Projects & Improvements

Stalling Out on a Home Project? 6 Tips for Getting Through It, According to Experienced DIYers

published Feb 27, 2023
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Credit: Photos: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

Sometimes the creative energy that flows freely at the start of a DIY project is enough to carry you through to the finish line — and sometimes it’s not. Getting stuck in the middle of a home project is something that can happen to any DIYer, no matter their skill or experience level. Whether it’s decision fatigue, a mishap with measurements, or something not turning out as expected, the burnout that ensues can be enough to ground a project to a halt.

There’s nothing wrong with pressing pause midway through a DIY — in fact, it can revitalize your excitement for it. But living in a home with one or more half-finished projects and carrying the mental weight of it on your to-do list can raise frustration levels to new heights. So how do you make things work when the last thing you want to do is… work?

Many experienced DIYers are familiar with the struggle, having gone through it themselves. Here, a few seasoned DIYers share their best tips on tackling your “stuck” projects and actually making it to the finish line.

Credit: Carly Fuller

Remind yourself that it’s OK to fail.

When Carly Fuller, a home staging and design professional who shares her DIYs on Instagram, scored a second-hand buffet cabinet, she immediately knew it would be perfect for storing shoes. The only problem? It had an orange-toned wood stain that didn’t vibe with her aesthetic. “I thought I could sand it down and leave it looking like unfinished raw wood,” she says. However, after the noise from sanding it on the roof of her New York City apartment caused neighbors to complain, she tried to strip it using the viral oven cleaner hack. “It was an absolute disaster,” according to Fuller. “The wood was turning black, and it seemed like I was scraping the wood off, not just the stain.” Further sanding didn’t get her the results she wanted, either.

Finally, on attempt number three, Fuller landed on a method that worked (smothering the cabinet in bleach). “The bleach really lightened it up, and it started to look the way I wanted,” she says. Her cabinet did ultimately turn out how she envisioned, and failures were part of the process. “We’re not professionals, and we learn from our mistakes for the next time,” she says.

If you’re feeling like your project is stuck because it’s a “fail,” it’s OK to hit the reset button and start fresh with a new attempt and a different strategy. That reset may involve a break, which is also OK! It’s also OK if you decide that the project just isn’t for you after all. There’s no shame in listing a failed furniture flip in a neighborhood Buy Nothing group on Facebook. Get it out of your home and let someone else tackle it instead.

Credit: Amy Weir

Don’t rush the creative process.

Building a piece of furniture from scratch is no easy task. A few years ago, when Amy Weir of Delineate Your Dwelling decided to build a modern book sling side table, she found the process really challenging. Since she wasn’t following someone else’s plans or directions, it required her to put a lot of thought and energy into how she could best construct it. “So there would be times when things just came to a halt, and I definitely felt like I was losing steam,” she says.

Weir, however, is a big proponent of not rushing the creative process, and she believes it’s important to take time away from a project if you need to — “whether that means stepping outside and going for a walk to clear your mind, or setting a project aside for a week while you rework plans or ideas,” she says. “I think it’s important to not rush or get disheartened.” Heeding her own advice, she took a few days off from her side table project, then sketched out some new ideas and picked back up when she felt ready. “Allow yourself to find inspiration in other places,” she says, “and give yourself grace because tomorrow is a new day with new possibilities for better solutions when you get stuck.”

Prioritize function over form.

As a grad student and business owner who also works part-time on campus, Dominique Gebru knows what it’s like to be busy. So when she works on DIY projects around her home, sometimes the reality is that they don’t always get finished. According to Gebru, “Over the last year or so, I’ve lost steam with most of my projects, notably a closet DIY and storage cabinet IKEA hack.” While her intention with those DIYs was to solve a storage issue, she also wanted to make them look cute.

Instead of abandoning the projects altogether, she shifted her strategy into just getting them into a usable state. “Ultimately, if your space doesn’t function for you and your life, it doesn’t matter how cute it is,” she says. She’s also embracing the notion that good things take time and celebrating the progress she has made so far. “I know it’ll feel amazing once they look great, but I’m proud that I solved my short-term storage challenges,” she says.

Take a page out of Gebru’s book and aim for functional over fabulous. Celebrate the win of creating something that works (well enough) for your lifestyle, and turn the task of making it look great into a separate project that you can accomplish at a later date.

Focus on the tiny steps.

When Tarah of Grandma’s House DIY decided to put an addition onto her garage, she knew the scope of the project was going to be enormous. It didn’t help that there were multiple setbacks throughout the seven months it took to complete it. “It just felt like the entire universe was against us,” she says. “From tool problems to the weather, we just couldn’t get ahead.”

Still, Tarah found it helpful to keep her eye on the tiny steps. “Many big and ambitious projects can be totally overwhelming if you try to tackle them all in one go,” she says. By focusing on the smaller, more manageable steps, you’ll still see progress and you’re less likely to get burned out. “Even tiny steps will get the project done eventually,” she says.

Divide up your own project into mini-projects that are made up of small items. Research shows that completing a task gives your brain a hit of feel-good dopamine chemicals, so give yourself the opportunity to earn those check marks rather than categorizing your project as only done or not done.

Allow yourself a realistic timeframe.

Sometimes one project has a way of spiraling into multiple projects. That was the case for DIYer Bettina Ballard when she and her husband decided to redo their dining nook. “It went from dining nook to new floors to baseboard and so much more,” says Ballard of the project. Because they were participating in a makeover challenge with an end date, the condensed timeline added even more pressure to the project. Not surprisingly, Ballard started to feel overwhelmed. “We ended with a dining nook that I loved at the moment, but then I realized it was not completely functional for our family,” she says.

Ballard realized that sometimes you get to a point in projects where you’re in a rush just to get it done, and that can lead to not loving it later. Ultimately, she and her husband ended up switching things around in her dining nook to make it more functional. Moving forward, she’s making a point to really plan out her projects before getting started, and that includes setting a realistic budget and timeline. And whatever your estimated timeline is, “add a few weeks to that,” she jokes.

Credit: Imani Keal

Don’t waste your time if your heart’s not in it.

It was midway through painting her apartment in Washington D.C. when Imani Keal, a home and lifestyle content creator, lost steam and decided to shelve the project. She had decided to switch up her home’s paint color from black to green, but “about halfway through, I realized that I wanted to move,” she says. “And my interest in the job fell off hard!” Because creating content for social media is her full-time profession, Keal says she relied on a bit of “movie magic” to finish the portion of the painting project that needed to be filmed. 

However, after getting the perfect shot (and laughing with her followers about the unfinished parts), she allowed herself to simply stop until she felt like picking it up again. “I try to protect my creative energy by just stopping and doing something else,” she says. Trying to push through a creative rut, she believes, can turn a formerly joyful project into a drag. “If you can, just pack up the project until your heart is in it,” she advises. Sometimes, your heart is never in it — in which case, give yourself permission to quit guilt-free.