How to stop putting off that major project in 6 simple steps

There are projects on your list that have been there a very long time. I know, because everybody has them. I have them. And every once in a long while, I hike up my socks and decide: I can’t let this ride any longer. I have to stop putting things off. I’m going to finish that project. 

Case in point: I have a very large reduction woodcut print that has been in the flat file for ages. The artist, Anne Karsten, gave it to me in thanks for helping her to pull this print. Anne was my teacher when I took etching classes at the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative…which was in, what, the mid-90s?

Wait, how long have I had this thing?

how to stop putting things off - unfurled print

I have so much great stuff, yet my walls are virtually bare. I put all the art into the flat file and it just disappears. Unless I spend time pulling everything out and admiring it, I’ll just never see it again. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about it.

That’s why—for years—I’ve had on my list the item, “Do framing.”

1) Clear up your murky to-dos

“Do framing.”

What does that even mean? How do you “do” framing? I’ve framed stuff before; I know the process. There’s no “do” in there.

how to stop putting things off - contemplating framing

To be honest, for the longest time, I didn’t even imagine framing Anne’s print, since it’s printed to the edge of the paper, which means it needs to be floated, which means figuring out technical things that feel hard that I’ve never done, and haven’t felt I could afford to have done for me. And it’s huge. I showed it to my art students, who were agog: “It’s so BIG!”

Partially as a result of the generic vagueness of the verb I chose, I “did” nothing. I would schedule “do framing” for a certain day, and when that day came, I’d look at the item on the list and shudder, and postpone to some other future time when Future Me would definitely be able to grapple with “doing” framing.

The murkier your project idea is, the harder it is to stop putting it off.

Future Me is the awesomest. Unfortunately, whenever she’s scheduled to visit, Present Me shows up. >:( (H/t to Tim Urban for that insight.)

But in seriousness, the issue I was facing isn’t that Future Me isn’t available. It’s that I hadn’t taken the time to look at what “doing” framing would entail. I assumed that, given my past experience, I could simply sit down and make it happen if I just wanted to. That I only had to put it on the list, and voilà.

I was making the classic mistake of conflating a task with a project.

2) Consider: Tasks vs. Projects

A task is a discrete action with a clear end point. A project is comprised of a series of tasks. And often, a project requires tasks that you haven’t, or can’t, identify yet, that you will have to discover via action and experimentation.

Conflating a project with a task means that you put something that appears simple on your list without thinking much about it.

But somewhere in your unconscious, you know this seemingly-simple thing either contains a mystery, or that it’ll be a bigger undertaking to finish your project than you’re acknowledging.

So every time you look at it, you ignore or postpone it.

These are the “tasks” that squat like warty trolls on your list…sometimes for years. How do you stop putting them off?

Project brakes: Known unknowns, and unknown unknowns

In my framing project, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I’d have to figure out how to hinge a giant print, and I had no idea how to do this. At its core, that—and that I’d need to spend money, no idea how much—were what had stopped me.

Other things I’ve let ride on my list are “find a new credit card,” “plan editorial calendar,” “paint kitchen,” and the like. All of these are full of questions, research, and decisions, exhausting decisions.

Sure, I’ve spent no money and not a lot of time. But the psychic toll carrying a half-made commitment around is formidable.

Every time I put “do framing” on my list for the day, I look at it, sigh, and reschedule.

The pressure to fulfill what I’ve said—by putting it on the list—is important to me. I feel like I don’t have enough time, and I should work to cram more in. I feel like a little bit of a failure, like my life is slightly out of control.

So how do you take back control and finally finish your project?

3) Change your relationship with your project

So back in August, I finally decided, yes, I’m finally going to frame Anne’s print, ready or not. Not only that, I was going to sort through the bottomless flat file and find all the other things I’d been meaning to get to, and do them all at once.

Facing the tradeoffs

I knew this would take money, time, and focus.

First: Budget

I’m doing this myself, using frames I bought online, but it’s still real money. I saved up money from coaching this summer, and decided this is a business expense because I shoot lots of video in my office with its bare-naked walls, and these pieces will be my “set.” It made sense and would not damage my finances. Done.

Second: Time

I allotted an hour at first, to plan the project. Then followed up with more sessions, once I defined what was needed. This was a harder tradeoff than money. I’ve got so much going on that allotting time to anything non-essential is not obvious. But I decided it was worth it to postpone finishing other things, and got it on the calendar.

Third: Focus

There are reasons that people buy generic commercial prints pre-framed by Ikea and slap them up on the wall. Not only is framing expensive, but there are dozens of decisions you’ve got to make along the way. Decisions are exhausting.

4) Finishing your project is as much of a pain in the ass as you think it’s gonna be. Accept it.

Here’s the secret you’re keeping from yourself when you don’t think projects through and blithely assume that you will be able to “do framing” on the day you say you will.

how to stop putting things off - a room taken over by framing project

Projects are a pain.

There are tons of things that pop up that you don’t expect, and it’ll be harder and more complicated than you realize. You’ll be halfway through and say, what the hell was I thinking?

Here’s what else you’re keeping from yourself: The fact that it’s complicated is part of what makes it worth doing.

Mastering new things and navigating difficulties makes you feel like a boss. What you’re really putting off is a sense of accomplishment.

how to stop putting things off - jessica with framing materials

5) Build a project path

Here’s where we get tactical. HOW can you take those warty squatters and break them down into a series of merely-challenging tasks?

Using QTAs to build the path

Lay groundwork and set yourself up for success by using QTAs to pull apart the major phases and steps. QTA stands for “Questions to Answer.” (I adapted this idea from Nicky Hajal.)

The way you use QTAs is to start at the end of the project, and work your way backward, thinking through all the stages and steps you can, and then asking questions where you don’t know how you’ll achieve something.

So, in my case, the end point is, work is hung on the walls.

How? I need hanging materials: hooks, wire, a hammer, a level. [I bought a measuring/marking device on Amazon back in early Sept. Haven’t used it yet.]

What am I hanging? Framed work.

Where will I get the frames? American Frame, an online store I’ve used before.

What kind of frames? There are a lot of pieces, and one is quite large, so simple, basic, cheap metal frames.

What sizes? Oh crap. Now I have to decide what I’m actually framing (and this is a whole sub project, where I sorted through the archives, took pictures of candidates, discussed with Matt to decide). Also: I finally unrolled Anne’s print to measure it and… it’s dated 1992. Yep. I’ve had it in a drawer for 26 years.

What colors? Mostly black. Silver. Some others? Hmm…

Do I need mats? In a few cases, yes.

how to stop putting things off - project breakdown list

“Do Framing” = 3 month, 18-task project

QTAs I couldn’t answer immediately

(AKA “known unknowns”)

There were several QTAs that needed a lot more work to be able to answer. Starting with: How can I hinge Anne’s print safely and securely?

My friend Yasmin, who does paper conservation at the Library of Congress, happened to be in town, and I got her to walk me through the process. But I was still nervous.

I have a much smaller print by Brett Colley that’s exactly the same kind of piece—a color woodcut printed to the edges on Japanese paper—so I decided to do his first to practice.

Brett Colley

I looked up a video tutorial on YouTube that backed up Yasmin’s suggestions (though the guy is way more cavalier about the archival materials he uses than Yasmin, who wanted me to cook my own paste).

What colors formats does American Frame offer? And can I trust the online samples? They have online color samples and you can order swatches.

The mats I needed were small and not too expensive, so I ordered a few using the online color previews, as well as some color samples.

And no, they did not work.

I went local and brought some pieces in to Dick Blick to hold mat samples up to the art itself, old-schoolio. You don’t frame a Gary Panter silkscreen with anything but the hottest pink. That’s a custom job.

Out of left field

Speaking of custom jobs: Turns out, Anne’s print is “oversized” so American Frame didn’t sell mat or backing boards that size. And Blick only had white. White looks like crap with Anne’s luscious color.

Looking for your “unknown unknowns”? Here ya go. I decided I needed to hand-paint the mat a custom color.

Like I said: it will be as big a pain in the ass as you think it will be. Bigger.

how to stop putting things off - painting

But it’s gonna be awesome!

As a result of all those complications, and having to get back to, like, my job… I got the project about 90% finished, and then stopped for over a month. Only having this post scheduled got me back on track, and convinced me to prioritize the work.

Here’s the truth: I am busy, but once again, that’s not the core reason I let it sit. I was stuck at the part where there was a big mystery: do I really know how to float a print?

The answer a week ago was definitely “no.” How was I going to stop putting this off if I didn’t know how to do it?

Once I forced myself to figure out the process and do it twice, I can now proudly say, “sort of.”

A simple way to stop putting off a project:

6) You don’t have to do it

Maybe you don’t want to stop putting off said project— deep down, maybe it doesn’t need to get done, or you don’t actually want to do it. You can cross it off and give yourself permission to move forward.

But if you actually want to do the project, if finishing the project will make your life better, you’ve gotta get real about it.

I’m committed to finishing this framing project—which includes hanging the work! (I’m just realizing while writing that there’s another warty squatter on the list! “Hang art” includes deciding where to hang it, getting help to put it up, buying and having on hand all the hardware required… I have not made time for these things, yet!)

You can let things be easy, or you can make changes that will make your life better.

Change is hard. This is not a simple choice.

Without making decisions, facing unknowns, and doing hard things, sure, the rolling wave of inertia will bear you through one way or another.

But the satisfaction you seek only comes from making the effort to actually decide what you want to do, and then creating the plan, and making the space, to actually do it. 

how to stop putting things off - finished framing project in all of its glory

So…What’s squatting on your list that, if you finish it, you know it’ll make your life better? Let us know in the comments, and use that moment to figure out your next action!

What, specifically, in a time period of 30 minutes or less, is your next step? And WHEN are you going to do it?
Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.


  1. Judy on November 17, 2018 at 8:57 am

    Jessica, This is fabulous! Once again, you have homed in on the reason seemingly “easy tasks” have remained on my list for years! And your framed art looks terrific – totally with the time and effort. Thanks!

  2. Jessica Abel on November 17, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks, Judy!

  3. Anne Karsten on November 18, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    You’re amazing, Jessica! Thank you for this very real honor, and for your highly skilled abilities to reach and teach, to name a scant few. What good fortune for me to have known you, and to have benefited from your comprehensive help, past and present. Thank you!

  4. Jessica Abel on November 19, 2018 at 8:32 am

    Thanks so much, Anne! I’m just thrilled to finally be able to see your piece regularly, and I remember learning from you so fondly.

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