How to Finish Projects
On Monday I offered to write a post about how to finish projects that you start. This is after I already agreed to write a review of a new pizza joint, interview Chicagoans about ketchup, prepare a feature on a friends’ failings, design a book layout for another friend, start playing tennis, learn how to ride a motorcycle and play softball in a league. And that’s in addition to working at my full-time job, finishing freelance work, spending time with my boyfriend, taking care of my dog, exercising, cleaning my apartment, showering, eating and sleeping.
… I’m sure I forgot something.
I take on a lot and finish most of it. I used to take on even more and finish less. Sometimes I would take on very little and still struggle to meet my obligations.
Like everything else, I learned time management the hard way. I used to hear about an exciting project and say yes without knowing all the details. If a friend would tell me about a fun new activity, I would commit without checking my calendar. I used to agree to proposals that I wasn’t sure I have the skills to complete. I would say yes to so many things and overwhelm myself with projects I didn’t have time for, I didn’t have skills for, and didn’t want to do.
After too many all-nighters and subpar performances, I have learned what projects I should say yes to.
It’s good to be busy. It’s not good to be overwhelmed. There are so many exciting and enriching activities to do and not enough time do all of them. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to do everything. So, let’s figure out what you should say yes to.
Before you say yes to a new project, make sure you can do it. You can’t say yes until you know the details. How much time will it take? Do you have the time available? When does it start and end? Do you have the necessary skills?
Once you know you can do the project, do you still want to do it? Is it exciting? Will it make you happy? Will you learn something? Will you be proud of your work?
You need to have the time available and the excitement to get started. You need the skills and the desire to complete it. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to finish a project otherwise.
The projects that you can do and the projects that you want to do are the projects you should do. Say yes!
Now that you’ve committed, you need to finish. Really, you need to finish. It’s important that you meet deadlines, fulfill obligations and live up to your responsibilities. If hurdles pop up, you need to conquer them. Difficulties along the way don’t excuse you from keeping commitments you made to others or to yourself. If you need more time, be clear about how long it will take and say so immediately. If you need help, ask the right person for it (and be understanding if they don’t have time to help). If you feel like a project is too hard, keep trying. A lot of things will get easier if you keep trying.
I recently decided to learn how to ride a motorcycle. I had the desire, tools, and time, but I needed to work on skill so I took a class, I asked for advice, and I practiced. I have wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle since I was 22, and just four days after getting my license, I am shifting gears with ease. I still have more to learn, but I have dedicated myself to learning it, no matter how terrifying and impossible it can seem. I am making great progress with this project and I’ll consider it a success when I feel comfortable riding on a highway.
And sometimes you’ll need to back-out of a project. Out of my really long to-do list above, I recently had to back-out of the softball league. I was super excited to do it so I said yes without really considering the obligation I was making. After updating my calendar and trying to toss a ball, I realized that I didn’t have time to meet twice a week for the rest of the summer and I didn’t have any aim. Softball isn’t something that I can do and, as fun as it would be, it wasn’t something I really wanted to do. Other things were more important to me, like a new freelance client that I couldn’t turn down. As soon as I realized I couldn’t keep my commitment, I let the organizer know. I felt like a turd for backing out, and I said so.
Now, it’s time to say yes to some projects, no to some others, and “maybe next time” to the rest. Along the way, you’ll learn the following:
- How much time projects really take. I am horrible at time estimates. I frequently think something will only take an hour but it ends up taking eight. This completely distorts how much time I have available. I am learning how long it really takes me to do something and how many small tasks add up to a big project.
- What you really want to do. There’s a difference between a fun project and a fulfilling project, and you’ll learn what you find enriching along the way.
- How to stay focused. You’ll learn to eliminate distractions, stay on-task and get done even faster.
- When to quit a project. Just because you decided to run a marathon doesn’t mean you have to train for it forever. You can run it once and then go back to a less intense exercise. And just because you volunteer for an organization doesn’t mean you have to do it for the rest of your life. It’s ok to move on to something else, but be sure to leave on good terms.
- How to fail. There are going to be some projects that are too much, too hard, too far outside of your skillset. You will fail. It’ll suck, but it’ll be ok. You’ll learn what your boundaries are and you’ll find opportunities to challenge yourself to do more. That’s great.
I learned all of this by trying and you will too. The more projects you start, the more projects you’ll finish and the better you’ll get at getting things done. More advice on picking projects:
- “If you wouldn’t do something while you were on vacation, there’s no good reason to do it when you’re not.” — 14 Simple Ways to Get Considerably More Done
- “But if I want to get better, I can’t afford to get swallowed by [criticism] anymore.” — on receiving feedback on projects you start (and finish).
- “Perhaps one day you’ll wonder how you ever got around without a bicycle.” — the Small Steps of learning a new skill (not just biking).