How to Stay Motivated in Creative Projects (ft. Progress Bars)

If you’re a Millennial like me, you’d remember a time when downloading anything took forever. Downloading music, downloading tv shows, and downloading movies. Computers weren’t that powerful back then, the bandwidth — if it wasn’t still connected by dial up — was overall pretty weak. Occasionally, a large file, like an HD movie, would take hours if not days to complete. 

I would sit at the computer and stare at the progress bar and watch it slowly edge along, telling me how many percent was left and how many kilobytes it was receiving per second. Looking back, I wonder how many cumulative hours I’ve spent sitting there watching that bar. Now and then, it would move so slowly that I would have to put my mouse cursor right by the edge just so I could see if it was actually moving, even by a pixel. It’s an old technique, you can use it too. 

The most infirurating part, which happened more often than not, is when the download would be going really fast, reach 98% and then… stop… I felt so helpless. Still, I was always grateful for the existence of that progress bar, because even though it was sometimes glitchy and inaccurate, it kept me from canceling my download. 

A progress bar is a good design. It helps you see how much has been done and how much is left to do. It works brilliantly for downloading software, but progress bars work for other things in life too. If you are painting a room, the progress bar is the paint on your wall. When you are reading a book, it’s the proximity of your bookmark to the back cover. These are things that tell us, “Great job! You’re doing it! Keep going!” 

Progress bar

But what about things that don’t inherently have progress bars? For example, writing a book. Writing a book is a multi-step task that doesn’t have a clear progression. Is finishing the outline 1% or 2% of the project? Is finishing the first draft 50% done? You don’t know. With creative projects, you can often feel as though you — like my download — went really fast at the beginning and then got stuck at 98% complete. You’ve been at 98% complete for months now on that novel. What the hell!? 

While progress bars are great for measuring projects with completions, creative projects aren’t always clear, especially if they are more personal projects, so you as the creator gets to decide where the end is. And to avoid ending up stuck at 98% for infinity, it’s good to create this progress bar from the very start of your project. Actually draw out where the 25% line, where’s the 50% line and where is the finish line is. 

For example, let’s say you are working on a novel. Great! You could just start writing and see where it all ends up, but God knows where that will take you. Instead let’s break it down. We can even do that with the different stages. 

Outlining: Outline 1st act will get me to 25%, Outline 2nd act will get me to 50%, Outline 3rd act will get me to 75%, and reviewing it 3 times will allow me to complete the outlining stage. 

Progress bar for outlining is filled. Then we can move to Drafting. 

Drafting: Writing the 1st act will get me to 25%, act 2 will get me to 50% and so on like that. 

Then there is Editing, Publishing, and Marketing. All these sections can have their own progress bars. So even when your larger progress bar feels like it’s stuck on 98%, you can look down at these smaller ones and see what actually needs to be done and work on it until you can reach the next milestones. 

Whenever you are stuck on a project or feel unmotivated to continue, think of your task in relation to a progress bar. If you at least know where you are going, then when your work and effort are only delivering minuscule improvements, 0.001% of progress each day, at least you know you are still on the right track and that, even though you may be stuck at 98%, you know you’re not completely frozen, and progress is still happening. 

We live in a time where a lot of things are instantaneous! Tv shows, movies, and music to name a few. I haven’t downloaded anything that took over a few minutes in years. Yet, creating meaningful work still takes time and the results might not be visible if you’ve been staring at the progress bar for so long. But as long as you keep moving towards the next percentage point, as long as you know where that is, then eventually, you will be done. 

Keep going! Before you hit cancel, look at the progress bar. It might not look like it each and every day, but you are making progress. 

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only works that I’m most proud of.

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