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June 29, 2009

Getting Things Done Using the Power of Completion

Ever since starting (or rather resurrecting) Finish It Friday, I’ve been thinking about the power of completion. It feels so good to finish things and yet, it's often difficult to do so. Why is that? Here are my thoughts and theories on this pressing subject, and I’d love to hear yours. What gets in your way of getting things done?

Why completion feels so good.
Getting things done, in my opinion, always feels good. There's an endorphin rush that kicks in whenever I check something off my to-do list. If you’ve ever added something to your to-do list (after completing it!) just so you could check it off, then you know what I’m talking about. There’s power in that little check mark, isn’t there?

With lingering projects it goes deeper. Incomplete tasks are mind clutter and these lingering to-dos nag at you. They vie for your attention, and every time you see remnants of them (undone tasks on your to-do list or a pile of papers to go through) there’s that sense of “I should be taking care of this…” So it feels even better to get a lingering task done…yet the longer it lingers the harder it is to do.

The most obvious answer is lack of time. You’re busy. I’m busy. We’re all busy. And yet, busy is just a choice as to how we spend our time. Busy means we’re filling our time with lots of to-dos…instead of just a few and giving ourselves some breathing room. Quite simply, instead of spending our time on half-started, not yet complete projects (or phone calls to schedule appointments) you and I are choosing to do something different with our time.

Now, I realize you don’t have full say over how 100% of your time is spent. (Wouldn’t that be nice?) But certainly how you spend some of your time is your choice. (You’re choosing to read this blog post right now, for example.)

So…why then, if we have say over how we spend some of our time, do we to put off some tasks and projects and instead spend our time starting new ones or doing something else altogether? I think it is this:  every task lingering on your to-do list (or on your psyche, for that matter) has some unpleasant aspect to it. Something about that lingering project or task doesn’t feel good.

Perhaps you want the project to turn out really, really good (OK—perfectly) and midstream evidence is suggesting that this isn’t going to happen. By not finishing the project, you can hold onto the illusion that perfectionism is possible, or avoid the discomfort of accepting that perfectionism isn’t possible. Either way, in the moment, not doing the project appears to feel better than doing it.

Keep this in mind: a finished project is never perfect. It may be really, really good…but perfect is an impossibility. What’s more important is this:  a finished project feels better than one that’s stuck midstream. So, you are far better off finishing the project imperfectly than staying stuck wishing it could be perfect or fretting over the fact that it isn’t turning out perfectly. Or, as I teach in my organizing workshops, instead of striving for perfection, strive to become a happy and productive “imperfectionist.” 

Perfectionism isn’t the only reason projects linger. Sometimes they linger because we aren’t sure what to do next, and figuring it out can put us in a vulnerable position. You have to make a phone call to the insurance company to find out if your mammogram is covered, for example. And if you don’t like to be told no…well, this can be an uncomfortable position.

There are a number of other reasons projects linger, but let’s switch gears and talk about what to do about it. 

How to tap into the power of completion…

  1. Make a list of your started but unfinished tasks, or a list of lingering, nagging and annoying to-do’s. Pull out a piece of paper and brainstorm for five minutes. (Your list, by the way, doesn’t have to be perfect. You can add to it as you go.)

  2. Get concrete about why the tasks are still lingering. Keep your eyes open for the “I just haven’t had time” reason. Remember, you’re simply making different choices about how to spend your time. What’s the real reason this task is lingering? When you find the real reason (or reasons) then you can look for ways to move the project forward.
  3. Scan your list for anything you can renegotiate with yourself. Just because you start something doesn’t mean you have to finish it. If you’re no longer feeling the love for that craft project you started five years ago, decide not to finish it. X the item off your list, and donate any remaining usable supplies. Do this for any project you simply aren’t going to do. Deciding not to do a project feels about as good as finishing one you do want (or need!) to do.
  4. Pick one task on your list and decide to finish it! Now…you don’t have to finish it today—it’s only Monday after all and we finish things on Friday around here. ;) Instead of focusing on finishing, focus on moving it forward. We’ll call today “move it forward Monday” and your goal is simply to spend five minutes moving one of your icky’s forward. You can do that right? Then, do the same thing every day this week. Move your selected task or project forward for five minutes and then stop if you want to. 
  5. Make plans to join me on Friday for the next round of Finish It Friday. When you do, you can see for yourself the power (and powerful feeling) of completion!

In the meantime, be sure to share your thoughts on why you think it’s so hard to finish things. I’d love to hear your personal experiences (and your theories!)

Oh, and by the way, I did make that appointment and finished up another huge project, too! It is very empowering, and addictive I must add!


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Thank you for your blog! I love it. Sometimes it's hard for me to finish things because I underestimate the effort and money it's going to take to finish. I have LOVED doing Finish it Friday. Like others have said, the lingering projects which seemed impossible have only taken 20 minutes to finish, and the feeling of completion is a high! Thanks for the much needed motivation!


Sometimes when I don't finish something its because I don't know how without the help of another person, or because I'm waiting for extra money to be able to finish it. For example, I'm currently in the middle of painting an outdoor trellis for my backyard. There is a color of apple green that I LOVE on the front door of an adjacent neighborhood. I've been trying to get the name of the color, but to no avail. I even took swatches up to the door, but couldn't match it. I painted a part of the trellis a green I chose at the store, but its just not the same as the pretty apple green that I had imagined. I'm waiting to call the mom of the woman who owns the house. I want to ask her if I can barrow her daughter's can of paint, get a match and then return it. Hopefully she will let me, but there is a possibility she won't be able to find the paint can. So often I don't finish a project, either because I don't know how, or because it is dependent upon getting information or help from someone else. Choosing paint colors from those little swatches at the store can be frustrating! Thanks for helping me to realize that not everything has to be so perfect.

Cathy S

So funny to come down and read your post after I just got out of the shower where I was mulling over making a 'finish it BY Friday' list. As a stay-at-home mom during the summer I'm finding lots of unscheduled time that I am not taking advantage of. I'd like to find a list-making method that works for me. I am definitely more productive when I write down goals and typically go for a day to day list that invariably leaves out some of the long-term projects that I need to work on when unexpected time comes up.

As to why I leave a lot of projects unfinished, the main reason is I love the planning and inspiration phase much more than the slogging through to the end. I get very excited about things, even to the point of losing sleep, then leave the project open when it takes longer/more work than expected.


I'm working through my 'finish it' list - which are all remnants from the 101 organising workshops - tonight i did my 'spoons and magnets' collected from all over the place that i decided i no longer wanted to keep them all - but knew there was a 'few special ones' - took less than 10 minutes.

then there was the filing - so i dragged hubby in to go through the ones i'd been waiting for him to comment on before i threw stuff out (i think i've discovered he's a hoarder too - although he likes to blame me)

these on top of the recipes and cds that i did over the past few days have left my dining room almost 'clear' ... so excited by this !!!


I can relate to Cathy S's statement: The inspiration and planning are much more fun (and often the shopping). I too lose sleep thinking about a project but it rarely turns out the way I think it will. I must be quite imaginative and not particularly practical.

Lately I've been thinking smaller scale and working to complete smaller sections of projects rather than make the project all encompassing from the beginning. I've also come to realize that I may not have the time in the future (must be something I'm realizing as I get closer to 50) and I don't want to leave a house full of undone projects for my sons, such as unsorted photos in boxes.


I've realized that I have some characteristics of Adult ADD--especially the distraction part and a particular difficulty breaking big jobs into small tasks. I think that's one of the problems that I have--along with perfectionism ;-)--I can see the big picture, but can't see the steps that will get me there...

I'm working on it! This post is really helpful, along with the skills I'm learning in Org101!


This post is SO helpful! I have several started projects and have a lot of "to dos" to finish. I think your steps will help me reevaluate them and prioritize the things that are still important enough to finish. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!

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