A Simple Plan for Tackling Unfinished Projects
Perhaps you can relate to this.
There’s a source of irritation sitting on the bookcase in our family room, wrapped up in a set of three pretty, grey, cloth-bound binders. They’re my sons’ unfinished baby albums, and I get a pang of unease, even a feeling of guilt, when I see them.
Why? Because I know they're not totally finished.
The other day I thought enough was enough, and I picked up the first album. It documents the first six months of our older son’s life in photos and journaling using Project Life.
As I flipped through those albums, I remembered why these projects matter to me. They bring me joy and remind me of how much life we’ve experienced together as a family - the ups and downs, the challenges we’ve overcome and blessings we’ve enjoyed.
Whether it’s an old baby album, an abandoned organization project in the playroom, or a couple bags of clothes you intend to give away taking up valuable real estate in your closet, there’s a reason you got started.
Whatever the project, it mattered to you at one point. The first thing you have to ask yourself is "Does it still matter that I finish this?"
It's time to make a decision so you can clear up the mental clutter and move on. In this post, you'll find a detailed plan to do just that.
WHY TACKLE UNFINISHED PROJECTS?
Whatever the reason we don’t finish our creative endeavors (and there are lots of them!), I really believe we ought to make a decision about what to do with them.
Why? Because those incomplete projects can be sources of physical and mental clutter and - more significantly - guilt or unease.
Maybe that sounds dramatic, but I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Gretchen Rubin agrees, noting that unfinished projects can be a “happiness challenge.” They drain our energy, causing feelings of overwhelm or resignation.
These half-finished projects can also leave us with lingering feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy. We see all the things other people are accomplishing and wonder why we can’t just get this one thing done!
Ultimately, our creative endeavors should be a source of joy, not guilt. It’s time to tackle them and move on.
3 WAYS TO MOVE FORWARD
If you’ve been staring at a stack of memorabilia for years thinking “I should do something with that,” you have three options:
- work toward finishing it
- put it in a holding pattern to be dealt with at a later date
- let the project go
OPTION 1: Finish it
If you take an honest look at your project, you might be surprised by how little you have to do to just get it done.
Could you finish it in an evening watching reruns of The Mindy Project? Or do you need to set it aside until you have a kid-free weekend?
When I finally cracked open those neglected baby albums, I was happy to find there wasn't all that much left to do. There was certainly less than I anticipated, and I'd been avoiding them because I was worried about how daunting the work might be.
Maybe you just don’t have the time or bandwidth to deal with a project right now, but you hope to work on it when you do have the time. That’s okay too.
You can also change how you define "finishing" that particular project (more on that later in the post).
Option 2: Put it on hold
If you decide you can’t tackle a project right now, do something with it so you know it’s handled for the time being. The key is to get the project - whatever it is - in a state where it doesn't take up your valuable mental real estate.
There are myriad ways to deal with projects you decide to put on hold. Ali Edwards uses a baking rack to keep in-progress projects organized and out of the way.
Last year I went through a big box of mixed-up memorabilia and simply sorted it into labeled photo boxes so I can pick up a project to work on when I'm ready.
It's totally valid to put a project on hold. Just decide that's what you're doing and find a way to be okay with that.
Option 3: Let it go
I really believe this last option is valid. If it’s not more important to you than the million other things on your list, then by all means, cross it off and be done with it.
Whether you decide to do something simple with your incomplete project, call it quits, or finish it up, the important thing is that you feel good about your decision.
Do what you have to do to ditch the mental clutter.
Okay, so let’s say you decide it’s time to wrap up a particular project, like I did with the baby albums. For those of you who struggle with procrastination or knowing where to start (hand raised over here!), I’ll share what I did to tackle this particular thorn in my side once and for all.
A SIMPLE PLAN FOR TACKLING AN UNFINISHED PROJECT
You may have dozens of incomplete projects swimming around in your head or taking up space in your house.
You can't tackle them all at once, so the first things first: make a list of all of them and then pick one.
I started with one that didn't require a lot of time or effort to finish, but maybe you want to tackle the one that keeps you up at night.
You can repeat this process as many times as necessary. The important thing is to just pick one project to focus on at a time. Consider that one project in light of the steps that follow.
| 1 | Assess what needs to be done
Do a scan of the project so you know it’s current state. This is particularly important if you haven’t looked at it in awhile.
With Ben’s baby album, I knew it was incomplete but I almost afraid to know just how incomplete. I find when you take a closer look at something, it’s often not as bad as you suspected.
If it requires more than what you expected, at least you've cut out of the fear associated with the unknown.
If you haven’t gotten started at all, but this project has been in the back of your mind, take a look at the general scope. Scroll through the photos on your computer, open up that box in the garage, or dig into that closet you’ve neglected.
Unfinished projects are like unopened bills: you can’t figure out how to proceed until you bite the bullet and dig in.
| 2 | Set a simple and specific goal
There’s a strong chance that no one’s going to care about you finishing this project but you. Someone else might enjoy it when it’s done, but the incomplete state of it matters most critically to you.
So set a goal that works for you. What do you want out of this? If, like me, you’re working on a very specific project (i.e. finishing a first-year baby album), the goal is pretty simple: finish the album.
If you're tackling something more nebulous, try honing in on a specific, tangible goal.
My husband used to put “organize the garage” on his list every weekend. Guess what? Every Sunday night, even if he'd spent hours in the garage, he felt like he hadn’t gotten anything done. Was that true? No. But because his goal for the project was so vague, he felt like a failure.
I would have suggested “sweep out the garage” or “clear off the workbench” as a goal. These are more specific, and thus easier to assess when they’re complete.
There’s something more to consider. Do you need your project to be perfect? Or do you need it to just be done? If you intended to do something elaborate when you started, maybe there’s a way to simplify your outcome.
Let’s say you’re staring at three bins worth of kids’ artwork in your office. You might say your goal is to document all of it in scrapbooks. Okay - a worthy goal, to be sure.
But what if you had the goal to narrow that stuff down to one bin rather than three? You’d free up some space in your home, discard the projects that maybe aren’t as significantly memorable, and now your task to document that stuff is one-third the scope.
Here’s another example. Let’s say you want to declutter your closet, and you envision selling a bunch of items online to make some extra money. You’ve already set aside some stuff in a pile, but it’s been sitting in the corner of your room.
Rather than spend a weekend photographing and listing the items, maybe you pick one or two of the most expensive, list those, and donate the rest. Your time is valuable, so treat it that way.
If you can take a simpler approach than you originally intended, you’ll let yourself off the hook of perfection and find an easier path to making progress.
| 3 | Make a list of all the tasks involved in your project
This isn’t rocket science, but it’s important. Smaller tasks are easier to accomplish than big ones, so break your project down into smaller steps.
If your unfinished project is the decluttering endeavor you started in your closet, then your steps might be
- Set aside clothes to be donated
- Put donation items in bags
- Put bags in the car
Drop off items at Goodwill
This may seem silly, but if you never load those bags in your car, you’ll never drop them off anywhere. They’ll sit around taking up physical and mental space indefinitely. So add each step to the list - they all count!
For the baby album I’m working on, I made a checklist of all the missing layouts and photos I had to print. This way, when I sit down at the computer to work on them, I already know what I need to do, without having to break out the albums again.
However small the task, write it down. You’ll start checking little things off and immediately have a sense of accomplishment.
| 4 | Schedule time to work on it
There are different philosophies around this one, but my take is that if I schedule it, I'm more likely to work on it. After all, if I schedule a doctor’s appointment, I somehow find a way to make it happen.
If I decide I’m going to work on these baby albums on Thursday evening, there’s a lot higher chance I’ll actually do that then if I never set a time.
If you’ve been meaning declutter your closet, decide when that’s going to happen. Saturday morning? Tuesday when the kids are at school? If you know what all needs to get done, you’ll have an idea how much time you need.
Break it up over a few days, put it off until next month, or tackle it in one sitting. Whatever you decide, set a time to get going on it.
| 5 | Celebrate your success
Once a project is complete, let someone else know! Call your mom or text a picture to your best friend, or sit down with your partner and flip through that bin of all-star artwork. Reminisce, enjoy, revel in your accomplishment.
Whenever my little sister finishes one of her gorgeous family movies, she texts me a link then calls to make sure I've watched it. The videos are so fun to watch, and it's really satisfying to share in her accomplishment.
Getting creative things done is a big deal when you have a lot on your plate - so celebrate that! And next time someone posts something creative they'd done, give them a pat on the back or a shout-out on Instagram.
It doesn't hurt you to encourage someone else, and it's a big deal to finish a creative project.
When I complete these baby albums, I intend to have them sitting on our coffee table, ready to flip through over a glass of wine with my husband after the kids are in bed.
Should I require a pat on the back? Probably not. But it’s no small thing to complete a nagging project, and these projects are intended to be enjoyed by others. Celebrate and share your work.
I created a free printable worksheet that includes the steps from this post to get you started on those unfinished projects. If you’re on the newsletter, you already have access to it (check your email!).
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I'm ready to get started - are you? What project are you tackling next? Let me know in the comments or over on Facebook. I can't wait to hear what you're up to.