Learning to Finish A Giant Project

I have always been very good at starting projects. My digital archives are littered with dozens and dozens of half-started stories, poems, and other projects. It became a pattern: have an idea, start writing it down, get anxious or depressed about it and stop. It felt like I couldn’t finish anything.

Obviously, I finished some things, otherwise I would never have gained GCSEs and A-Levels or graduated university. Under pressure or with a deadline, I was clearly capable of finishing things. You can’t really get through life without being at least a little capable of it. Sure I struggled a lot, but I still did it. When it came to things I did for myself, however, I couldn’t finish them.

Occasionally something would get through, but the internet is riddled with my fanfiction series that peter out at chapter 3 or 4. I’m definitely not alone in this either – there’s a reason you can filter by ‘completed only’ on AO3 and other such archives. I haven’t just done this with writing projects either.

So…what do you do when you’re stuck like that?

Finish Something Small

Put aside the novel you’re trying to write, the giant project you’re trying to finish, the huge pile of something that’s so terrifying you get nauseous every time you so much as think about it. Ignore that for now. Yes, really.

Now pick up something small. Something you can do in half an hour. There’s that cupboard in the kitchen you’ve been meaning to sort – that’s a good target. Make a list of precisely everything you’ll need to do in order to complete that project. I don’t care if it’s stupid. I don’t care if your list reads 1. Walk down to the kitchen. That’s good. Make it that small.

Now do one bit. Then the next. Then the next. Think of it like strength training. Each of these steps is a rep for the weight you’re learning to lift. You don’t need to think about the entire project at once: you just need to think about that next step. Walked to the kitchen? Open the cupboard. Opened the cupboard? Take out the unsorted tupperware. Just one step at a time.

I promise, before you know it you’ll have cleaned the cupboard out, resorted the tupperware, and you can feel accomplished. Granted within a week it’ll be a mess again, but that’s not the point. The point is you did something. Bask in that feeling of triumph. Take a break. Tomorrow, go and do another small project. Keep doing this. Just keep swimming.

Finish Something Big

I got good at completing small projects by breaking them down. I practised it a lot, and eventually got the hang of it. But doing a big project was still beyond me. I knew I had to take a leap into doing it, but it was terrifying. I needed to just go for it.

My turning point was four years ago. I had just started my volunteering job, and I was given my First Big Project. I was incredibly excited when I was drafting it, and sure enough, about three weeks in I wanted to quit.

I hated everything about it. I wished I’d never picked the topic I had. I wanted to burn it and run away and stop. I kept thinking how stupid I was to imagine that I could finish it. I needed to go back to those small projects and never leave them.

But something else happened: I kept working on it. I broke it down, just like I had with the smaller projects – and in the weeks where I hated it most, just did a little bit every day. Just two or three small things. I kept going, and going, and suddenly…I was nearly done.

I remember the moment I realised that I had almost finished very vividly, because I was so overwhelmed by it that I had a minor panic attack. I was crying with relief, hyperventilating, so overwhelmed by the fact that I had finished this project which took months and months. The pride I felt in myself was so powerful, and unlike any pride I had ever felt before – and this was just for a volunteer job.

There are a number of things in my life that gave me the power to write and publish a novel, and that moment is one of them. That moment proved to me that I could.

Keep Finishing Things

Practice, practice, practice.

It might seem odd to say that finishing projects is something you need to practice, but it really is. Remember to think of it like a muscle. You can’t just immediately bench press 150kg. You’re going to have to work up to it – and then when you’re able to, you’re still going to have to keep practising in order to maintain that muscle strength. Finishing projects is exactly the same. You’ve got to keep doing it, to maintain that discipline and determination.

Which is exactly why you should never, ever feel guilty for the times you tried to do something huge and couldn’t manage it. The chances are you were just trying to lift too heavy a weight, too soon.

You have to keep going. This is why the fact that I just spent several months writing a 4-day long LRP event isn’t a detriment to my novel-writing progress, it’s a bonus. Because it has reminded me, a year into writing this book, that I’m capable of finishing things. That I’m not far from the end, and that I can do it, just like I finished writing the event.

It’s why things like Nanowrimo are so good. I’ve written before about the difference Nanowrimo made in teaching me to write habitually. This is just another form of finishing a project one step at a time.

It can be hard to see those steps when you’re writing, which is why it’s all the more important to remind yourself that they’re still there. You might not be able to see them every second, but they’re there. Each word, each sentence, each paragraph is a step.

And you know you can take them. You know, because you’ve done this before. You can do it again. The more you practice, the more proof you get to wave in the face of your doubts and fears.

So go. Go clean your tupperware cupboard out. Go lift that metaphorical weight. You can do it, and I believe in you.

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