I sat down for the latest round of Project Cleanup, wherein I list all of my unfinished projects in an attempt to clear some of them away. Ever do that? I know people (hi, Mom) who would require pages to list their started but incomplete projects.
Let’s be honest. Starting is fun. Finishing is hard. I’ve been forced to learn finishing via my primary income vocation. If you are lucky enough to work in a deadline-driven industry then you have been drafted into the Finisher’s Reserves. A surprising number of people never learn the skill of wrapping up a project.
Still, I have unfinished projects. Some are sitting, waiting on resources. For example, I have a couple of airbrush painting projects but I needed a new compressor (busted piston rod) and a new medium head. I got the new compressor from Santa and tried to finish without the new head but it actually made things worse, so now I get to strip the paint off and start over.
Finishing a project provides a huge emotional response, even if the project is no more inspiring than to keep the blackberries from taking over (more of) the back yard. Finishing is a relief, a release. I can’t finish a project without a monster-sized sigh of relief.
Projects Are Debt
Accepting a new project means that you have committed into the future your most valuable resource, your time, towards the completion of the project. Being that this is a project and not just a task, it cannot be completed in a single sitting. Therefore, your time has become encumbered by the liability of the project. Does it matter if a project is just for you? No, it does not, not in the sense of whether or not the project incurs time-debt.
If you buy a model airplane for yourself, you’ve accepted that project even if you never open the box. Taking the least step towards a project implies accepting the whole project, or at a minimum your roll in the project. Don’t buy the fabric or the yarn or the lumber or the tools for a project until you are also ready to accept the debt-load of accepting the project. Don’t tell your buddy or parents or children you are going to do a project until you are ready to finish it.
When it comes to project debt the only someday projects are the ones you haven’t begun at all.
How “Interesting” Becomes Interest
There is a carrying cost for unfinished projects. Let’s call it interest on the debt. You’ve accepted the project of painting the living room. But, you did that as a way to put off actually doing the painting, reasoning that committing would buy you a few weeks of peace on the subject.
The problem is that your brain now has to track the project. It knows you have committed to it and that you aren’t working on it. It costs attention and energy even if you never take a single step beyond the verbal commitement. Every day a project remains incomplete is another day of paying interest.
In addition, the time that has been reserved to painting can’t be committed to other projects in the same timeframe. You can’t (responsibly — see below) sell the same time to more than one “buyer”. So while the project sits unfinished and perhaps barely started, the painting project is tying up your mental and physical capacity for no purpose except carrying costs.
Your Credibility Rating.
That isn’t to say people can’t and don’t work on multiple concurrent projects. Of course they do and it is OK as long as you take care of your credibility rating.
Have you ever known people who commit to projects at the drop of a hat but rarely, if ever, complete them? (Hi, Mom.) Just like financial bankruptcy, time bankruptcy is ruinous. Taking on more projects than you have time to work on leads to defaults, missed “payments” of project deliverables, all of which causes a downgrade in your credibility. Even, or especially, with yourself.
Overspending your ability to repay leads to a damaged credit rating and, if unchecked, bankruptcy.
Overspending your time does the same to your credibility, your reputation. The people who track your credibility rating are your friends, family, and coworkers. We all do it. We don’t want to work with or for a credibility bankrupt. We don’t want to be tied to a sinking ship so we are on alert for the signs.
There is only one way to clear project debt. No, two ways. There are only two ways to clear project debt. Wait, there’s a third. OK, there are only three (I’m sure it is only three) ways to remove project debt from your personal ledger.
- Finish it! Seems obvious but I know people for whom it might come as a shock. (Hi, Mom!) Have you noticed how good it feels to put in some work on a project and see it move forward, even a little bit? That’s because your debt-load has gone down a bit and your interest payments are also decreased. Great feeling, right?
- Quit! Yes, you can often simply decide to no longer participate in a project. But you have to take some concrete steps. If others are involved, you must tell them and do a responsible hand-off regarding the state of the project to those who remain with it. If it is personal and does not involve others then clear away the detritus of the commitment. Throw away the partially completed items. Donate what can be donated. Clear it out! You are done with the project, you’ve quit it so clear it away and don’t look back.
- Renegotiate! See if you can change the terms of your time commitment. Instead of working 10 hours a week on that Algebra text, perhaps 4 hours is more realistic. Maybe you can delay painting the living room until June? You’ll have to get other parties to agree if this is more than a personal project but they might if you can make a reasonable case. You’ll still carry the debt and pay the interest but renegotiating terms can keep you out of bankruptcy.
- Delegate it! (Ok, five — no four — ways.) If you can get away with having somebody else do the work then you can increase your time-capacity by using their time.
If you feel tired and overwhelmed, consider the possibility that your project debt load is at or over your limit. Use the options above to clear away some project debt and feel the surge of energy. I know I do.