Ihave a bookshelf dedicated to notebooks. They’re filled with journal entries and endless lists, but also with half-formed ideas – for creative projects, short stories and novels. I currently have 432 saved notes on my phone, some for ancient shopping lists but others that I wrote on the bus or late at night in a burst of inspiration. Many of them make little sense to me now.
If you’ve tried to create something, this may sound familiar. You may also have bulging notebooks and middle-of-the-night scribbles on scraps of paper, perhaps sketchbooks too. Because for a lot of creative students, coming up with ideas isn’t the problem. It’s finishing them.
I have always wanted to be an author; as a child I spent every spare moment writing short stories and poems. When I became a journalism student, I found myself giving less and less time to this passion. I started a few things but they’d end up gathering dust in my drafts folder.
It was only after graduating, when working in a marketing job, that I decided to dedicate time to my writing again. I was determined to finish something. I realised that if this was going to happen, I had to free up some space.
I set my alarm an hour earlier to write before work. I took my laptop in to the office, so I could sneak in some writing sessions in my lunch break. My weekends were quickly consumed by this new project.
Sometimes I turned down social events so I could spend more time staring at a computer. But I kept in mind those old notebooks. I didn’t want this to be just another idea filed away on a shelf.
A lot of creative projects – making a film, completing a photography series or writing a novel – take a really long time. That commitment is intimidating and the fear of failure can stifle your creativity.
I found it helped to split my long-term goal (finishing my novel) into smaller ones. I set myself daily word targets and established a very simple reward system, drawing a star on a piece of paper for every 1,000 words I wrote. It sounds a bit mad that something so basic could be a good motivator, but just seeing those growing rows of stars made me feel like I was progressing.
I am incredibly lucky that the project I finished has become my first novel and is being published around the world. But that wasn’t why I did it. I did it because I was struck with an idea I felt strongly about. And I wanted to show myself that I could push through the hard moments for the sense of achievement that I hoped would come with completion.
Getting to the end of the job was even better than graduating from university. Because it was something I had for myself.
If you have an idea that you’ve been sitting on for a while or that niggles at you and won’t go away, my advice would be to grab hold of it and get to work. Make the time. Break your bigger goal into smaller chunks. Tell yourself that this time you will complete it. And you never know where your idea might take you.
How to see your idea through
- Be clear at the start about your aim. Having this clearly pictured in your mind might help when you’re struggling. I knew I was working towards a completed manuscript and wouldn’t be satisfied until I wrote “The End”.
- Tell other people you’re doing it. At first, I was reluctant to tell friends and colleagues I was writing a book. But it became an important part of promising myself I would finish. It felt more real when my friends asked how I was doing.
- Reward yourself when you hit a milestone. You might need something more than a star chart to motivate you. I like to add biscuits – but whatever works for you.
- Build a routine. I’m a morning person, so I set my alarm an hour earlier, but you might put aside time at the end of each day. Be practical about it – actually block out time on your calendar and turn off your phone.
- Learn to say no. If you really want to make your project a priority, sometimes you need to say no to an evening with friends.
- Know when to stop. This can be the hardest step of all, especially without a deadline. When it’s something you’ve created yourself, there are always little tweaks to make – you could keep going forever. At some point you have to learn to stop and say “this is enough”.