Feeling good about unfinished things

Is it about the journey or the destination?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve entertained myself with creative hobbies. I’ve started hundreds of different projects but rarely finished them. Failing to complete a project has often left me frustrated and demotivated. But maybe it’s not the finishing that matters?

Early creativity

My creativity and self expression started with Lego and writing silly stories. Fantastical worlds sprang from my pen and weird spaceships grew from my Lego bricks. As I grew up, I found new outlets for creativity: computer club at school taught me BASIC programming and I was enraptured by it.

When I finally got a home computer (a hand-me-down Amiga 1000), I tried to learn more complex programming but it just didn’t quite gel. But then I discovered Deluxe Paint. It was an eye opener: painting on a computer in full colour! I was so excited: this is what I wanted to do.

I practised and practised. I used DPaint to copy game interfaces. I painted made-up maps and textures for games. I pixel-painted the neighbour’s dog. It was pure creativity, unconstrained by notions of completeness or success. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was fun.

Over-ambitious hobbies

As the years passed, my capacity for spare-time creativity never wavered. I continued to design, build and make all sorts of things that were often related to the video-games I was playing at the time. The projects I set myself were often very ambitious and despite being creatively fun, I rarely completed them. These projects ranged from a a total conversion of Duke Nukem 3D, a dungeon crawler based on the classic Dungeon Master, and the complete re-texture of the original Tomb Raider.

There were also many attempts at writing: I plotted several adventure stories for children and a fantasy series for adults. I half wrote several interactive gamebooks. And the number of short stories I started and didn’t finish is quite long…

Sample Vilca 03
Tomb Raider Xtra aimed to re-texture the original Tomb Raider game with higher resolution graphics. I didn't finish it, although other artists made their own complete versions.

But there were also many projects that I did complete: game levels for popular games, building and moderating a retro-games forum (still going today), designing maps for a friend’s game, re-designing and building my own website many times. The list goes on and is equally as long as the stuff I didn’t complete.

Unfinished projects took their emotional toll. Looking back now this seems rather silly, but at the time I had a lot of crushing doubts about myself — and unfinished projects seemed to confirm all my worst fears about my abilities. I would go through endless circular thinking:

  • Why did I think I could do this?
  • Maybe I’m not creative?
  • I’m useless
  • I’m not talented
  • I can’t learn new things
  • I’ll never finish anything!

Years later I know that none of this is true, but at the time these thoughts were so corrosive, so damaging that I began to believe them. And when you believe your own doubts, your negative thinking has won. I spent years in this cycle and it completely destroyed my confidence. But I wasn’t to be outdone. I had to solve this problem, and the first step was to fully understand it.

Mock-up covers for my Emberlisium books
I take great pleasure from doing visual design work. I love trying to evoke a particular atmosphere, and using public-domain artworks I mocked up these book covers.

Understanding

What was it about some projects that had me abandoning them? What was it about others that made them easy to finish? After much self-reflection, I found that my unfinished projects had many common factors:

  • They were huge, overly ambitious and too large for ‘spare time’ projects.
  • I didn’t really plan them, I just dived in and started creating, going off on many diversions and tangents, never completely finishing any one part of the project.
  • I was not accountable to anyone except myself. I had no deadlines and could spend as much time on them as I wished.
  • I would reach a plateau of what I was willing to learn on each project: if I got to a position where the skills required to progress were too great for the time available, I would likely give up.
  • Every aspect of the project needed to be ‘perfect’ and must meet my impossible standards of perfection.

I also identified the common factors for projects that I did complete:

  • They were either short or highly focused (or both).
  • They fulfilled a very specific need.
  • I planned them properly and (mostly) stuck to the plan.
  • I worked to the level of ‘good enough’ rather than my usual unattainable perfectionist standards.
  • Other people had expectations of me, so I was accountable to them.

It seems that I treated the completed projects more like client work: I had a brief, a known deliverable, and (sometimes) a deadline. But more importantly, being accountable to others seemed to change my relationship with the work. When I was just tinkering with my own projects, there wasn’t any pressure, so it was inevitable that projects would wander and often drag.

There was also the matter of my acute self-criticism, something that was both created by and fed my depression. After my emotional breakdown in 2000, I had regular periods of depression. My self-criticism became vastly magnified. It manifested often in how I reacted to my personal creative projects. I would work on something for a while and enjoy it, but eventually abandon it in frustration. I’d return a few months later and try again, but I’d be so critical of what I’d previously created that I’d bin it and start over. This is best demonstrated with The Dungeon Master Codex, a project to build a website about the genre-defining retro game. In ten years I delivered nothing of note, but I had around 20 different designs for it!

Dungeon Master Codex Old
I've made many attempts to build The Dungeon Master Codex website. Now I realise I was more interested in it as an art project and used it to teach myself better PhotoShop skills.

But perhaps the biggest factor contributing to success was scope. If a project was bigger than I could reasonably complete by myself, I’d likely abandon it. I still don’t know why I choose to do such large projects for fun, but I finally realise that to complete them, I need to treat them more like client work: break them down into smaller tasks and work accordingly. If I just wander off without a plan, It’s likely I’ll never finish.

My understanding of the problem was hard won. At a glance it all seems quite obvious now, but it took a long time to really understand it. Much of the understanding came through the reflection I undertook during therapy and counselling. The patterns I exhibited had become ingrained and to undo them, it required a lot of time to observe them and understand them.

Acceptance

After understanding, the next step is acceptance.

Acceptance is important because it helps us make peace with our problems. Sometimes problems aren’t solvable, but it’s our acceptance that’s key to how we handle them. So what did I need to accept to be able to move on?

  • I am a creative person with lots of ideas.
  • I explore these ideas as the fancy takes me.
  • I need variety in my creative life otherwise I’m quickly bored.
  • Sometimes it’s just about learning new skills.
  • I do the best I can at the time.
  • It’s not necessary to finish everything.
  • I can be happy with unfinished things because enjoyment is found in the creative process itself.

The last point here is really the crux of the matter. We’re bamboozled continually about ideas of success being tied to our ability to finish things. And yes, this is completely true for many aspects of our lives, especially our work. But I’ve had no problem finishing the paid work I was doing for employers or clients, because, guess what: accountability. It was just my personal creative hobbies that fell by the wayside.

I was able to finally accept that it doesn’t matter if I don’t finish my hobby projects: they aren’t for anyone else, they’re for me alone and having fun with the creative process is its own reward. Completing these projects was a bonus, but it was never really necessary to my creative happiness.

Final fixes

Acceptance is one thing, but how do I ensure I don’t keep falling into the same trap?

Firstly I needed to remove the unfinished things from my field of view. They had been on my hard-drive for years, and every time I’d work on something else, I’d keep seeing all those folders teasing me. Although I’d finally accepted them as unfinished, there was always a feeling of deflation associated with them. So I archived them away from daily sight: without the reminders, I stopped getting side tracked by thoughts like “Oh look, I should finish that!”

I also had to learn from my mistakes. If there’s a new project I want to undertake, I now look at it in much more detail and ask myself some questions:

  • What’s my motivation to do this?
  • Will I need to sacrifice something else to do this?
  • Do I want to make time to complete this?
  • Do I have all the skills?
  • If I don’t have the skills, can I learn them in a reasonable time?
  • Will it be fun?

Depending on the answers, I may or may not start new things, but at least now I know that I don’t need to finish them. Finishing isn’t anywhere near as important as I used to think: the reward is in the creative journey itself.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson, a lesson that many seem to figure out very early in life. But that’s OK. I got there in the end, in my own time and in my own way.

And I feel very good about it too.

Tags Creativity, Happiness, Psychology