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Motivation is Bull

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Swizzle polycounter lvl 12
I wrote this a while ago in response to a thread about feeling lack of motivation for projects. It seems to be pretty relevant again several months later, so I'm posting it as a standalone post/topic:

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:

1. Understand the scope of what I’m doing

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:

  • Is it a two- or three-piece suit?
  • Is it double or single-breasted?
  • One, two, or three front buttons?
  • Does it have notch, peak, or shawl lapels?
  • What style of pockets does it have?
  • Etc.

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.

2. Understand how to achieve the end result I’m looking for

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:

  • Panel shapes
  • Seam placement
  • Proper fit for specific body types
  • The casual to formal design spectrum
  • Different suit fabrics and materials
  • General suit styles

And each of those things has various sub-items I need to know. For example, here are some items related specifically to suit jackets:

  • Why are suit jacket sleeve panels not made using straight lines?
  • How are the lapels attached to the front panels and collar?
  • Do rear vents overlap, or are they just straight cuts?
  • How the heck do darts work?

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.

3. Try to work in a timely manner, and use deadlines to my advantage

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:

  • You understand how far into that task you are most of the time
  • Knocking out a specific task and calling that part done lets you see your overall progress in much better context
  • You can tell yourself you actually got some shit done instead of procrastinating

If you focus on working for a specific period of time, there are also some good results:

  • You’re going to keep wanting to work if you cut yourself off after a specific time period, and this keeps you from burning out
  • You get a very good idea about what you can accomplish in a set amount of time
  • You start to understand how long the entire project will take if you split it up into similar increments

If you force yourself to work in a timely manner, you’re going to develop good working and scheduling habits as a necessity.

4. Never think about motivation — only think about how I can achieve an end result

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.


  • Brian "Panda" Choi
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    Brian "Panda" Choi high dynamic range
    1 and 3 reminds me of The Martian's ending monologue.

  • Mstankow
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    Mstankow polycounter lvl 7
    Money does make it a lot easier to make art though.
  • Joopson
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    Joopson Polycount Sponsor
    Great post. And I agree, but I also think that feeling a natural motivation (i.e. really wanting to do work, and doing it, despite not having an immediate reason or deadline) can make work a lot more enjoyable. Kind of like a jacket in mid-Autumn. You won't die without it, you can still mostly do what you want, but sometimes, having a jacket would be very nice.

    You need to learn to do 3D when you want to, and when you should do it. Not just when you want to.
  • noliac1
    really good read. still think motivation is important, especially if ya keep getting knocked down and you haven't reached your goals.
  • theonewhoknocks
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    theonewhoknocks polycounter lvl 6
    I agree with Joopson and noliac1. I'm sure most of us listen to music that hypes (motivates?) us to work and focus on a task. I've had that feeling of not being able to solve a problem, and because of that have not been able to complete a project as fast as I would like to, but listening to some music allows me to focus and motivates me to figure it out.
  • Isaiah Sherman
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    Isaiah Sherman polycounter lvl 12
    This is accurate. Thank you for the post :)

    Instead of worrying about motivation, people should worry about discipline.
  • zetheros
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    zetheros polycounter lvl 6
    Totally; motivation is like having a coffee. It'll get you started, but it's a fleeting thing that won't endure.
  • Mehran Khan
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    Mehran Khan polycounter lvl 6
    Rent is the single biggest supply of endless motivation !
  • ZacD
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    ZacD polycounter
    I tried to read the article, but I kept getting distracted by your beard.

    For me, blaming motivation has been a whiny excuse for not doing work. For me, what has killed my work ethic in the past has been fear of failure, making excuses to start over, and feeling stuck. For me, telling myself I need to be disciplined and actually work and finish things has done more than trying to get "inspired" or "motivated". 

    (But honestly I actually read your post, completely accurate)

  • Sugus
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    Sugus polycounter lvl 7
    Great read! Personally I've found that lack of motivation really just means lack of discipline. I'm constantly striving to be more disciplined and efficient, and it's working so far.

    Edit: I agree with Isaiah, didn't see the post! :)
  • Biomag
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    Biomag sublime tool
    The post is for sure a good guideline how to approach a project, but for example my biggest issue isn't the lack of motivation to finish a project. Where I find myself struggling is actually a different kind motivation in the sense of 'what good for is this anyhow?'. That's a question that never rises at work. I get my tasks, I find a way to get them done. For me most of the times it ends up with overtime because its just this detail I want in or that thing fixed or whatever else although the task is already finished - missing a deadline isn't acceptible anyhow. So there is no lack of motivation.

    When it comes to personal projects or maybe more truefully 'undefined' projects things change for me drastically. Why? Because 'as good as it gets' is open ended. The thing I do today, I can re-do tomorrow far better. But with this mindset you never finish. Still you need to (most probably for your portfolio anyways). So big projects like a full character become big construction sites that drag long enough so that you know you could go back an improve whatever you did before. Or put in another day or two for a damn piece of equipment that 99% of people won't even notice, but you expect it to be the reason your application is going to be dismissed. Especially the last part hits me most of the time - not knowning what is expected of my work. Most simple example - if I have to create a character for a top down view on mobile, I have a very clear picture what needs to look perfect and what corners to cut. But with a portfolio character - how about the suspension of those pouches or piece of armor? I know I can hide them, but maybe someone will complain about me being 'lazy' for doing so... and once you start baking the damn thing, you better not have to go back and add/remove parts...

    At the end of the day you still need to finish your portfolio pieces, but the tough part (at least for me) is knowing when it is good enough. I have never ever had a hard time explaining my decisions in my job. Once I know what the priorities of my boss/customer where, planing for those and eventualities that might come up, is easy. I managed to be at least 1-2 steps ahead of any project I was part of. Sitting at home trying to learn stuff while still putting up things that are good enough to be at least looked at on the other hand is a completely different beast. Sure one could say 'just finish things and the next one will be better', but here it comes to time management - you don't want to waste 160+h on a thing that in the end might hurt your stock, while you are looking for a job. A months work that doesn't bring food on the table is a huge loss.

    So like everything in life the basics of a concept are easy to grasp, but to make them come together perfectly this is where it gets difficult :)
  • Jonas Ronnegard
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    Jonas Ronnegard Polycount Sponsor
    I guess everyone is different when it comes to what drives them to work when they don't want to.

    For me money doesn't really work that well when it  comes in the shape of a steady paycheck, I take stuff for granted too easily and getting money every month that doesn't change depending on the work I put in does nothing for my motivation, which is why I don't really fit that well in a studio environment.

    So the best balance for me has been to create stuff that I can sell,  it sells well if I do good work and sell bad If I don't, works great for me and pushes me to finish even when I don't really want to work, because the end product has a much more positive impact for me then a finished asset I did for some random studio where I send it to someone and never see it again.

    I find that when I create something new the first 30% is easily created due to it being a new project and new projects are fun, after that many will hit a wall because the fun factor and newness of the project is gone, and to finish the next 40% you have to push yourself or find a higher motivational booster. when it's work related you will just have to do it and get it done but for personal projects it's easy to give up as no one is expecting you to finish. In my case as written above I love to put use to my art, either as a way to promote myself or the stuff I sell, So I keep that in the back of my head and push on.
    the last 30% you can see the goal and you get to start texturing so usually the last 30% are easily finished at least if you don't get stuck and never call it done.

  • VelvetElvis
  • Sabotage
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    Sabotage polycounter lvl 7

    I recently found this on Dustin Browns site, really great resource to get.shit.done.
  • MaxHoek
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    MaxHoek polycounter lvl 5
    always nice to see that kind of threads for me! Really helps me a lot, also to see that im not alone with this problems but still fighting to reach the goal. 
  • maxivz
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    maxivz interpolator
    Motivation is cow
  • Kroma!
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    Kroma! polycounter lvl 6
    Biomag said:
    At the end of the day you still need to finish your portfolio pieces, but the tough part (at least for me) is knowing when it is good enough.
    So how do you know when something is good enough? When to leave out the ultimately insignificant details? When to move onto the next stage?
  • Biomag
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    Biomag sublime tool
    Kroma! said:
    Biomag said:
    At the end of the day you still need to finish your portfolio pieces, but the tough part (at least for me) is knowing when it is good enough.
    So how do you know when something is good enough? When to leave out the ultimately insignificant details? When to move onto the next stage?
    Honestly? I don't know. I was veeery luckly with my first job. They hired me without art test or real portfolio, just from knowing my work at school. Now I am applying for the first time. Half my stuff is from a game project with friends (so deadlines and team feedback helped a lot) and other half I just finished for the folio, to have something and to get a hang of Substance Painter (meaning main purpose was to learn that tool and to have at least something to show).

    At the moment I am working for the first time on a 100% portfolio piece that won't be interrupted by work or other things so that I should be able to finish it with quality first in mind. It comes down to reaching out for feedback and if there is none some hopefully smart calls on my side when I realize I have to move on. Basically trying to manage time and purpose like on a real project. Do I want to learn something special (like a tool, or practice anatomy or hard surface modelling...) or is it about just getting the work done for the portfolio? Where is the priority of the task at hand? And based on that how much time do I think I can afford at the moment.

    In the end feedback is the biggest help, in the sense of getting at least a 'reality check'. So if you know someone who will take a serious look at your stuff you should reach out. Or you have enough experience with the whole process to make the right decisions yourself (which I personally simply don't have). But I am definitely not the person give here the answer. I can just say what I've been doing for the last 2 months, while having no fucking clue where I am actually standing at the moment - which in fact for me is the whole issue with motivation in the first place :D:D
  • JacqueChoi
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    JacqueChoi interpolator
    This Eulogy Louis CK gave for George Carlin really hit this home for me:

  • Drocho
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    Drocho polycounter lvl 2
    Well, this thread has made me really want to finish something I left half-finished last week. The thing is, I know full well that discipline is more important than motivation, but actually making use of that knowledge requires, well, discipline.
  • Macrow
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    Macrow polycounter lvl 8
    ...That, or you can just turn off the wi-fi while working, so that you stop dipping into porn.
  • lospri
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    lospri polycounter lvl 6
    For the motivation, it may sound stupid but you can find a lot of Motivational Speeches and videos on youtube. It personaly help me a lot when I want so stop but I force myself to continue working :-)
  • VelvetElvis
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    VelvetElvis polycounter lvl 9
    Kroma! said:
    Biomag said:
    At the end of the day you still need to finish your portfolio pieces, but the tough part (at least for me) is knowing when it is good enough.
    So how do you know when something is good enough? When to leave out the ultimately insignificant details? When to move onto the next stage?
    When you are no longer motivated to work on it.
  • Linko
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    Linko polycounter lvl 7
    Using tools that speed up the workflow to get a fast result can help to keep the motivation. For example spending hours for a retopology and uv mapping can be boring and repetitive. I have made a tool that does that automatically (and the baking, shading, painting, all the lod, compositing). I am not here to self promote my work but i think that having a quick game asset in one single click from his high poly ready to get exported in a game engine can help to stay productive.

    The tool is here: http://linko.projects.free.fr/gametools.zip
    An old video, now the tool is much faster it generates a cavity map, fake GI, add dirt, generate a specular and bump map.

  • Kroma!
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    Kroma! polycounter lvl 6
    Thanks for your answer, I think your point about feedback is great. Getting a new perspective and some advice may help to motivate one further and stay focused on what matters.
  • Bunnirobotcat
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    Bunnirobotcat polycounter lvl 6
    Good read. bookmarking this :)
    I often just get burnt out with my personal projects. Discipline is definitely where i lack though to pace myself and realize that its meant for fun and learning. 

    Thanks for the post!
  • WaYWO
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    WaYWO greentooth
    lospri said:
    For the motivation, it may sound stupid but you can find a lot of Motivational Speeches and videos on youtube. It personaly help me a lot when I want so stop but I force myself to continue working :-)
    + 1000 , There are lots, and for the short ones you have automatic play feature. Beside if you Watch TV News you'll be demotivated too, I no longer watch TV because of all the BS you can hear there.
  • WaYWO
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    WaYWO greentooth
    Linko said:
    Using tools that speed up the workflow to get a fast result can help to keep the motivation.

    CREASE+ yay!
  • Chimp
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    Chimp interpolator
    Keep your work space clean and go for walks if you're inclined to stay inside. ALWAYS stick to work hours. If working at home and you haven't got it done by 6pm, stop and close your work and relax, do it in time tomorrow.
  • punchface
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    punchface polycounter lvl 6
    This wouldn't work in the office//studio but at home, I am constantly moving back and forth from work to internet to blow off "boredom steam" and to give myself mental refreshers. I work on my stuff at least a couple of hours a day pretty much every day but probably never more than 10 hours in any given day. One project at a time and I never fucking quit, ever unless I'm absolutely convinced that I've screwed something up so badly that the project isn't salvageable...a thing that hasn't happened in over a year. I'm slow because of the amount of time I spend messing around but I"m steady and I don't quit and I finish.
  • cyborgguineapig
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    cyborgguineapig polycounter lvl 12
    "When you don’t have a setup, there are many times when you get the inspiration, the idea, but you have no tools, no place to put it together. And the idea just sits there and festers. Over time, it will go away. You didn’t fulfill it, and that’s just a heartache"
    - David Lynch

    My excuse is I'm working towards getting myself in the position to be creative again. My current circumstances are not conductive to me wanting to create. For several years I nearly lost ALL of my motivation for art and only recently its been a driving force again. For me not having a physical space in which to make art, or the tools really put a damper on my motivation. I've made some drastic life changes in the past six months, quitting a job that was getting me nowhere to one with health benefits and steady pay and a second one with even more lucrative income and now I'm looking at Jan, Feb of next year to move out of my "less than ideal" roomate situation. Still recovering from the four years at my last job... (shudders) The way I see it, the past five years have been a real reflective period for me with a lot of interesting experiences and growth so I'm using that for now as my motivation for when I get to creative endeavors once again.

  • Dennis Schmidt
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    Dennis Schmidt polycounter lvl 3
    I don't know if this has been said already but motivation is what gets you started and discipline is what keeps you going. :)
  • marimari
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    marimari null
    you people know your stuff, i like i like!
  • Chimp
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    Chimp interpolator
    My current circumstances are not conductive

    It's generally always the case, and whilst I understand you (for example I wasted a full year due to depression and very hard circumstances), ultimately this stuff never ends it just varies in intensity -- whenever you make it, there's always another problem that pops up and throws a spanner in the works. Try to do good work regardless.
  • kanga
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    kanga sublime tool
    I dunno, some years ago I took a year off to tend bar and rediscover the joy of CG. I will never regret that year, it taught me alot I could never learn behind the computer. Never regretted the sabbatical.

  • Cube Republic
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    Cube Republic polycounter lvl 8
    For me its the between projects that suck, especially if I just finish something in zbrush. I find it hard to do anything for a few days when really I should.
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