Unfinished projects

Every now and then, life hands you an opportunity to reevaluate your views and habits. Of course, at the time, these events usually look more like a crisis than an opportunity,

A few years back, I went to a new optometrist for a routine checkup. He handed me a disturbing diagnosis: I had macular degeneration, which meant that over the next several years, my field of vision would narrow until I was nearly, or even totally, blind.

To my great relief, a follow-up with a specialist contradicted this diagnosis. There were some problems with my retinas, but nothing that would turn the lights out any time soon. But this scare set a series of changes in motion.  The one I want to talk about today is dealing with unfinished projects.

I started doing needlework when my first son was born. After son #2, it became a form of therapy. It was a good way to unwind after ensuring that this small, hyperkinetic, perpetual motion machine made it to the end of the day alive. At the time, it also gave my hands something to do while I was watching news. (I stitched a Victorian sampler during the Gulf War Crisis. There’s probably a political statement in there somewhere.) But when I had to start evaluating activities in terms of whether or not it was how I wanted to use the limited eyesight remaining to me, the answer to needlework was an emphatic “no.”  I gave away my embroidery floss and tossed out several unfinished projects.

Even after the eyesight scare was resolved, I found myself evaluating projects in terms of limited resources. This process didn’t happen overnight–it’s still ongoing–and it hasn’t been easy.  The oddest things can hit the rationalization button and start the loop that that says you’ll be able to do everything you want to do…someday.  For me, one of those things was abandoning an entire flock of future dragons.

Over the years, I made several fabric sculpture dragons as gifts or as auction items at various fundraisers. I collected fabric pieces that approximated tiny scales and the swirling colors of leather wings, and after a while I’d amassed enough materials for a couple dozen dragons.  Each dragon can take up to 20 hours to complete. When I considered the other things I needed and wanted to do, the opportunity cost of dragon creation was just too high.

Unfinished projects create two kinds of clutter: physical and mental. They take up space in your home and in your head, where they create a background chorus of “shoulds” and “somedays” that diminishes your focus, creates unnecessary decisions, and siphons off energy from the here and now.

Dealing with unfinished projects is really more of a task than a habit, but there are several worthwhile habits involved in the process.

  • Confront.  Procrastination and avoidance are habits. Whenever you exert the energy needed to deal with an issue now, today, you’re weakening the hold these habits have on you by replacing them with a more active response.
  • Evaluate.  In general, people are really bad at deciding the value of a single activity. Relative decisions, however, are much easier to make and lead to better results. Dealing with your unfinished projects is an opportunity to start cultivating the habit of making comparative decisions.  When you’re considering the fate of an unfinished project, evaluate it in terms of other activities. If it rates low, donate or toss it. If it rates high, plan a time to finish it. Which brings us to…
  • Schedule.  If something is worth doing, schedule a time to do it. Be specific and realistic. If it’s a long-term project or an activity you truly want as part of our life, you may want to set up a new habit to help ensure that you have time to pursue it.
  • Focus.  The process of evaluating, scheduling, and discarding unfinished projects helps you focus on what’s important to you. It’s very difficult to move forward if you’re being pulled in a hundred different directions.

So if you’re in simplification/uncluttering mode, this may be a good place to start. Gather all your unfinished projects and decide which ones to schedule and which ones to cut loose. The process can be a little painful, but it’s also very freeing. You’ll be gaining closet space, which is good, and clarity, which is even better.