How to Finish a Stalled Project (Even a Book!)

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It’s funny how so many great projects are sparked by the need to impress a girl…

When I was 28 I was living in Ottawa, and I had a beautiful girlfriend who I was very serious about. She was a foreign student who came to my university from Japan, and we were in the same class. We’d been dating for a few years, and I was about to relocate to her country for an extended stay. But I was embarrassed at the thought of meeting her parents because I felt like I didn’t have anything to offer.

I’d hit a financial low point. I didn’t have any cash in the bank and I wasn’t earning much money. Even worse, I just couldn’t bear the thought of answering the inevitable “What do you do?” by saying “I’m working for a temp agency right now…”

The Real Problem Wasn’t Money, It Was… 

I hadn’t made my mark on the world. And this unwelcome fact of life ate away at me and caused me to feel ashamed and inadequate.

It didn’t help that the way I wanted to make my mark was considered impractical and unrealistic.

I wanted to write.

I believed I had talent. But I would never get anywhere with my chosen profession unless I overcame procrastination and got started on my first book. It was clear the book wasn’t going to write itself.

My vision of the life I wanted to create with my girlfriend provided much of the motivation I needed to put in those long thankless solitary hours at my desk. But I also needed a few tools and rituals to keep the project moving forward…

I’m like most “creative types”. We tend to be dreamers. Motivation alone isn’t enough.

I had really good intentions, too. That summer I sketched out all sorts of notes on tiny pieces of paper. I combed through my journals and got the outline of the book clear in my head. I thought about it all the time. But I never really wrote much of anything down.

The Serendipitous Gift From An Unlikely Source

And then one day someone from the gas company left a large wall calendar in my mailbox. And that changed everything…

As I sat there staring at this calendar on my wall, I realized that if I wrote just 5 pages a day on Monday to Friday, I’d have 25 pages by the end of the week.

Five pages are not that much. But I realized that if I wrote 5 pages a day on every single weekday, I could have 100 pages by the end of a month! In 3 months I would have a complete first draft.

This was the “A-ha” moment I needed to push me over the edge of inertia and give me the momentum to break free of procrastination. It was exactly what I needed to get me on track.

I took that insight, and I did something that might surprise you…

I wrote the entire manuscript longhand, on pads of yellow paper. During every break at my job, I shut myself in my office and worked on my book. When I came home at night I drank a cup of tea and picked up my pen to start writing again. No matter how tired I was or how late I had to stay up, I never let myself go to sleep on a weekday until I had those 5 pages written.

It didn’t matter if all 5 pages were terrible. I did it anyway. Some days when it was flowing really well I wrote 8 or 10 pages, but never less than five. When I was finished for the day I counted them up and wrote the number on my wall calendar, just like Andy Dufresne counting off the days of his sentence in Shawshank. And at the end of each week I totalled up my work so I could see my month’s progress at a glance.

Eight months of procrastination were banished in an instant.

I couldn’t wait to pick up my pen each evening and get back to work. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. I was also reading great books — 50 pages in the morning and 50 pages at night — and filling notebooks with the ideas, images, and phrases they taught me.

Three months later I wrote the final sentence and completed my first draft.

That’s the power of accountability – and it even works when no one else is involved and you’re just being accountable to yourself.

To make this work, you need to start with concrete goals and deadlines, not just abstract expectations or vague promises. Memory is fallible, and it’s easy to believe you’re accomplishing more than you really are just because you’re “working on it.”

You must have your output goal and a deadline for hitting it. It’s a lot like monitoring sales data, or running a split test on your marketing or sales strategies.

A system of accountability gives you a concrete way to track your progress. And it feeds your forward drive when you see those successes pile up.

The deadline is there to back it up. I’d never written a book before, and I had no idea how long it would take, or even how big the thing would turn out to be. I couldn’t set an end date, so I came up with a “process deadline” instead.

For me, it was those 5 pages that had to be finished before I could go to bed each night.

Put those deadlines together with my gas calendar accountability system, and back it up with a strong dose of “build our life together” motivation, and I had an unstoppable system. It will work for you too.

That single-minded writing purpose saturated every moment of my day. And my book, Vagabond Dreams, eventually earned a coveted “red-starred” review in Publisher’s Weekly.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, I did end up marrying the girl 10 years later.

So here are your two tasks:

1)    Spend some time journaling to uncover your deepest motivation — this will carry you through when the going gets tough.

2)    Create a simple system of deadlines and accountability that keeps things moving forward and allows you to track your progress daily.

If you’re trying to write your first book and you’re stalled out — or if you just need to get a project up and running and keep it going to completion — then I urge you to create this system straight away. It works.

There’s just one more thing.

I’ll let you in on one last secret before I sign off…

I wrote this article because I needed to hear those words again too. You see, I’ve been trapped in a period of stagnancy, and I couldn’t quite build the momentum to start. But I did it once. And I will do it again — just like you will.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work on my second book. I have a deadline to meet.

[Ed. Note: Ryan Murdock is the author of Personal Freedom: A Guide to Creating the Life of Your Dreams. When not helping people find their own brand of personal freedom, Ryan travels the world’s marginal places as Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost magazine. He recently released his first travel book, called Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America.]

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  • Zarayna Pradyer

    How good of you, Ryan, to share your experiences – thank you. I did giggle that your primary motivation to write was to be a success and impress your girl but how wonderful that this turned out to be a genuine relationship. To be frank, whenever I claim an altruistic motive to write I come across as grossly pompous or dictatorial but if a subject genuinely appeals to, say, my humour, my writing is far more successful. By the way, whenever I get something like writer’s block, I follow Dorothea Brande’s (hope I have the right name) advice and scribble down all and every thought – stream of meaningless consciousness stuff – which can then be discarded. It’s like covering a blank canvas with a light wash of paint just to break ‘the terror of nothingness’. Thank you again – please accept my kind regards.

    • ttcert

      Thanks, I’ll pass this on!

    • Thanks very much for your kind words Zarayna. I agree, sharing your honest, most deeply human motivation for why you do what you do is compelling for people, and it will get them engaged. They can relate to it, because they feel that way too. This is important for any type of communication, whether you’re writing a broadcast email for your list, or a blog. Thanks for the excellent writers-block tip!

      • ttcert

        Thanks Ryan!