Whatever is about to come next is as much a reminder to myself as it is a commentary on creativity. If you're reading this, chances are you have come up against a late project creative block before, perhaps you are even in the middle of one now.
For me, it always happens at the 80% mark. The freight train is locomotioning along, whistle tooting, and then it’s not.
The 80% mark is the “later” where I left all the bits I couldn’t deal with while I was on a roll. It’s the moment the pressure to finish sets in, my changes don’t seem to make any difference, I start to doubt myself, feel stressed and uncreative and I can start feeling the project isn’t all I was dreaming it would be. Despite a massive uptake in coffee, I actually slow down. At this point if there is no external force making me go on, I might even stop altogether.
So, if it’s happening consistently, it’s not the project, it’s me, right? Am I insanely doing the same thing over and expecting different results? Turns out this is a failure of perspective and logic and reframing the situation to fit reality goes a long way to solving the issue.
First, how did I arrive at the figure 80%? Well, I took what I perceived to be the rate of progress, and extrapolated out how much more time there is left at that rate. But we are only ambitious primates, we have terrible intuitions about how to do these sorts of calculations.
The realisation I have come to after much retrospection, introspection, speculation and a dash of science, is that I begin with an inflated sense of progress because the changes I make early on make a comparatively large perceived difference to the project. I thought it best to represent this with a bit of colour.
Along the left are the tasks that make up any given edit proportionate to the actual time it takes to execute them. The lines on the graph extend from the task to the perceived sense of progress ( for me at least ). In an ideal world the lines would extend out horizontally... Having been an editor, painter, game developer and blog writer, for me at least, the formula is interchangeable. It falls into 5 stages
Stage one ends when you have a decent outline down, an under-drawing for a painting, a mechanic and basic level structure for a game, or an interview assemble for a film. Almost nothing that’s down-on-paper at this stage will be visible in the final work. This actually takes about 25% of our actual time but we perceive it as about 10%, because much of the work ( planning, sketching, dreaming up the concept ) we count in the “I haven’t started yet” category.
The next stage takes us to a thrown-together stage. An underpainting, or a playable demo, or an assemble in a film that incorporates interview and images. Right now we are rocketing away. Though we’ve only spent another 20% of the time, we have increased our perceived progress by 40%. This is the difference images make.
The next stage takes us to the dreaded 80% at this point we are still feeling really good. A real investment of about 10% of the actual time, gives us perceived progress of 30%. Now you have something watchable, you can show it to others, it has a number of scenes or graphics or details that you’re already proud of. The end seems so close.
This brings us to our dilemma. This stage represents 20% of the actual progress but only gives us a perceived progress of 1-2%, and often during this time we feel like we’re going backwards. We were expecting to be refining the cut, imbuing our characters with humanity, designing really cool weapons. But we’ve shown it to people now… and it turns out there are some major issues. At this point the painter can conveniently jump ship and call “non finito” but the filmmaker, writer and game developer are not so lucky.
We are also becoming, at this stage, more cognisant of the fairly lengthy finishing process that comes after we are happy with the cut ( in the case of editing ). So, in this respect, the goal posts move.
The problem with this perceived lack of progress is it is very demotivating, and can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here we have 20% of the work to do, but without the payoff and feeling of achievement, we slow down even further. This is where it is most important to persevere, and not give in to the temptation to wait it out, or worse give up. No solution is going to land in your lap and conversely your creative project is also not doomed.
I have known through experience that charging on through this process has always been the solution, and now I understand why; because the lack of progress is only perceived, every hour you put in at this stage is just as productive as any other hour you put into the project.
This is where it pays off. You almost don’t see it coming but finally you get to the point where you are doing that refining and suddenly everything gets easy. Up until now you have been balancing big picture and detail, this is very mentally taxing. It makes you distracted, anxious, confused and doubtful and these feelings have been amplified in the previous stage. Now, you can almost drop the big picture thinking altogether. You are back to a world of detail, where you can make black and white decisions about minutia without having to worry that you're tearing your story apart. You can assess whether a change has made something better or worse, immediately, and with a certain degree of certainty.
So what’s my advice? Well, obviously “Don’t do that” is the simple message. Best start by recognising that you are not at 80%, you are just over 50%, so you better get to work. It’s certainly what I endeavour to achieve.
But it’s not that simple is it? You’re fighting your biology here, your inability to predict intuitively, your growing cortisol levels brought on by looming deadlines, your awareness of future tasks you might not have foreseen. And during this, you have to do some of the most difficult and unrewarding creative work you’ve ever done.
I’ve been consuming a lot of media lately that talks about being kind to yourself, about positive self-talk, and there is definitely something to that during these times. By being kind I don’t mean, going to the refrigerator to eat hummus out of the container, or taking some “me time” on Facebook. I mean accepting that this is the part of the project where you earn your fee, accepting that you are now doing 20% of the work and only perceiving 1% of the progress.
It’s the part where you feel the least creative, the least capable, but it is in this period that you show your creative worth.
Know that everyone else out there who’s trying to create something will meet their own 80% and either make it to 81% or fail. At this stage, measure your progress in hours you put in, because that’s the only way out.