The Art of Completion

Kyle Smith

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Are You Distracted?

You've got to get yourself together

You've got stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it

—U2, “Stuck in a Moment”

One of my favorite moments from the 2009 Pixar movie Up takes place when the main character, the elderly Carl Fredrickson, and his sidekick Russell land in South America. Carl and his late wife had always dreamed of visiting Paradise Falls, and how Carl and Russell were finally there. Their first encounter is with Dug, a Golden Retreiver who can speak with the aid of a voice box.

As Dug is talking Carl and Russell, he suddenly stops and yells, “Squirrel!” It’s a great scene not only because of its comedic timing, but because it reminds us of a universal truth:

We all get distracted by squirrels.

A “squirrel” is anything that keeps you from finishing your most important creative projects. It’s the attitudes, habits, and actions that keep us from doing our best work.

You may be a writer, musician, graphic artist, speaker, or do some other kind of creative work. We may do different kinds of work, but we all face the same challenge: choosing from the overwhelming ways to spend our time, and finishing the projects that matter most.

Let me ask you a few questions:

· Do you have too many commitments, too much stress and not enough time?

· Do you have lots of great ideas but feel overwhelmed because you can’t decide which ones to pursue?

· Do you ever get frustrated at yourself because you can’t seem to finish anything you start?

· Have you ever felt like there was a mysterious “glass ceiling” between you and the success you want, but you can’t figure out how to break through it?

· Have you ever felt “this close” to giving up on the whole creative endeavor because it’s just too hard?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’re in the right place. I feel your pain because I have been there (I’m still there much of the time!)

Three Key Problems

There are three key problems that keep you from completing your key creative projects:

1. You have too much going on.

It’s a perpetual problem in our modern world that we have too much happening. We’re all overcommitted, it seems. Most of us have day jobs, families, church and community involvement, and social obligations. And if you’re trying do creative work and build a business on top of that, it’s all the more difficult.

Perhaps you can relate to this. In March 2013 I decided to start a podcast called “The Artist’s Suitcase.” It was based on the name of my blog at that time, ArtistsSuitcase.com. I spent countless hours learning how to organize, record, edit and publish a podcast. After I launched the podcast, each weekly episode took at least 8-10 hours from start to finish (including writing, interviewing, editing, etc.)

This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I was also writing regular blog posts and occasional guest posts, creating an ebook and audiobook, organizing a Kindle book series unrelated to my blog, and creating an entire online Evernote course. And oh yeah, I had a day job as well.

I had way too many things going on at once. I couldn’t decide which of these to focus on, so I stumbled forward, not doing any of them very well.

Can you relate?

2. You’re constantly distracted.

It’s difficult to do meaningful work when you face constant distraction from your electronic devices. You can only do your best work when you are able to enter into periods of sustained focus and attention.

3. You’re afraid to put your work out there for the world to see.

This is really the core reason why we don’t finish more great work. We’re simply afraid—afraid of what others might think, afraid it won’t be good enough, afraid to be disappointed. Fear can be a powerful ally, but it can also be a terrible taskmaster.

These three issues—overcommitment, distraction, and fear—are the main reasons why it’s hard to finish your most important work. Let’s take a look at each one, and then consider some solutions.

How to Choose the Right Projects

We all know we must prioritize our projects and focus on those that can make the biggest difference. How do you know which ones deserve the highest priority? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Choose projects you’re truly passionate about.

I once invested a sizable amount of money into a side business I thought would give me a great return. I had friends who were making the equivalent of a full-time income within a year after joining. But a few weeks after joining the company, I realized I had made a huge mistake and the business was probably going to be a huge failure.

The reason? I wasn’t passionate about the company. I loved the products, but I didn’t want to be a salesman. I had only joined because I thought it would be a good way to quickly make a side income. I underestimated the time and skills it would require, and didn’t consider whether it meshed with my interests and personality. (Dumb mistake, I know. Lesson learned.)

Don’t pursue a creative project just because you think it will help you make money or give you a shortcut to success. It will only be a dead end. Spend your time on the projects that are closest to your heart.

2. Choose projects that will help you achieve your goals.

This is a good time to revisit your goals. What are you trying to accomplish? If you’re trying to build an audience and start a business, only focus on the things that will move you closer to the goal.

The nature of creative people is that they constantly have new ideas, and get easily bored with old ones. But you can’t get distracted by “squirrels” that aren’t going to help you achieve your goals.

3. Choose projects that will help people.

You might have a great ideas for a book, website, course, podcast, or some other type of content. But if it doesn’t meet a practical need of some kind, or provide some kind of value for your audience, it won’t get very far.

This is important especially if you’re trying to build an income through your creative work. Make sure your creative work brings value to people, whether it’s bringing joy and pleasure, or addressing a pain or problem of some kind.

4. Choose projects your audience is asking for.

Do you have a blog, an email list, or followers/fans on social media? Then you have an audience. You may have already gotten feedback from people about something they would like you to do. If so, that’s a great clue to your future direction.

If not, put together a survey and ask a few questions about their interests, frustrations, and what type of products they would like to see. You might be surprised at the results.

Even if you don’t have an audience, you have a potential audience. Think about the type of person you’re trying to reach with your art or creative work. Start with a few people who fit that profile and ask them what their biggest problems are in the area of your creative work. You will likely get some great feedback that will point to potential projects that meet people’s needs.

What happens when have projects you’re working on that don’t meet these criteria? Think long and hard about whether you should continue to invest time, money or energy into these projects. It’s hard to kill your darlings, but sometimes you need to make hard decisions about how to invest your time and resources.

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I write about writing, productivity, and creativity.

St. Louis, MO
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