How To Complete (or Junk) An Unfinished Project

(I originally wrote this article for the website Pick The Brain.)


So that brilliant new idea that washed over you in a hot rush of genius? It didn’t feel so hot once you put in a few hours. That big assignment that you fueled with caffeine and shook your finger at pointedly? It paid no mind to your stern threats of completion. You’re left sitting at your desk (your couch) with a cold keyboard, a warm remote, and a stomach full of gummy bears.

We right-brainers, project-non-completers, and coffee-hoisters know all too well how the thrill of a spark gets dampened by time and our inner-critic. What yesterday felt like a breakthrough in human ingenuity, today feels like yet another unfinished project; or worse, just another dumb idea.

If we were all lucky enough to have a tiny bobblehead life coach stuck to the dashboard of our brains, she would likely remind us at this point that there are no dumb ideas. That if we’d just organize our desk and buy more file folders, our workflow and carry-through would breed and spawn into a litter of completed projects.

But Project Runway just ended, there isn’t a life coach around for miles, and this puppy is due at 9 a.m. So here’s what you do:

Step 1.  Think of this pause in your motivation as the best gift ever. The gift of reevaluating what you’re doing in the first place, and why. What’s the point of this project? How did you feel when you envisioned it? And what will be the intrinsic reward when it’s completed?

I wish I could say that all projects, by virtue of their being birthed in your brain parts, are worth carrying through to completion. Sorry, my cheery optimism can’t come out and play right now. Take the time to evaluate if this project is still worth your time. If your job or grade depends on it, it’s probably worth your time. If you are obsessed with it, your passion deserves attention.

However, if this is just some wayward invasive seed that got rooted in your brain, yank it out and toss it in the composter. You have too many big ideas to get distracted by something small and weedy. No guilt, just let it go. If there’s something about the concept that’s intoxicating but not right for this moment, you won’t be able to junk it. Trust that instinct, jot down enough of the idea that it will jog your memory later, and file it away in your banker’s box of transient schemes. That way you’re respecting your new ideas by giving them a home, yet also respecting the backlog of ideas that are waiting for some love.

Step 2.  If you determine the project is worth your current effort, it’s time to silence your mind and sit with this baby for awhile. Nurture it, sing to it softly, and don’t drop it on its head.

First, try holding up a stop sign to all those self-critical voices that are popping up as you try to get your work done. I mean this (almost) literally. Picture a stop sign and flash it in front of your mind’s eye — that inner-critic Cyclops — every time he tries to stomp on your project. Stop worrying about how much work is left. Stop telling yourself it’s just too damn hard. Keep flashing the stop sign every time you see a jaywalking critic. “Hey jerky, can’t yeh see I’m walkin’ here!”

If this all becomes too much, STOP “working” altogether and just sit in silence for 15 minutes. This is meditation and this works. You need to give it a rest. Set a timer for 15 minutes and let the clouds float by in your brain. When time is up, clean up any clutter on your workspace, rearrange your materials in front of you, and try working again. Do not think about reaching the end. Do not think about the enormity of the project. You already know all about ends and enormities, so Stop. Then go.

Step 3.  Stay fully present in the moment and then type one word. Draw one line. Once you’ve written one word, or one sentence, concentrate on writing one more. Concentrate on putting in one minute of work. Then one more minute. You’re breaking down the enormity of a task into the smallest pieces you can handle at any given moment. You can only do what’s now, so focus on the tree rather than the forest. Momentum will build.

Step 4.  If Step 3 doesn’t work — you’re sitting there for 10 minutes and nothing is happening but frustration — get up and do something “light” for 5 minutes. Don’t get distracted with a new task. Do not turn on the T.V. or get sucked into the Internet! Just grab a snack or a breath of fresh air and come back. What we don’t want to do is train the brain to run away every time it’s frustrated. But we also don’t want you sitting at the desk stuck in snowballing desperation. Strike a balance between stepping away to recharge and pushing through the discomfort of worker’s block. Push-through and stick-to-itiveness will build up your project-completing willpower and confidence.

Side note: Trust your instinct. There are probably two voices (at least) in your head that will help guide you toward the right decision. One will probably say “If I take a smart break now, it will help me prepare for good work when I return.” The other voice will say “Enough! You’ve taken fifteen dumb breaks, no more excuses, just do the work!”

Step 5.  (Contingency Plan). Get the hell out of there! For some reason that I’m sure someone somewhere knows the answer to, there’s something magical about working from a coffee shop rather than an office. There’s also this horrible long-standing myth that all good work must be created at a cold hard desk. If you’re not getting your work done at point A, find a warm and cozy point B and repeat steps 1 through 4.

Once you’re absorbed in your project, maintain the momentum by not responding to distractions. Stop taking the short breaks that will interrupt your flow. You may not eat again for hours, weeks! But who cares as long as you get the project done. And you will.

Postscript: Some of these ideas may seem very simple and obvious to you. But have you actually practiced a new behavior to boost your productivity? If you need your behavior to change, you need to actually change your behavior. By keeping this process simple, you can focus more time on your project at hand and less time learning all the productivity strategies out there that allegedly take you to the finish line.