How to Finish What You Start

Why don’t we follow through?

Many comments on my recent post “Today is Day One” were from people letting me know that they could really relate to starting new projects. The trouble is, so many times when we start a new project, we don’t follow through with it.

It’s one thing to write down a goal on a piece of paper, or even to break it down into smaller goals, and quite another to really do it.

What is laying around your space waiting to be finished? A craft project? A half-painted room? A semi-constructed shelf?

What is laying around your mental space waiting to be finished? A business plan? A book idea?

What prevents us from following through? I think it’s some of the same stuff that prevents us starting in the first place. We get really motivated to begin and then run out of steam. We decide that it’s not really worth our time. We say we will finish it later. And then it goes so long that it seems like admitting failure to pick it back up again.

My unfinished projects

In the interest of honesty and transparency, I have some confessions to make:

  • I have painted a room and then left it without a second coat of paint for months. MONTHS. (It’s still not painted with a second coat).
  • It took me several months to unpack my stuff when I moved into my boyfriend’s house (and it wasn’t even a lot of stuff)
  • I signed up to be a Zoo volunteer, then didn’t complete my hours. Only 40 hours a year, and I didn’t do it.
  • I cleaned my office at work and took a box of stuff home. It’s been on the couch for a month.

I am not proud of these things.

What prevents me (and you) from completing projects?

What’s stopping us – the 3 Ps

Planning. Many times, what stops us in our tracks is the fact that we don’t adequately plan for the whole project. When I painted our kitchen, I thought that we could paint the kitchen and dining room in a day and be totally done. I also planned on making the curtains too. All of this I wanted to turn around in less than 48 hours. When I told my mother, she laughed. It took us most of a day just to wash down the walls and tear down a shelf. Then painting time. I couldn’t guilt her into coming back the next day so I finished the dining room on my own. And then I made the curtains. Months later.

For any project, you need to adequately plan for the resources you need, including your time and energy as well as material resources such as supplies and equipment.

Priorities. Sometimes we get this idea of a great project we can work on, whether it’s making a garden in the back yard, or learning to knit, or starting a business, etc., and we don’t align it with our priorities. My goals line up like dominoes a little bit. My ultimate priority is to be a good parent. (Not even pregnant yet). To do this, I want to be able to work from home. To do that, I need to start and work hard at a business. I also want us to be debt free (or at least really close to it) before we start a family, so every credit card paid off means one step closer to this big priority. And the self-employment is helping with the debt payoff too because it provides additional income for our household right now.

If you prioritize your family, you need to align your projects within that priority. So, a garden project might make you groan and think about all the hard work that you will need to put into it, but what does that garden mean to you? It means healthy food and/or beautiful flowers for your family. It means less time at the grocery store and more time teaching your kids where food comes from. I just tilled our back garden over the weekend, and I had been dreading it. But it only took me a couple of hours to till out a plot and shovel all the sticks and other various garden detritus over onto the compost pile. And I planted potatoes to feed my boyfriend. I know that garden will align with my priorities of self care and taking care of my family. It also helps me promote a healthy environment. And those are all priorities in my life!

It is all about aligning our actions with our priorities. If something doesn’t feel right or you can’t get motivated, reflect on how it fits into your life’s priorities. It is okay to give up on things that don’t serve you and re-evaluate them.

Perfection. I’m a recovering perfectionist. I don’t want to do something until I know I can do it exactly right and have it look perfect. I have since learned that done is better than perfect, and I have subsequently been able to jump in on a project and allow it to go on even if it isn’t done perfectly.

A good example of this is our home office. We’ve been saying that we need to clean it up and get it ready all winter, and we really have gone in and cleaned it several times. And then it gets un-cleaned because we throw a bunch of stuff in there for storage. But when I wanted to get my desk into the office to start feeling better about my productivity when working from home, we had to go back in and get it semi-ready. This means wiggling some shelves around and sorting things into a few piles in order to make the space. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s functional. It’s worth it to put in the time to get it to “functional” even if you can’t go to “perfect” in one fell swoop.

The other side of this coin is to give up control sometimes. We have a tendency to think nobody else can do something as well as we would do it. (Might just be me). This is a function of the perfectionism, because I believe that nobody else will put in the details to make it as perfect as I will. This argument is completely moot when I realize that the perfectionism stops me from doing anything in the first place. Stop the cycle!

Following through

Here’s are some questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not a project or goal is worth pursuing.

  1. Do I want to do this project or task?
  2. Does this project or task align with my priorities?
  3. Do I have money for this project available and affordable given my/our current financial circumstances?
  4. Is the time to complete this project or task available, or can I reduce commitments elsewhere in order to fit this task into my schedule?
  5. Can I expend the additional effort to complete this task, given everything on my plate right now?
  6. Do I have the space for this project or task?
  7. Do I possess the equipment and/or skills necessary to perform this project or task?

Ideally, to pursue a project or task, you should be able to answer yes to all eight questions. In order to know that a project is truly worth doing, you should want to do it, it should align with your priorities, you should have the available money, time, effort, space, equipment, and skills for it.

The power of outsourcing

What happens when you have only a few “yes” answers on your list but still want or need to accomplish a task? This is when you phone a friend to come by and help. People do this all the time – for example, most people call a plumber or electrician when something is broken in their house. They want the problem fixed, and fixing it aligns with their priorities, but they don’t have the necessary skills or equipment, even if they do have the time and energy to do so. Some people can and do perform their own home repair work because they do possess the skills and equipment.

There is a trade-off between the value of your time and energy. Last week, I mowed the grass for the first time. Our electric mower was not up to the task of the too-tall grass and I wound up spending an hour mowing a relatively tiny yard, just frustrated. I got some exercise in, which is about the only positive thing I can say because our yard still looked crazy. Sometimes it’s worth spending the twenty bucks to have someone do a task for you if you do not have the skills or adequate equipment.

Sometimes outsourcing can align with your priorities, if you have the money to outsource. For example, one of my idols, Chalene Johnson, very early in her career, began to outsource the household laundry chore to a housekeeper. They didn’t even really have the money, but for Chalene, there was no way they were going to get their income where it needed to be if she kept procrastinating by doing household chores instead of working on her business. She and her husband have a very successful coaching company, helping entrepreneurial couples succeed in their businesses. For her particular case, she needed to know that her household duties were being taken care of so that she could focus on her business tasks. (Confession: I need to do this too, but lack funds to do it right now… but I absolutely use housework to procrastinate, and I’m aware of it)! The Johnsons’ housekeeper is now a trusted and important member of their family, not only doing the laundry but also taking care of the rest of the house and even doing the grocery shopping. She even washes all of the fresh produce and puts it into easily accessible containers in the fridge so everything is fresh and available for healthy choices. You know, all the things we wish we had the energy to do for our families.

Consider the following opportunities to outsource tasks:

  • Hire someone to mow your grass
  • Hire a housekeeper to do routine cleaning, errands, and laundry
  • Subscribe to a meal planning service to help you plan your family’s dinners and create a shopping list
  • Contract with a freelancer online to help organize and perform business goals, website design, content, etc.

You don’t even have to pay somebody for some of these things. It’s possible that you could work out a trade or barter for a service: maybe you can trade a home cooked meal for your neighbor to cut your grass, or perhaps you can trade babysitting services to someone who can clean your home once a week. Get creative.

You could also assign someone else in your family to perform some household duties instead of feeling like it’s your job to do everything. I know for a fact that everyone living here knows how to do laundry but for some reason I feel like I’m the best laundry-doer in the entire world and that I need to do the laundry. Like that’s how I serve my family.

Know how I can best serve my family? By not being a basket case trying to do everything – EVERYTHING – that needs done in the house. I have to let go of some control and put a little trust in others’ abilities.

Follow through

This week, pick a task or goal that has been on your to-do list and run it through the questions above. Let me know what you find out about your tasks and if you can discern why you haven’t been able to follow through with them yet.

6 thoughts on “How to Finish What You Start

  1. EcoCatLady says:

    Oy! I totally SUCK at finishing things. It’s almost a sickness with me. I’m not entirely sure I understand it, but I’ll spend hours and hours on a project, but then when I’m headed down to the finish line, I suddenly panic and get frozen in my tracks. It’s like I’m just sure that this will be the thing that proves once and for all that I am hopelessly inadequate – but if I don’t finish it, then somehow I can avoid the judgement of it not being “good enough.” Or something like that.

    Or maybe I’m just lazy. Seriously, I can’t figure it out. I’ll spend hours doing the laundry – hanging it out to dry, bringing it in, using the lint brush on every piece, folding it all nicely, putting it in a basket and carrying it to the bedroom – and then I hit a wall. I know it will only take 5 minutes to put it all away, but somehow I just can’t push through the strange and nonsensical anxiety to finish the damned job. Sigh.

    • Caitlin says:

      That’s really interesting that even with household chores you hit that road block. I can see fearing failure or imperfection as a major block for some people to finish what they start but with laundry, I’m like “Just get it in a drawer so the cat doesn’t pee on it!”

      What do you think is stopping you from getting the last steps done for laundry?

      • EcoCatLady says:

        No clue… ADD perhaps? It’s totally not logical – it’s like I get to that point of a project and I just start to panic – like some crazy part of me thinks it’s gonna be impossibly hard or something.

        I did have a therapist once who said she thought I purposefully created chaos to distract myself from feelings I didn’t want to face. I’ve now spent decades facing those feelings, but perhaps some part of me still fears order because the crazy part of my brain sees the chaos as some sort of security blanket.

      • Caitlin says:

        I can get behind that. I think I’m addicted to stress sometimes. It gives me an excuse to hide behind. I am also working on it!

  2. irrationalliving says:

    I love this post, especially what you said about being a “recovering perfectionist.” Haha that made me laugh. I was a perfectionist as well…well, really I still am, but I force myself to take action instead of planning forever. This quote is the one that has helped me the most: “You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.” Finishing something is all in how you approach the beginning!

    • Caitlin says:

      I agree, that’s one of my favorite quotes too! Being paralyzed by the possibility of infinite outcomes has been my excuse for holding back for WAY too long. Time to get to making change🙂 Thanks for reading!

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