One of the most common questions I see in art and design communities comes from beginning artists who want to know:
How do I stay motivated?
I suspect this question comes up so often because many people approach art — even commercial art that’s meant to be sold as a product — as an emotional exercise. People get emotionally invested in the creative work they do, especially if it uses a skill that required intense practice to achieve proficiency. With that emotional investment, it becomes difficult to finish projects when you lose the initial passion for them after a few days of work, or when you face a problem that seems insurmountable. It’s hard to stick with it when you’re no longer in love.
Everybody has trouble finishing projects. Hell, I have about four projects right now that I’m completely neglecting, and I’ve been in a constant state of ignoring roughly four projects at a time for the past decade. That said, I’m still able to finish things if I decide to focus my time and energy on them. This is a skill I had to develop while working as an artist at home, at school, and eventually at work. It’s a learned skill and it takes practice, but it’s also easy to start making small changes that will lead you to being more able to consistently finish things you start.
Here’s what I do if I want to start a project, maintain the energy to see it through, and push through the last 10% that takes 90% of the work:
If I have a very large or very involved project, I try to figure out exactly how it needs to look and function once it’s finished, and I do this before I even start working. I ask myself a lot of simple questions about the project, and try to always come up with concrete answers that provide a way forward if I ever lose track of what I’m doing.
I recently made a 3D character model of a guy wearing a business suit. The character’s head and hands were already finished, but I needed to know exactly what his outfit should look like. I started doing research on suits and then asked a series of questions that I knew had very definite answers:
These are all simple questions I can get concrete answers to, whether I’m working with a client or making something for myself. Once I have the answers to simple and definite questions, I can start using them as points to check off a list of things I have or have not accomplished.
If I don’t know how to do something that’s absolutely necessary to finishing a project, there’s a good chance I’m never going to finish what I set out to do unless I take time out to learn. The only chance I have of finishing something is to make learning that thing a part of the process.
Let’s take the suit guy from above as an example.
If I’m trying to make a believable model of a guy in a suit, I need to understand a few things about how suits are put together:
And each of those things has various sub-items I need to know. For example, here are some items related specifically to suit jackets:
For every potential problem area in a final product, I write a list of things that are going to give me trouble. I can then use this list as a basis for doing research on how to solve those problems. I use lists like this for all kinds of problems, especially when it comes to things I don’t have much experience with.
Having a list of problems I’ve solved serves as a reminder to myself that I’m getting stuff done, and it shows me where I am in the process.
I find working under pressure is the best time to get good work done. Time pressure forces me to do the best I can in an allotted period, and this allows me to objectively judge how well I’ve done because I always have measurable progress.
If you’re working on a personal project without deadlines, you can still get stuff done by either focusing on a specific task or by forcing yourself to work for a specific amount of time.
If you focus on a specific task there are some great results:
If you focus on working for a specific period of time, there are also some good results:
If you force yourself to work in a timely manner, you’re going to develop good working and scheduling habits as a necessity.
Finishing projects is not a problem with “motivation” because motivation is a bullshit way of saying “I have a reason to do a thing.”
If I say I’m not motivated, what I’m actually saying is that I don’t know how to do something and that feeling is discouraging. However, it’s absolutely possible to push that feeling aside if I approach problems from an analytical point of view, and try to understand the problems I’m facing.
Once I understand problems, I can formulate solutions.
Once I formulate solutions, I can take the time to work on them.
Once I take the time to work on them, I’ll see the problems become a series of checked boxes on my list.
By approaching problems as a set of questions I can answer through knowledge, practice, and simple inquiry, motivation becomes irrelevant.