How to stay motivated while working on long-term projects

Published by Nela Dunato on at 14:23 in Productivity, Tips for creatives, Mindset

Working on long-term goals is hard. Our brains are not exactly wired for it—we carry biases that undermine our efforts to become successful at whatever we’ve chosen to do. If we want to achieve something bigger than we’ve ever accomplished before, we need to support ourselves better because willpower alone is not enough.

For the past 18 months I’ve been working on my first self-published book “The Human Centered Brand”. The launch date is in July so I can finally see the results of my hard work, but all that time when I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel was so bloody difficult. Today I want to share with you some of the methods I’ve used to overcome my own biases and unproductive patterns, and finally get this thing out into the world.

How to stay motivated when working on long-term projects

Fact: I’m the worst at long-term projects

There are things in our head, body, and the environment that can impede our ability to carry out difficult long-term projects. Maybe you’re not sure if you could do that because you have a mental or physical chronic illness, or a personality trait that makes you prone to switching focus. Maybe you’ve just had a baby! Or you’ve just moved to a different country. If you’re experiencing a short-term challenge, perhaps this really isn’t the best time for you to commit to yet another project. But if your challenges are ongoing, postponing your dream project until you overcome them may mean that the project will never happen.

I face many of these obstacles to successfully completing long-term projects, which is why I don’t do as many. I’ve done a bunch of smaller projects, but anything that takes me longer than a few weeks often fizzles out. I could blame my depression, the fact that I’m a “Rebel” (as defined by Gretchen Rubin), or my tendency to commit to too many things at once. And sometimes I do. I whine and I puff and I huff, but at the end of the day it doesn’t help me with my long-term projects, so I need to find a way around it.

I’m not saying you should bite your tongue and “pull yourself together”. Perhaps what you need is a bit of extra support from your community.

You shouldn’t tailor your goals based on what some other person has succeeded in doing. Just because someone else achieved something, it doesn’t mean it’s realistic for you. You may be wearing invisible weights that slow you down. This is not a reason to entirely give up—just accept that things might happen slower than you anticipate.

I can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re a normal person, things will take more time than you think. If you’re at a disadvantage of any kind, they will happen even slower. People who set ambitious goals and burst past them faster than they planned are outliers. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do the same.

Let’s say you’ve decided that yes, you’re going to take this project by the horns, even if it’s the last thing you do! How do you make sure you’ll stick with it for months or years?

Here are some of my tips.

1. Write your intention for this goal

Your journey will have ups and downs. Usually we’re full of enthusiasm in the beginning, but once that enthusiasm wears out we’re far less motivated to continue. Expect this, and plan for it. Write a note to self that you’ll read when you don’t feel as hot about your project anymore—something that will reinvigorate your desire to make it happen.

Here are some ideas on what you can include:

  • Describe your vision of what the project looks like when it’s completed.
  • What do you want to get out of this project? (Be selfish!)
  • What are you hoping to learn from it?
  • How will people respond to your project? (Imagine the positive feedback, reviews, media attention...)
  • How do you hope your project will impact your community, or the world?

Be as descriptive as you possibly can. Feel the reality of this idea and paint a picture with words, and even imagery. You know those vision board collages people do? It’s not dumb or useless—it helps you remember why you’re doing this.

This will take you an hour or a few hours at most, but it will help you to get out of the creative rut, so it’s absolutely worth it.

The best time to write your intention and/or create your vision board is when you’re feeling optimistic and fired up about your dream, so you can channel that positive energy into your writing and art.

How I did it

I started writing my book after I took Tara Gentile’s class “How to Write and Publish an eBook”. One of the lessons in the class was writing your book proposal. The proposal is usually sent to agents and publishers, but it also helps the writer to clarify their goals.

My proposal helped me keep my eyes on the prize. I looked at it every now and then and got in touch with my intention for this book. It helped me imagine the finish line while I was still working on the details. When I was doubting myself and thinking that my idea may be stupid, my book proposal helped me rekindle the faith in my dream.

2. Identify the most immediate action steps

Big ideas don’t just happen on their own. If you don’t break your plan apart into individual steps, you’ll be confused about what you need to do, and what you need to learn. This will lead to paralysis and procrastination.

Having a list of clear steps also helps you make a realistic timeline (see above: humans are terrible at making timelines). When you see how much work there is to do, you’ll be less likely to make an unrealistic deadline.

Once you’ve decided on your actionable steps and their most logical order, you can focus on those you need to take care of immediately, and leave the rest for later. There’s no point in learning how to make a Facebook live video for your art show opening, if you haven’t yet painted the artworks for your show.

How I did it

I created a Trello board containing all my tasks, and I kept adding more to it over time. (Unfortunately I don't have a screenshot from an early phase to share.)

It’s pretty obvious that in order to write a book, you need to write—a lot. Without this action, nothing else can happen. Writing became the most important way in which I was making progress. (Reading scientific articles and books was another.) I was able to let go of all the other things that scared me a bit as a first-time author until I was ready to deal with them, which helped with minimizing my overwhelm.

3. Commit to a regular practice

The project won’t happen unless you regularly work on it. Schedule it on your calendar. This appointment with your project is equally important as you client work, or any events or meetings you attend. Failing to appear and meet your project at this time is cheating yourself out of your dream.

You can make a short daily appointment (30 minutes every morning), or a longer weekly appointment (3 hours on a Saturday). Some people prefer the slow and steady daily approach, and others prefer deep-dives. Experiment to find what works for you.

How I did it

I scheduled a weekly calendar appointment for working on my book. At first it was on Friday, but that didn’t work so well. Then I switched it to Tuesdays which worked out a lot better. I didn’t honor the commitment every week, but I did it way more often than I would if I didn’t block off time for it.

There were also weeks when I did 30-60 minutes of writing every morning before work, and this made a huge difference too (see the next tip).

4. Measure and celebrate your progress

Working, working, working, and still not seeing an end to it can be super demotivating. The antidote to this is measuring how the small steps bring you closer to your goal. This will help you see and feel that even the tiniest bit of progress matters, and give you a motivation boost.

What part of your goal can be quantified? Here are some examples for different projects:

  • Number of artworks for a show, or an artbook.
  • Number of words or pages in a written publication.
  • Total surface area of pieces in a quilt.
  • Total video segment length for a documentary.

What kind of “chunks” make up your project? It could be chapters, lessons, slides, graphics, metres... Something that you can turn into a percentage of the total expected size of your project.

Once you’re past the 50% mark, something interesting happens: you realize that you can just keep up doing what you’re doing, and that you will eventually reach your goal.

How I did it

I was writing down my word count for every day that I wrote. This was an objective number that showed me that things were happening. There was one particular week when I felt like I wasn’t doing much because I was writing bit by bit every day. At the end of the week I had written more words than in most previous weeks, which was a huge surprise. This was proof to me that even small daily progress matters. Yes, I know you already knew that, but it’s different when you experience it for yourself.

5. Arrange a form of accountability

This is a tricky one, especially if you’re a Rebel too—we don’t like outside pressure, so the wrong type of accountability can backfire.

I prefer the gentle, non-invasive type of accountability where I simply share my idea with people I respect and admire. I don’t want to make a fool out of myself in front of these people, so this leaves me with one choice: do the thing, no matter how long it takes.

Some people prefer more structured accountability, like daily or weekly check-ins with their mastermind buddies, or a global movement such as NaNoWriMo or Art Every Day Month.

Experiment and explore until you find the type of accountability that suits your personality. There’s no one-size-fits-all here. Some people like to hold their feet by the fire, other prefer a more kind approach. As long as it keeps you going, do what works.

How I did it

I started talking openly about writing a book since 2016, when I shared a photo of my sticky note outline on Twitter:

After that, I began writing blog posts about some of the key themes in the book, and sometimes I’d casually mention I’m writing a book. A few people asked me for more information and told me they can’t wait to read the book, which meant I couldn’t back out now.

Towards the half of my book I met the editor Siobhan Colgan who served both as my accountability buddy, and has provided helpful feedback on my writing early on. In the last few weeks I had a few “distance coworking” sessions with a fellow writer which also helped a lot. I wish I had this kind of partnership sooner, but overall it turned out fine as it is.

6. Gather your cheerleaders

Your cheerleaders are your friends and colleagues who believe in you and your work. They may know next to nothing about the professional side of things, but they know you’re awesome, and are happy to tell you so.

While you may do a short-term project without any outside support, I don’t think going it alone on a long-term project is very healthy. Just doing the work is difficult enough as it is, and isolation only makes it harder.

Here’s a few ideas on where to find your cheerleaders:

  • Your best friends!
  • Your close business buddies.
  • Your clients.
  • Your mentors and teachers.
  • Fellow students of the classes and workshops you’ve taken.
  • Facebook groups dedicated to projects like yours.
  • Twitter and Instagram hashtags.
  • Paid classes and group coaching.

I mention the last point because there are some offers that are tailored to the kind of project you’re working on. For example, Naomi Dunford is currently running a class called “Write a book with me”. I was already 90% done with my own book so it didn’t make sense for me to join, but I would have if she had launched it sooner. Look around, there might be someone who is offering just the kind of support you need.

How I did it

I talked about my book with my friends and colleagues, and they provided me with a huge boost of self-esteem and positivity.

I’m also a member of a few paid communities where we celebrate our accomplishments each week (Awarepreneurs and Heart of Business Community). The comments from fellow community members meant a lot to me. I also joined a Facebook group Binders Full of Non-fiction Book & Book Proposal Writers and its offshoot for the 2018 summer book launches where we shared tips, challenges, and accomplishments.

Overall, I had a pretty good support network. Many of the people who have been following my work as I was still creating it became my beta readers, and offered to promote my book with their audience. This was not my intention going in, but it’s a pretty sweet side-effect.

Do you feel like you suck at long-term projects?
Here are 6 things that can make your next one a success:

Tweet this!

You can do this if you set yourself up for success.

Not having a powerful vision, a clear action plan, measurable goals, accountability, and support can result in abandoned projects. I’ve been experiencing this kind of project failure for years, until I took this one seriously and decided that this time I’ll do it right.

Now that I know I can accomplish a big project like a book, I feel more confident in tackling other big projects, like a tabletop game, a graphic novel, an illustrated short story collection, an online course, etc. I can’t do all of them at once, but I will do them eventually.

This is really the gist of it. Long-term projects take a long time to complete. I don’t like this because I’m impatient, but this is just the reality I needed to learn to live with.

It doesn’t matter how fast you can accomplish your goal, as long as you accomplish it. Even if it takes you years, it’s still a huge achievement.

Write down your big vision. Find cheerleaders who believe in you. And then, take one step at the time.

In a year or two, we might be celebrating your book, your art show, your music album, your game, or your app. Go forth and give us a reason to celebrate.

Nela

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps small service-based businesses create exceptional client experiences.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...


Your comments

  • Claudine

    Claudine
    2018-07-02 at 01:38

    Oh my goodness Nela! What a coincidence, I started working on a long-term project around the time when you published this post! :O So I am most definitely happy to read this, it is a HUGE booster for me to definitely work on my project! (I'm working on a book too! Nothing too big, just something personal!) Thank you!

  • Nela

    Nela
    2018-07-04 at 04:02

    Ha, that's a truly wonderful coincidence, Claudine :)
    Wishing you lots of inspiration, perseverance, patience, and success with your book!

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