stay in jobs they hate because that’s what they trained for and have worked in for 20 years, or when you continue to plough your limited free time into a creative project you’ve fallen out of love with, but feel guilty for abandoning in favour of something new which excites you.

The key thing to remember is that whether you make the change or don’t make the change, you’ve still spent that time, money, effort, whatever. And if you don’t make the change, you will be in the same position in five years time – but older and more fed up.

And every project you embark on, whether or not it gets finished or stays unfinished forever, contributes in its own way to your life. Whether it’s skills, joy, distraction, learning – there are all kinds of purposes beyond the final output of a finished product.

Reassurance and permission

We absolutely definitely don’t have all the answers for this one, but we would like to say loud and clear that you are not alone if you struggle with this, and you are absolutely allowed to have some unfinished projects – and even to start a project knowing you might not finish it.

The mindset shift that goes with this permission can be quite transformative – it has been for us. Being able to let go of things that were previously important to us, accept that we’ve changed so we’re not working on them any more, and be thankful for what we did get out of them – that’s been a really good way to progress creatively without being stuck on a particular thing.

A very practical bit of advice is Carla’s Scanner Daybook – adopted from a course a million years ago, it’s a notebook that sits next to her desk, and is always within reach.

The idea is that when you have an idea, you set a timer, allow yourself x amount of time (Carla usually goes for 20 minutes, you can choose whatever works for you) and you can go absolutely nuts in that time planning, researching, doodling, making notes, having more ideas, brainstorming, whatever.

At the end of your allotted time, you close the book and go back to whatever you were doing, safe in the knowledge you’ve caught the idea and you can now go back and pick it up and develop it any time you like. You know where all your ideas live and you’ve expanded them all at least a little bit – this avoids those conversations with yourself where you read a sentence you’ve scribbled, have no context for it and wonder what the hell you were thinking!

And the last thing we’ll raise is that, in true Big Magic style, perhaps some of the things you’ve had an idea about and not yet pursued – perhaps they are waiting for the right time to become reality.

And finally

We can leave projects unfinished. It’s ok if they never get finished. But just because we’re not finishing them now doesn’t mean we will never come back to things – they will come to us when they’re ready, when we are ready to do some more on them. (notice our deliberate lack of the word “complete” there!)

As ever, we’d love to know your take on this – this is one of our more random episodes as we’ve never discussed this with each other before!

Links we loved

The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

Marianne Cantwell’s TED talk on being liminal