The Undead — Thoughts on Unfinished Projects

Image of four silhouetted hands raised as if from their graves, waving against orange background in zombie-like manner

Years ago, I read a book by a colleague who walked the Camino, a 500-mile trek over the Pyrenees in Spain, ending at the cathedral in Santiago. He reported that the next-to-last day was the hardest. He was tormented by the thought of all the unfinished projects of his life—the projects done 80%, put aside, and never finished. Somehow, he feared, after 30 days and 490 miles, he would not finish this project.

He did, and it was worth all the effort. But that angst he reported made me think about unfinished projects, and the toll they take on one's confidence and happiness. Close to ten years ago, I wrote about this topic for my Thinking Lab members.

Here's what I wrote:

Just to concretize, in two seconds I was able to list the following unfinished projects hanging around my psyche and how long they've been hanging:

      • Three products in development but not yet for sale (3 months - 3 years)
      • Text for the emotions mini-course on the Thinking Lab site (2 months)
      • Instructions to the executors of my will (18 months)
      • Change of address for the rest of the NSA-NYC vendors (1 year)
      • Organizing the storage locker (hah! could be a decade)

These unfinished projects hang around like the Undead. Every time you think of the work yet to do on one of them, it sucks a little of the life force out of you.

Logically, it seems "obvious" that you would be better off either finishing them quickly or consciously abandoning them. But that is surprisingly hard to do. Here are some thoughts on why it's hard, and how you might either bring these undead projects to life or bury them for good.

First, unfinished projects are unfinished for one reason: they were harder than you thought. When you started, you were full of vim and vigor. You had your eye on the goal, and it definitely seemed worth your time and effort to achieve. But then you got started, and the size and scope of the project turned out to be more than you thought. (If it hadn't, the momentum of starting would have been enough to get you close to the finish—and that is motivating to get you over the finish line.)

This is true even of "easy" tasks like changing addresses. It sounds trivial until you realize you don't have a handy-dandy list of everyone who needs to be notified. You cannot snap your fingers to do it; it will take a solid 30 minutes. Suddenly it's not so easy to make the time for it, given your competing priorities.

So the first thing to realize is that unfinished projects are bigger than you initially thought, and they probably need a hardheaded re-evaluation. Knowing what you know now, is this project worth the extra time and effort that it will take to come into reality? Or do you need to scale it down to make it worth your while?

Reducing the scope of a project can be unpleasant. You had an idea for a grand scheme, now it will be minimalist, and that feels discouraging. This is one place where planned evolution can help: If you choose to finish a minimalist version that could evolve into a grander version, you get something done, and you often feel much happier dropping the grand vision when you see how satisfactory the minimalist version is.

On this basis, I hereby decree that all I need to do to organize the storage locker is get a bigger bookcase and put the books on it.

Second, unfinished projects are hard to drop because they represent a promise to yourself. If it is painful to think of renegotiating that promise, then the project represents an important value that needs attention.

One's top values can be achieved by different routes. There is never one particular project that is necessary. Introspecting why a given project matters can help you to clarify your priorities and either make time for the project or see it's not as important as you thought.

On this basis, I hereby decree that those three products are off my list, unless and until I decide one of them is the best thing for me to do for my business right now.

Third, unfinished projects are sometimes hard to finish because you realize finishing isn't going to be as wonderful as you fantasized. The reality of finishing will replace the fantasy of finishing.

I think the solution to that is to focus more on the real value of finishing. In real life, emotions may not be as intense as in your dreams. But in real life, you get actual benefits. Your experience shifts. You have something that you can use.

On this basis, I hereby decree that I will use the next 2-3 newsletters to write the text for the emotions minicourse!

So I encourage you to list your Undead Projects and decide which ones you’ll eliminate and how you’ll make progress on the ones that stick around.

When I reread this recently, I was struck by how effective my three "decrees” had been. I wrote some articles on emotions, I refocused my business on promoting the Thinking Lab, and I created a little lending library for myself in my storage locker. I stopped feeling guilty about the projects I dropped, and was satisfied with the state of the mini-course.

Although I have completed a new estate plan, I notice that I never did write those instructions for my executor. Oops. Still need to do that. The critical issue is that if both my husband and I are gone, our executor and the Ayn Rand Institute need to be able to find all of the Ayn Rand memorabilia in our house. I hereby decree that I will grab my husband and a video camera this week, do an "Ayn Rand tour" of the house, and send it to the appropriate people.

And of course, I see that I have new "undead" projects, some of which date from when we moved to Florida seven years ago.

I have a new decree. Once a year, I will list my "undead" projects and figure out why they are unfinished. Then I will make decisions about them: to do them or to kill them for good.

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