Facing Your Project UFOs

For many of us, the term UFO conjures images of disk-shaped alien space craft with blinking lights and eerie music, but for creative makers, we have a different use for this acronym—Un-Finished Object. A creative UFO is a different critter from the other acronym WIPs, or Works In Progress. A WIP is something you’re actively working on—you know where you’re going, and you have some momentum. But for project UFOs, well, there might actually be some mystery and eerie music involved.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my own practice of rebuilding momentum in the creative process and wanted to assemble some tips and tricks for transforming project UFOs into accomplishments you can celebrate. Let’s break down what turns a WIP into a UFO as well as ways to disrupt that cycle and transform languishing projects into completed objects.

To start, it’s helpful to acknowledge that the creative process is cyclical. Enthusiasm for a piece will naturally ebb and flow, and this is not related to laziness (though we might project this self-image onto the work). Enthusiasm for a piece tends to be in the early phases (think of this as your honeymoon with your project) that gradually fades as the “grind” of the work towards completion sets in. That fading can cause us to set down a project and simply not pick it back up again.

This is where I hear my students lament that they have to finish a piece in class or it never gets finished at all—they need the accountability of the group setting to carry them through the grind to the finish line. If you see yourself in that statement, find a few friends who also feel this way and set up an accountability group. Zoom together and work on your pieces, so you have designated time for your WIPs—encouraging each other and celebrating the wins along the way. This can also be a great way to guide you through bumps if you can help each other troubleshoot problems that arise in your work.

The bumps that appear on the journey of creating are another way that WIPs get derailed. You’ve put it in and taken it out so many times, you’re frustrated, the directions make no sense, you can’t see a way forward, and the project goes in the bag and into the closet. And it’s still there. You know it’s there. Know it’s there and being ignored doesn’t help your sense of ability because you gave up on it. You gave up on the project because you couldn’t make it work and that feels like (whether you’re ready to openly admit it or not) you’ve given up on a little part of yourself. This cycle goes round and round until it feels insurmountable to ever get back on that horse again. I’ve been there! Stop, take a breath, and step outside that gnawing circle for a minute.

Be kind to yourself. All creatives hit snags. Instead of this piece being a tool for inflicting emotional pain, see it as an invitation to find an ally to help you through the sticking point. Or you could see it as project archaeology, a window into a former you. What’s going on in this bag? What was happening here, and how can I restore it? If that project has been languishing for quite some time, it may take some deciphering to figure out where you were. Be curious about it, rather than judgmental, and see about picking up the pieces.

Another important step for revitalizing abandoned projects is to unlearn unhelpful ways of thinking. Here are some toxic notions to let go about finishing projects:

“I won’t start a new project until I get this one done.”

Working in strict series is not mindful of the creative process, which is cyclical. It’s a sure-fire way to block yourself creatively. Our brains need the spark of novelty, and starting a new project may be the umph we need in that moment. Your mind can handle more than one project at once, trust me. Creative variety never hurt anyone.

“I’ll wait until I feel like it.”

Oh boy, then you’ll be waiting a long time! Experienced creatives know that waiting for inspiration or motivation to arrive gets nowhere. Instead, start some good habits around making. This might be a good place for the group of friends that meet (safely) to work on projects or designating some wind-down time in the evening or early in the morning before the day starts specifically for WIPs.

“I don’t have enough time right now.”

The dream that somehow you’ll suddenly have a large chunk of time appear for a project is…well…probably just a dream. If you do want to tackle some of your UFOs, then it’s about making time. Pandemic quarantine has certainly been an invitation for new time management!

Clearing out some of your creative UFOs can be exhilarating! Just like how clearing out the clutter in a room can help you feel free and at ease, reworking those abandoned projects and enjoying them in their completed form can help your own sense of ease and accomplishment. Amidst the grinding, dulling apathy that is settling in from this long pandemic, challenging yourself to face off with some of your project UFOs might be just the right creative medicine at this time. Time for me to tackle one myself! See you down on the farm sometime.