Finish The Projects You’ve Started. Or Call an End to Them.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I realized that a source of clutter in my apartment, and a significant drain on my energy, was the uncomfortable presence of unfinished projects.

Every time I see evidence of an unfinished project, I get a jolt of annoyance or guilt. The thought “I should finish that…why haven’t I finished that?” makes me flinch.

For example, while trying to bring some order to our toy closet, I spotted a kit for making a mountain scene that my older daughter and I were going to build together. It looked like so much fun, but it turned out to be far more work than we expected. So there it sat, opened but unfinished.

Unread magazines. Half-read books. Books that I’ve read and marked up, but from which I haven’t processed my notes yet (I spend a crazy amount of time taking notes on what I’ve read). The half-completed project to organize the doll clothes. I decided that my new resolution is to “Finish the things I’ve started. Or put an end to them.” I want to get them out of my way, one way or another.

I’m lucky, though, because my half-finished projects don’t make much of a mess. I have friends with bedroom corners and dining-room tables that permanently house half-built Lego castles, dusty piles of recipes, scrapbooks with half the pages filled in.

Unfinished projects are irritating in themselves, and they also contribute to clutter, because it’s so tempting to leave an unfinished project out in the open, as a reminder to finish it. But then it doesn’t get finished it! For days, weeks, months!

I have a friend who leaves all her paperwork on her kitchen counter next to the sink, to remind herself to deal with it. It sits there, untouched, getting spattered and stained, as weeks go by. I said, “Why don’t you put this stuff in a drawer or a file, so it’s out of your way?” She answered, “But then I’d never cope with it!” In fact, keeping her papers in the open doesn’t prompt her to act — and just makes her feel worse, because her kitchen looks like a wreck.

For me, one of the most persistent, nagging, draining unfinished tasks is dealing with our photos. I just don’t enjoy the process of making digital photo albums. I should keep up with it, so that I don’t have to deal with a million photos at once, but I don’t, so whenever I do force myself to tackle it, it’s a very big job.

I love looking at photos albums – and so does my whole family – and I know that in the long run, making these photo albums will bring great happiness. Happy memories of the past are an effective way to make yourself happier in the present, and things like photo albums, mementos, and one-sentence journals are great ways to keep happy memories vivid.

One problem is that the minute I put one album together, it’s time to start the next! After I do my next one, I think I will create some sort of schedule – to work on it for an hour once every two weeks – so I feel like I’m on top of it. Finishing mini-steps will make it easier to finish a major projects.

Dealing with email is a common happiness challenge, and in part, that’s because email is always an unfinished task. More emails arrive, all the time. I don’t try to maintain a zero in-box, but even being reasonably responsive can feel overwhelming. (I usually do a pretty decent job, but if you emailed me while I was on my book tour, I really wasn’t able to keep up. I apologize.)

Email is an exception to my resolution, because it can’t be finally completed or abandoned. But I’m going through my apartment, looking for unfinished projects. I’m pushing myself either to finish them, or call an end to them. They’re weighing me down.

How about you? Have you ever felt this way about an unfinished project? What was the project?

* Why am I so fascinated by time-lapse photography? No idea. But here’s great time-lapse video of Russia.

* Did I ever happen to mention that The Happiness Project hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list? Oh right, I did. Yay! If you’re curious about the book, you can…
Order your copy!
Read sample chapters!
Watch the one-minute book trailer!
Listen to a few chapters of the audiobook!
If you’re inspired to start your own happiness project, join the 2010 Happiness Challenge, to make 2010 a happier year.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Diana

    As a formerly disorganized person, I started doing David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) about 6 years ago and it has really helped me “close the open loops.” I always keep my email box empty and file emails each day into an “action” folder, a “reference” folder or–if it will take < 2 min I just do it. I also "renegotiate" my commitments if I don't think I can do it or if I will need more time. This really alleviates the guilt (and is kind to the person waiting for the thing). In terms of leaving undone things out as a "prompt" I have tried to break my husband of the habit. I have my "action lists" (organized by emails, errands, calls, etc) and a "project list" that I review regularly. If something is on the project list and it is still unfinished, that is ok with me–I have planted a stake in the ground (something like that) that I know I will review regularly. But the big cumbersome kid projects that can't be placed in a file cabinet (and our old house renovation projects) are more difficult. I have been imposing deadlines on my perfectionistic architect husband to just do a "good enough for now" job–finally painting our living room even though we haven't replaced the windows and he will have to do it over at some point. This was after living 5 years with a partially painted/primed living room. I am obsessed at keeping our dining room table clean but it is hard when we have unfinished monopoly games–I have started just imposing a time limit.

  • Diana

    The other thing for things that really will never be finished (like organizing the photos) is to put them in the category of things one does regularly (like exercise)that will never be checked off the to-do list. David Allen says that people gasp when they see his Project List (he considers everything with more than one step a “project”) but advises that people let go of the concept that you have to do it all now. I realized the other week that we would never finish all the projects we need to do on our old house… somehow I have to be at peace with the fact that our house (like me) is going to be a work in process.

  • ceduke

    This is a timely post – I’ve had an old desk sanded and taking up space in my garage for….a long time. Yesterday I finally pulled it outside and primed it, got the new drawer pull ready, and got paint ready for when the primer is dry. It’s wet outside today so the paint won’t be going on yet, but before the end of next week I’ll have a lovely “new” desk. I’ve been looking forward to it for such a long time!

  • DonnaS

    I put my photos in the book as soon as I develop them. That way you don’t get a backlog. You can always edit or add descriptions later.

  • Sasha

    I read a great suggesting by V.Levi (Russian psychologist).

    Of all of your project idea, don’t start a third of them, don’t finish the second third and finish the last third.

    This very much mimics Ian King’s advice to weight-training. Third of the time you should be fresh and light after a workout. Third of the time – pleasantly tired. Third of the time – very tired, on the border of exhausted.

  • qconklin

    The problem with unfinished projects in my mind is that they do not just clutter our homes but our minds. Even if our projects are mostly intellectual we still find our selves stumbling over them when we have to think about something similar and then the stress wells up and derails us. I have a few projects I need to clear out thanks for the reminder.

  • Does anyone know where I can find a comparison of digital photo albums? I can’t decide which company to use, and a simple google search is not helping.

    • generally speaking, one is as good as the next. i tend to use shutterfly, which i love.

    • sunish

      Picassa for a start

  • niki37

    Unfinished projects are the absolute bane of my existence and they include training to run a 1/2 marathon, losing weight, taking up drawing, making jewelry, a gazillion books, writing a children’s novel, putting together a wine tasting journal, creating a blog, and, yes indeed, my happiness project. And it is simply amazing how good it feels whenever you do check something off (or give a solid “no” to something), yet that knowledge alone doesn’t seem to motivate enough. I am definitely the type of person to leave the unfinished business laying about to serve as an unpleasant reminder for an indefinite period of time. What I struggle with is how do you evaluate your unfinished projects? How do you know which ones to let go of and which ones to fire yourself up for?

    • gretchenrubin

      My sister, the sage, said to me, “‘Yes’ comes right away; ‘no’ never comes.”
      She meant that when you pitch something in Hollywood, you hear right away if
      people like something, but they just never give you that solid “no.”

      But I’ve found that this is true in lots of area of life. It’s hard to say
      “No, I’m not going to do that,” and let go of something. You want to believe
      that you CAN do it, and that you WILL do it — and it’s hard to admit, nope,
      not gonna do that.

      This is a key to happiness, though. I remind myself to “Be Gretchen” and
      that helps me figure out what to do and what to abandon. Does this project
      really reflect my interests, values, and priorities? Or is it related to a
      fantasy of myself that isn’t rooted in my true nature? Often, unfinished
      projects reflect a version of myself that I wish were true, but just isn’t

      Also, if I don’t want to make little steps, I surely won’t make big steps.
      The desire to take little steps is a good indication that something is a
      good fit.

      But it’s hard to figure out! Good luck!

  • one of my big projects is knitting through all the yarn i’ve got stashed. which is A LOT. so i’ve decided to organize a big, city-wide project that involves knitted donations, and am going to use a lot of my stash of yarn to help kick it off – giving it away to other people, along with a pair of knitting needles, to help out.

    this way the stash is getting used, but i don’t feel the burden of trying to use it all, and can move on to knitting projects that bring me joy!

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great way to great way to finish your projects, use up what you have,
      reach out to new people, help others, and have fun! Wow!

      • thanks! when i get the project off the ground, i’ll shoot you an e-mail with the web-link so you can see what i was talking about!

  • emd04

    I do this with my writing projects. I’ll get a great idea, and write it out. But I never END the story/novel/what have you. It’s so frustrating. My hard drive is full of half written stories, the characters languishing away.

    • gretchenrubin

      Don’t know if this is true for you, but I’ve heard that sometimes creative
      people lose interest in finishing a project because they fear criticism and
      rejection. If something isn’t finished, it never gets to that point.
      Something to think about.

      • Not only creative people, but perfectionists won’t finish a project. If they leave it unfinished, then when someone suggests something different, they can always turn around and say “I wasn’t done yet.” I know… I live with one.

        • cassianne

          Yes, I have a hard time putting projects away even when they appear to the casual (and sane) observer to be ‘done’, because to the perfectionist part of my brain ALL projects are unfinished. I sewed the curtains, but really should re-do the hems. I wrote the program, but really should rework the user interface. Since nothing is ever “perfect” nothing is ever really DONE. It’s a hellish way to live and I’m working on getting over it!

          • gretchenrubin

            Secret of Adulthood (via Voltaire): Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of
            the good.

          • Anne

            My massive unfinished project — and no. 1 obstacle to my happiness — has been a dissertation that has been hanging over my head for years. I am 3-6 mo. from finishing, and instead of it becoming easier, I find it harder and harder to drag myself to my computer every day, even for small chunks of work. The writing process makes me miserable. I am definitely a perfectionist, as well my own worst critic. I had jotted down this quote from your blog months ago, and actually came across it again today tucked into my (very disorganized) research. Always a good reminder — thanks Gretchen for your great blog!

      • emd04

        I finished it! I finally have a finished piece of fiction!

  • Jane

    This is a biggie for me! I agree that Getting Things Done helps, but I guess I haven’t refined my system, because I still leave things sitting there, both physically and on my lists.

    I have wanted to put vacation photos in frames for at least a year now–I even bought the frames and printed out many of the photos–but I just haven’t finished. It sounds nice, being surrounded by our lovely vacation photos, but the thought of the end result is apparently not enough to motivate me. Yes, photo projects are a problem! (Among others…) I think there is something very final about putting a photo in an album or a frame (“it is there for posterity!”) that makes perfectionists squirm.

    I haven’t figured out the unfinished projects issue for myself, so I will be following these comments closely. Thanks for bringing up this topic, Gretchen!

  • Gretchen,

    Thank you for this profound and very practical post. In my estimation, life is all about unfinished business. About little things that need tending. Things that clutter the corners of our homes and heads and hearts. And the big things too… The relationships that linger. The tensions that haven’t quite been addressed. The goals that are set in a hazy horizon and then left alone to wither. I wonder if there is something in us that needs this clutter, these loose ends, if these are the things that keep us alive and moving? And email? I won’t even begin. To me, the jammed inbox is the ultimate evidence of the madness of modernity. It is impossible to keep up and the guilt that accompanies this impossibility is unavoidable.

    So, maybe the trick is to start tackling the unfinished business that litters our worlds, to start checking things off, to start eliminating evidence of incompleteness.

    I don’t pretend to know how to do any of this, but I think that thinking about it is always the first step. And you have made me think. So, thank you!

    Insecurely yours,

  • barg

    Hello Gretchen!
    I thought of you just a few moments ago, logged on and began reading your post today. Indeed. Yes. I’ve been doing a lot of my “unfinished” work and found an old New Yorker from May 4, 2009, okay not that old. But when I read the cartoon I knew I had to write you: the man is staring out of his picture window holding a glass, a woman is sitting on the couch with a book in her hand — he says,
    “Am I a happy man or just an asymptomatic one?”
    Unfinished has been my condition too often. So I am now “digging through my own treasures.”

  • Meredith

    I 100% agree with this…but don’t know how to implement it with a particular project I have. I have a half-knitted afghan. It probably took me 100+ hours to knit this far, but I haven’t worked on it in 6 years, so the likelihood that I’m going to finish is is small. I don’t want to unravel it as that would take a really long time; casting it off now would leave me with a weird, small blanket; and I can’t see someone else getting excited about finishing MY project (that I’m no longer interested in). Thoughts?

    • ejranville

      If you cast it off could it be a baby blanket?

      If it is not too dear to you, a lot of animal shelters also take donated blankets.

      Donate to another knitter who would like the yarn and won’t mind unraveling it.

      • gretchenrubin

        Great suggestions!

      • ejranville

        One more thought: a lap blanket! Lots of senior citizens like to have small blankets to cover their legs and keep them warmer.

    • Nancy

      Could it become a cushion cover with some sewing?

  • ejranville

    I am a knitter, so a lot of projects are unfinished because I have so many going at once. However some nagging non-knitting projects are finishing re-upholstering a wing back chair (started that over 2 years ago) and finishing lining the curtains I made for my living room. Both are things that would give me great joy to have done, so in light of your post I will try to tackle one this weekend and block off some time for the other. Thanks for the push!

  • I’d been packing around an inkle loom since college. It was given to me by a friend. She was more evolved than I, and she knew the wonders of simplifying her life, and focusing on the hobbies that she got the most enjoyment out of. I have this thought process that says, “When the kids are too busy for me, I’ll ________.” I don’t even know what an inkle loom does but I pitched it to focus on my two or three favorite hobbies. Less stuff equals more time to do what I love

  • I know exaclty how you feel! My unfinished project is magazines. I am so far behind and they just keep coming!! I just finished October’s issue…October’s! I was determined to be caught up before the 1st of March; however, it seems that I am still so far behind. Put because of this post, Gretchen, I’m going to complete it. Resolution made and stamped.

    • gretchenrubin

      Maybe you should think about putting some back issues into the recycling,
      and starting fresh. You don’t HAVE to read them!

  • askeladd

    Speaking of time-lapse videos, here is one of Norway I bet you’ll love:

    • annie G

      One of the things that derails me is a kind of perfectionist — I don’t finish a project because I have to do it just *so*. I set my standards so high that I never get around to doing it. I can recognize it in a few posts here — finding the very best digital photo system, the perfect frame — oh, yes, that’s me too. I say embrace the weird small blanket as a lap rug and get the monkey off your back. Me, I’m going to clear out a pile ot to be done jobs in the quickest way, not the perfect way.

  • Love this post! I have a lot of items stranded on my to-do list and a lot of habits that I’ve always wanted to create but never have. And all of these things cause stress and guilt. My entire blog is about trying to get these projects off of my to-do list and finally incorporate these habits I’ve always wanted (flossing?!) – and I try to only dwell on each for one week and then decide whether it is time to remove something from my to-do list instead of letting it sit there and nag me.

  • Kim

    Unread professional journals piling up that never get read…another year goes by and each month, sometimes twice a month the journals continue to arrive in the mail. I’ve put a year limit on them…they go into a nice looking leather box/tote…at the end of the year out goes last years journals into the recycling bins, read or unread.

  • betty

    One unfinished project is one that I am unable to even begin. It involves photographs – actual predigital ones from my kids’ childhoods, plus those that I inherited from my parents, some including people I never met (and have no way of finding out who they are). I would love to get all of these into an album, but this means making sure I have the time line right, and then choosing which photos go into the album (we always have many photos taken at the same time/event) and which will be discarded (HELP — how does one discard a photograph of ones children). The thought of having to make all these decisions has paralyzed me for the past forty (yes that’s right – 40) years. And the “sticky” album that I bought makes putting anything into it quite permanent. Maybe I’ll start out by getting an envelope album in which I can begin organizing the photos (rather than spreading them out on the table, getting lost in the middle and shoveling them all back into shoe boxes). It would be nice to get this one done.

    • gretchenrubin

      It always helps to break a huge project into small steps, and just think
      about that one small step in front of you. Looking at the thing as a whole
      can be overwhelming.

      When we finished FOUR TO LLEWELY’S EDGE, we laughed — knowing that we’d had
      NO idea how much work it would end up being. But we didn’t really know quite
      what we were doing, so we just worked one step at a time, and figured it out
      as we went. That helped.

      I have a weird thing about photos of my children, too. And I have a friend
      who keeps boxes and boxes of OTHER people’s holiday cards, because she can’t
      bear to throw away photos of their children! I have conquered this, though,
      by sitting myself down and reminding myself that this is superstitious. It’s
      okay to throw away a bad photo of my children, and in fact, by having fewer
      photos, we’ll get more enjoyment of the good photos, because they’ll be
      easier to see.

      But I know, it feels very uncomfortable.

    • Meg

      Have you thot of making bundles and giving them to your children to do something with? I started that for my son, he said not to do it for him. He wasn’t interested in old pics – especially with strangers in them. He told me flat out that he would toss them at some point. This did it for me, I don’t need pics of unwanted material either. Took what went into a collage frame and tossed the rest.

  • Wow, you’ve hit a raw nerve with me! I realized a few years ago that unfinished projects were a real emotional drain for me.
    Scrapbooking was slowing driving me insane. The supplies grew as fast as bunnies and one day, we (me and the scrapbook room) had a showdown. Either stop where I’m at and clean it all up or figure out a realistic way to keep up with this ‘never-ending art project from hell”, as I had begun to call it.
    A friend introduced me to digital scrapbooking and after some kicking and screaming on my part, I finally got ahead of the learning curve and have come to enjoy it quite a bit. When I’m finished, I close the lid to the laptop and we’re good.
    The room that took up all of the scrapbooking junk became a much needed extra bedroom for one of our teenage sons. It felt wonderful to clean up all of that papers, stickers, templates, etc, etc. I spared nothing, kept nothing, absolutely nothing…..I gave it all away! I wanted every last scrap of it out of my house.
    After years of this hobby being absolutely miserable for me to maintain, I now enjoy it again. Leaving the legacy of albums is important to me, but I’m not crafty and all I did was continually wear myself out with something I believed in but hating the process.
    Sometimes a paradigm shift is all we need, another way to ‘skin that cat’ so to speak.

    Kelly Morris

  • lisahazen

    I have young children. Knowing I would never do a babybook, I did a baby blog instead. It’s easy to update, my family loves it, and I will have a weekly record of my kids when they’re older.

  • craigawilkins

    I guess this is one of my be Craig rules. I come from a let your reach always exceed your grasp family, so I always have large sometimes impossible projects on the go. When I start feeling stressed out it is always because I have too many unfunished projects or undone tasks weighing down on my shoulders. The key for me, a 1 point list workdays, and 10 point list on days off. The smallest jobs being the most important. I start feeling relaxed right away, just from knowing what I have unfinished. Funny how writing that thank you note I’ve been putting off suddenly makes me feel like the magazine article I’m writing is going better and the second 50 pounds I’m trying to lose in my diet is really acheivable!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s weird how tackling a small, nagging task can give you a boost to deal
      with something huge. The person who is my weight-training instructor told me
      that sometimes she sees that when people get well underway with their
      exercise routine, they make big career switches, etc. A relatively small
      positive change can be the energy source for something more ambitious.

  • Rose Ann

    The following is part of a poem from an old 1958 Ladies Home Journal : “Quiet down cobwebs, dust go to sleep, I’m rocking my baby & babies don’t keep”.
    Sometimes ~ “LETTING GO” is important, the dust & the laundry will still be there tomorrow. Our children grow up sooo fast 🙁

  • I found your book and site through Chew and Digest the book review blog, she gave you a very ‘happy’ review! I’ll be reading…

  • MelissaJane

    You know what’s a great help in clearing out stuff like this? Freecycle! Give that mountain scene kit to someone who’s excited to get it, will love and use it, and will come pick it up this afternoon. I love giving stuff away to people who truly want it and are delighted to get it – it turns my hard-to-part-with-but-unnecessary stuff into a little gift that brightens up someone else’s day. What a great way to turn annoyances into happiness!

    • gretchenrubin

      For a lot of people, knowing that someone will be able to use the things
      they’re giving up makes it a lot easier to part with things. If you have
      trouble letting go, focus on the joy that someone will get from actually
      using the stuff that is crowding your house, untouched!

  • debhayden

    I find it useful to have a special section at the end of my project list where I put everything that is a “someday maybe” item. While this works well for ideas for future projects, it also is a good parking place for projects that are unfinished or on hold for some reason. Then the master list only contains items that are being given current attention.

  • Diana

    my friend Deb has a good solution to the photo problem (a big problem for me). Every time she downloads a big batch of photos she picks out a couple (or a few) of really great ones and puts them in a file called scrapbook. Then when you are ready to make an album you have the best photos in one place and you don’t have to sort them. I am trying to do this!

    • Sophia

      Gretchen, I love this post. Was cleaning out the fridge and realized that when I buy food intending to cook it, but don’t get around to it, I have no guilt about pitching it after a week or so because it’s no good any more. Maybe I should start thinking of magazines and projects the same way: put an expiry date on them, and if not done by then, consider them “stale” so I can throw them out and forget about trying. Stale projects hanging around the house can be just as poisonous as spoiled food!

      My big struggle is the many books that my parents have given me with the best intentions. Most of them I have utterly no interest in reading, but they’re signed inside the front cover, dedicated with love to me, and I can’t bear the idea of giving them to a used bookstore where strangers will see that I’ve given away my parents’ gifts. So they sit on the shelf unread…

  • DavidL31

    Finishing a book…even though I know I’m not liking it, or some sections aren’t sitting well with me, etc.

    I tend to get into a bad rut with this because I’ll basically hang on to a book for several weeks more than I should this way. Usually it’s because I feel I need to finish what I started.

    I finally halted on one that was a little too grisly for me today, but I should have done that a week ago.

    To that end, I think this is a really timely post and a resolution I’m definitely going to add to my toolbox.

  • Wow, wow, wow. This is such a great post to read right now (I discovered your book and blog in the last two months and it’s been so fantastic reading and thinking about these things). I am struggling with an unfinished novel that I’ve been working on for more than a year now.

    It has come in spurts — in March of last year, I wrote 50,000 words. To me, that seemed like something HUGE! WOW! 50,000 words! But then, following that, I lost my enthusiasm until July…when I completed the rough draft. And again, it was this burst of YAY! Look what I did! Awesome!

    Now, since July, I have been trying to edit this monstrosity. It hasn’t been fun or interesting…it just feels like…work. And given that I’m in a job that is pretty emotionally draining, it just sits on my desktop with its accusatory little, “Why haven’t you opened this file lately?” look to it…

    Did you ever feel that way with your book? Did editing/rewriting/revising ever feel like this overwhelmingly dry task that you didn’t want to do?

    • gretchenrubin

      Here’s a writing-specific strategy to consider (and I speak from much
      experience here): work on your draft EVERY DAY. Don’t let a day good by
      without opening the file. If you just sit there and re-read what you’ve
      already written, fine.

      One challenge with a big project is staying connected to it. If too much
      time goes by, the effort to re-engage with the project feels overwhelming,
      and you can’t face it — let alone do any more work.

      By staying connected to the project, you make it easy to start back in
      again. The work may be hard, but at least you’re “in” the project. Also, the
      more you’re thinking about your project, the more creative and engaged
      you’ll be, with your ideas.

      Also, don’t expect it to be fun all the time. Secret of Adulthood: Happiness
      doesn’t always make us feel happy.

      Good luck!!

  • Donna

    I’ve always set resolutions to finish that, finish this, etc., etc. Never have I thought about calling an end to a project not completed! Thank you! you have given me permission to just end it! I’m going to use March as my “take stock” month and either finish it, schedule it to be finished, or just end it. Very much like the boxes used to unclutter your closet: one for charity, one for trash, ….

    Thank you!

  • tutorgal

    I am currently reading your book, and you are inspiring me tremendously!
    Thank you so much!!
    tutor gal.

  • Nancy

    Unfinished projects are a big issue for knitters. My knitting group is planning a competition where we will attempt to finish as many as possible in a six-week timeframe, with prizes for most completed, oldest project etc.

  • Gretchen – thank you for your focus on finishing things! Your nagging task resolution mixes nicely with finishing projects, though I suppose it is unfortunate that tasks we take on for fun become nagging! Here is mine, ( a toy that I had the idea for over two years ago, and has been worked on so slowly that the preschool children I first shared it with are now in kindergarten! It is an amazing feeling to have it finished, and especially to have made the video which my siblings and friends have seen all over the world. Phew. Now . . . on to the next one!

  • Rob_Mk_II

    Thanks for this post! This one is my personal major problem area, and I’m going to have to go think about it for a while today.

  • Joless

    I decided to think about my unfinished (and unstarted) projects in a different way. I used to feel guilt and stress over not completing them and had lists and lists everywhere til I decided that what I enjoyed most was the thinking and planning process. Now I still dream and think and plan which I really enjoy, but don’t beat myself up if nothing comes of it.

    If I don’t get around to whatever it is, it clearly wasn’t that important/urgent. I get around to things when they become necessary or obvious rather than forcing myself to do them when it’s not easy. Often I find that I do little bits here and there and suddenly things are nearly complete without noticing because I am in the mindset of knowing how it’s going to be when it’s done. Then I can finish 🙂

    • persephone

      LOVE THIS! it is honoring one’s true self’s desires, instead of planning and forcing against one’s will. thank you!

  • Nice post. I’m rather organised and know sometimes it’s best to drop a project – but I can never force myself too. Suppose I’ll have to work on it :p

  • DForte27

    My biggest problem is finishing books, currently I’m in the middle of three books including “The Happiness Project” and I have an obsession with buying more books, but I can never get to them. My friends and family think I am this avid reader which I am but I have a ton of unfinished books that I have had to stop reading all together. Time is what kills me really, I can’t find the time to read. In the past I’ve designated 45 minutes a night to reading but that has gone out the window.

    • gretchenrubin

      If you skip ahead to chapter 9, you’ll see that I have a whole CHAPTER about
      how to get more reading done! I know the frustration!

  • I’m so happy I found this. I feel better having read it!

  • Buying your book this week! I finally finished a huge stack of books I’ve been trying to tackle for months and have been dying to read it! Great post – ironically – it did feel good to get through my to-do business reading – and I learned a ton! Now onto something I’m sure I will learn a ton from and enjoy!

  • Jeri

    Wow! I didn’t know there was a whole community of “us” out there. There is encouragement in numbers. I will take your suggestions and your readers’ comments to heart just as soon as I dig out from under all this chaos. Thanks.

  • I do not thing it is coincidental that I found this site today. Today is officially my first day off from work for the next 6-8 weeks. I’ve been in two car accidents in the past two years where I was rear ended. I suffered two herniated discs in the first and while I was continuing on my very slow recovery I was rear ended again. My back was injured further but because the injury couldn’t be seen (i.e., visualized on an MRI) it was given less meaning although it has affected my functionality much more. I have gotten to the point where I don’t know what my life is about any more except my injury. My life revolves around it and repairing it and me in one way or another. I want to put it on the back burner and begin to live my life again. I want to go back to work more, get much better at quilting which I started only about a year ago and try to see friends more, even if they dont live here. I want to decide what matters most to me in my life and spend my time doing that. At the moment my life is filled with a lot of unfinished projects and I am slowly divesting myself of them without feeling guilty. I am giving away books I’ve never read and never will, giving away knitting projects I never liked and will never finish. Donating yarn to any place or anyone that wants it or needs it. Planning to go through my house room by room and giving away or selling those things that are not used, don’t fit or I just plain old don’t like. It is so liberating. I hope I can keep going and then find empty spots to fill in with all the things I want to be in my life. This couldn’t have come on a more perfect day. Back to the old corny saying I heard so long ago, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”. I can truly say today that is true.

  • Amanda M

    I printed university business cards with a website URL, optimistically planning to build a simple website. I was able to put up a barely adequate single page at the URL, but had a nagging to-do to figure out how to improve the site. I realized recently that no one expects me to have my own website, and it would be easier and good closure to just print different cards without the URL! Feels great!

  • Rosemarycxy878

    Congrats on all the success. I have also finished a couple of things,
    and had a
     “happy accident”
    of my own. My happy accident was my ELF
    Translucent Mattifying Powder. I was at work and it fell off my desk and
    completely busted. I was almost done with it anyway. So yay!!!! I also
    finished my maybelline falsies mascara and my olay age defying
    intensive nourishing night cream. We are doing awesome!!! Yay us!

  • It’s funny, often times I fear the idea of admitting that I am not going to finish something, yet every time I muster the boldness to do just that, I get stronger.

    The truth is that parenting three daughters (7,5, and 3) it’s imperative that we not carry the added weight of the unfinished. We’ve been working together, kids and adults, to identify what isn’t working and what matters most.

  • Alex

    Procrastination is a horrible crushing weight, and makes life seem like you’re swimming wearing concrete shoes.  I’ve reached the point were the procrastinated projects at home are affecting my work performance because I spend time thinking about the incomplete projects.  I’ve resolved to work my way through the Procrastination List, and am happy to report I’ve crossed nine items off the list in the last week, and only added one new item (money is an obstacle for its completion at the moment.)

    Sometimes complexity of the projects that end up unfinished.  The project starts out as one simple thing, and ends up with contingencies that turn it into an octopus.  Emptying out the car trunk means putting away what’s in there, which means reorganizing storage space.  Getting the ladder out to change the light bulb in the hallway turns into needing rewiring. 

    Multiple unfinished projects are a huge brain drain, leading to more unfinished projects because you can’t think properly about the work at hand. Part of your mind is always dealing with the lurkers.

    • gretchenrubin

      I call those boomerang errands – you think you’re getting something done, but it just comes right back at you.

  • The Diplomatic Wife

    OMG this is just what I needed to read! For me it’s the knitting project, the scrapbooking of pictures and digitizing of old photos. I should just sell the knitting project since I’m obviously not that into it. I should also give up on physical scrapbooking since I am more into digital scrapbooking anyway (gotta sell all the scrapbooking stuff!) and I obviously have to get to digitizing! Thanks for this amazing post that so many people can relate too!

  • Pingback: A Good Question to Ask Yourself: Who Are You? - Ms. Career Girl()

  • beewhocodes

    as I read your page, I opened more tabs b/c I projected that they contained equally interesting ideas that I can learn from. Then there they sit, tabs after tabs didn’t get read in time partially b/c I wanted to read them all. So that’s my unfinished project for now, among others…

  • beewhocodes

    Dear Grechen,
    Do you find value in this recovery reading pertaining to this subject of discussion? I got it from my hot yoga instructor. It resonates a lot with me, making me feel better about my unfinished projects but I do understand it operates on the assumption that we will eventually finish these projects.
    Journey To The Heart

    Learn to Live with Unfinished Projects

    Whether your project is sewing a dress, reading a book, writing a book, building a home, or learning a lesson on your journey, learn to live comfortably with unfinished work. Whatever you’re working on, whatever you’re in the midst of doesn’t need to be finished, in perfect order, with all the loose ends in place for you to be happy.

    For too many years, we worried and fretted, denying ourselves happiness until we could see the whole picture, learn the entire lesson, cross every t and dot each i. That meant we spend a lot of stressful time waiting for that one moment when the project was complete.

    Enjoy all the stages of the process you’re in. The first moments when the germ of the idea finds you. The time before you begin, when the seed lies dormant in the ground, getting ready to grow. The beginning, and all the days throughout the middle. Those bleak days, when it looks like you’re stuck and won’t break through. Those exciting days when the project, the lesson, the life you’re building takes shape and form.

    Be happy now. Enjoy the creative process– the process of creating your life, yourself, and the project you’re working on–today. Don’t wait for those finishing moments to take pleasure in your work and your life. Find joy all along the way.

    I hope everyone enjoy this daily recovery reading.