I’ve been working on a memoir for the past year or so. Immersing myself in it brings me a deep sense of fulfillment; it lets me flex my less-exercised literary writing muscles and tell a story I hold close to my heart. And yet — I’ve managed to eke out only a few chapters. I work in fits and starts, stealing an hour here and there outside of my journalism assignments. Why do I breeze through my bread and butter work but can't seem to stop procrastinating on my passion project?
I’m not alone in this. My writer friends have puttered on their longform pieces too, and my partner’s illustrated storytelling project has been sitting on the back burner for a few years now. Maybe you’ve put off working on your graphic novel or launching your Etsy store. We stall on these endeavors due to a combination of factors, beyond not having the rigid deadline of a work project, including perfectionism and a struggle to set aside time, sometimes because we don’t feel worthy of it, according to Karen Rose, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist.
Fear lies at the root of why many passion projects have yet to see the light of day. In some cases, the fear of finishing, and what that would mean, can send us into a spiral of self-doubt. We might think to ourselves, “if I start, I have to finish, and if I finish I have to make it public,” Rose says. “What if no one likes it? What if no one likes me?” We worry about lacking the creativity or skills to produce something not only good, but good enough — and since “good enough” is a hazy, imaginary concept, it can paralyze us from starting our passion projects at all.
And of course, day-to-day demands like working enough to pay rent and student loans, can eat up the time we’d otherwise spend on our passion projects, Rose says. Plus, not everyone has the privilege to devote time to unpaid work. Some of us, myself included, may also feel unworthy of spending time doing what we love. Whenever I have a spare moment, free of any pressing deadlines, I feel guilty dedicating it to my memoir, and think of all the tasks I “should” be doing instead.
The good news is, identifying and overcoming these mental ruts can help you finally complete your passion project. Here’s some advice on how to do so, drawn from Rose’s insight, as well as what’s nudged me to make progress on my memoir.
Build a support network
A therapist can help you transcend self-doubt, but so can accountability partners — people who share your mission, and perhaps believe in you more than you believe in yourself, Rose says. A few months ago, I joined the Writers Grotto, a writing community in San Francisco, whose members have not only encouraged me to keep working on my memoir when I’ve found myself stuck, but periodically ask me how it’s going, holding me to accountable to them.
By the same token, Rose suggests limiting the time you spend with people who don’t believe in you or your mission. Unfortunately, that may include family (say, the uncle who asks why you’re not a software engineer, and how you’ll ever pay off your student loans as a writer).
Don’t consider “can’t” an option
You might find yourself wrestling with voices, internal and external, saying you can’t possibly pull off your passion project. Rather than spending precious energy debating whether you can or can’t do it, focus on how you’ll do it, Rose says. Take “can’t” off the table altogether.
Just spit it out
Instead of mulling over whether what you produce will be “good enough,” let go of this false standard altogether. Just start, and see what happens, and remind yourself that whatever you produce is just a draft of sorts. “Getting things from the inside to the outside is the most important,” Rose says.
Indeed, I spent months outlining my memoir. After admitting to myself that I was outlining to avoid actually writing the thing, I let my inner critic exist — but this time without letting her run the show — and per my Grotto colleagues' suggestion, began jotting down scenes at random.
Once I let go of a certain expectation of an outcome, I saw connective threads that had remained invisible until then and realized the story I truly wanted to tell was different from the one I had initially set out to write.
Work with your creative energy
If, like me, you find yourself too mentally drained from spending hours on your paid work to dive headlong into your passion project afterward, Rose suggests taking a cue from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, and setting aside an hour in the morning each day, or alternately, a few hours in the morning on a weekend. Working on your passion project in the morning ensures you’ll have ample creative bandwidth to make progress on it.
Figure out the natural ebb and flow of your creative energy, and schedule your passion project work accordingly.
Prefer to work at night, like Rose? Whatever the case, figure out the natural ebb and flow of your creative energy, and schedule your passion project work accordingly. Again, see what happens during that time. If you produce something, great, but if not, that’s okay, too.
Sign up for a class
If you crave structure, and you have the means, sign up for a class where you can work on your passion project. By its very nature, a class forces you to focus solely on your project on a regular basis, among other people with similar goals.
“It’s more productive because it’s dedicated time,” Rose says. There are no kids playing in the background, no dirty clothes sitting in a pile waiting to be laundered. A few months ago, I signed up for a beginning memoir class at The Grotto, whose assignments included drafting scenes, which I might not have written otherwise, and I recently signed up for an advanced memoir class to further push me to produce material.
Protect your time
Whatever block of time you set aside for your passion project each day or week, don’t let others interfere with it, Rose says. Honor your commitment to yourself, and treat it as non-negotiable. If a friend you haven’t seen in a while wants to hang out during that window, schedule to see them another time.
Spend some time away
If you have the means, apply for an artist’s residency, or book a long weekend in an Airbnb to work on your passion project, away from chores, kids, and the like. And don’t feel like you have to finish it during that time, Rose says. Again, just see what happens.
Take advantage of interstitial time
As much as all of us would love to spend hours on end, uninterrupted, on our passion projects, my Grotto colleague, author Vanessa Hua, points out in the San Francisco Chronicle that some of us may only have “interstitial time” — snatches of time between our daily obligations.
Rather than devoting time to your project only when you have at least two hours at your desk, learn to be flexible and work where and when you can.
While an hour here and there may not seem like enough time to make much headway, these snippets do add up. Hua talks about dictating notes into her phone during grocery trips and a mentor who worked on part of her book at her daughter’s basketball game. Rather than devoting time to your project only when you have at least two hours at your desk, surrounded by scented candles, a mug of piping hot coffee within reach, learn to be flexible and work where and when you can.
Imagine yourself as another person — and prioritize them
Maybe giving yourself permission to delve into a passion project feels indulgent, like it has for me. Especially if you find it easier to prioritize others’ needs over your own, imagine yourself as another person, Rose suggests. Say this person set aside Saturday morning to work on their project, and their friend needed a ride to the airport at that time; would you force them to drive their friend, or suggest their friend ask someone else? “What happens if I step outside my body?” Rose suggests asking yourself. “How would I treat this other person who is me?”
After talking to Rose, I realized that my struggle to gain momentum on my memoir stems largely from my reluctance to prioritize myself, which goes completely against what I’ve been taught to do as a woman, especially as a woman of color. Imagining myself as someone else will hopefully trick me into doing otherwise. Plus, I think my story will resonate with others who grew up believing they had to make themselves small, and I owe it to them to write it. You owe it to yourself, and the world, to complete your project, too.