How to Finish What You Started

Unfinished projects

I can’t tell you precisely how many things I’ve started and haven’t completed yet. Every time I start on a new project, I say to myself this is going to be different. I’ll follow through with this one till it’s done.

Completing a task or a project has never been a problem for me when there are outside commitments and expectations. The incomplete tasks are solely mine. And that’s a shame, because they continue to nag and occupy mental space—meaning they’re important to me.

Before I delve into the how, let’s take a moment and look at the why.

Why do we stop, and not finish what we started?

There are many causes for a never-ending stack of unfinished tasks and projects. The 5 reasons below are the main ones that I experience on a regular basis.

  1. Lack of clarity: Outside expectations are specific, or can be clarified by others. We may start something, and then hit a roadblock and not know what to do next, so we stop. And other priorities take over.
  2. Overwhelm: The project may seem too big, and we feel we’re not making enough progress. Or other things come up and we feel we can’t handle it all.
  3. Mismanaged priorities: This goes hand in hand with overwhelm. If a personal project is not given priority, life will interrupt, and it will get dropped.
  4. Lack of motivation: When we begin something, we feel excited about it and we jump right into it. But motivation doesn’t usually last. And if we don’t have the discipline and clarity to keep going, we will stop, sooner or later.
  5. No accountability: We won’t get fired, or divorced, or shunned, because we didn’t follow through with our commitment to ourselves. There is no immediate consequence for dropping our own projects. As freeing as it may feel, no accountability can be a powerful force of resistance, and eventually giving up.

No matter what the reason is, we stop simply because we can. And this usually comes at a cost.

The pain of incomplete

We may not see immediate consequences for not following through. However, in the long run we will regret what we could’ve done years prior.

Let’s put regret aside and look into what happens, in the present, when we put something on hold, with the intention of finishing it later.

Unless we completely drop it, any unfinished project, or task, will take mental and emotional space and energy. We will keep thinking about it, and we will feel bad.

Over time, and with many things left unfinished, this can become the dominant mental and emotional state: dread, overwhelm and anxiety. And we feel drained without actually doing anything.

I don’t like to admit it. But I function within this state for extended periods of time, till I wake up and make a conscious choice to stop.

Below are a few steps that I hope can help. I’m working with these right now. Join me if you’re having a similar experience.

How to finish a project

If you notice, I said project and not projects. This is the first, and most important thing. Pick one project only.

  1. Create a pain list, and prioritize it. Make a list of all the things that are not finished. Now prioritize your list by the amount of pain each item causes you. The ones that bug you the most are the most important ones. Pick the most painful one as your project to finish. If you can’t decide, just pick one, and promise to focus on it, no matter what.

  2. Brainstorm what you need to do to get started again. In this step you’ll need to look at what you did in the past and where you stopped. Next, determine what step you want to start with.

  3. Schedule it. I’m not a big fan of adding many things to the calendar. But when all fails, this is something that might get us to commit more. Set a time for having an appointment with yourself to work on this project—no excuses. The earlier in the day, the better (before resistance becomes stronger and willpower starts to wane).

  4. Keep it simple and short. Do one simple task and keep your work interval reasonably short (20–30 minutes). This way you’re more likely to do it. And more importantly, you’re more likely to find the time to do it.

  5. Do your best, but keep it light and fun. If we do things and try to have fun, instead of the usual dread and sense of obligation, we’re more likely to show up and do the work. It’s not going to be a picnic—especially in the beginning—but we’ll feel better once we start moving forward, and establishing the habit.

I’ve finished a tedious project using these steps over the past few months. The process is simple and familiar to most of us. We just need to use it and build the skill to complete one project at a time.

A few thoughts

I have a few thoughts for you to consider before you start on a project.

The lesser the expectations, the better. Having clarity about the outcome will help us get there. But we can let go of how the result is going to be perceived, and allow life to surprise us.

Adopt the more out, less in approach. One of the biggest reasons we stop is that we keep adding more stuff to do. Anything that we add needs time and energy. If we’re already struggling with what we have, we don’t need to add more.

Taking care of the small stuff on a daily basis helps—a lot. Getting into the habit of clearing your email for the day, keeping your kitchen tidy, or returning phone calls, will give you more time to focus on the important stuff. You will get things done and you’ll free your mind from fretting about them.

Review the pain list on a regular basis. Keep your list of things not done and postponed up to date, and take some time to reflect on what’s on it. Looking at a list will take out some of the mental energy that you reserve to keep reminding yourself of what’s not done.

Create a drop it list. If you see things on your pain list that don’t really cause you that much pain, maybe it’s time to remove them all together and stop trying to get them done. The drop it list can be a reminder of what you don’t want to get into in the future.

To be at peace with what I’m doing (or not doing) is one of my biggest aspirations. And so far I’ve been okay. It’s still early in the game, but it’s a promising start (without much expectations, other than playing a game and experimenting). I’d love for you to join me. If you do, let me know how you fare. We’re in this together.