The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

Finish The Projects You’ve Started. Or Call an End to Them.

Avoid the guilt and finish the job.

UnfinishedI'm working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I realized that a source of clutter in my apartment, and a significant drain on my energy, was the uncomfortable presence of unfinished projects.

Every time I see evidence of an unfinished project, I get a jolt of annoyance or guilt. The thought “I should finish that…why haven’t I finished that?” makes me flinch.

For example, while trying to bring some order to our toy closet, I spotted a kit for making a mountain scene that my older daughter and I were going to build together. It looked like so much fun, but it turned out to be far more work than we expected. So there it sat, opened but unfinished.

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Unread magazines. Half-read books. Books that I’ve read and marked up, but from which I haven’t processed my notes yet (I spend a crazy amount of time taking notes on what I’ve read). The half-completed project to organize the doll clothes. I decided that my new resolution is to “Finish the things I’ve started. Or put an end to them.” I want to get them out of my way, one way or another.

I’m lucky, though, because my half-finished projects don’t make much of a mess. I have friends with bedroom corners and dining-room tables that permanently house half-built Lego castles, dusty piles of recipes, scrapbooks with half the pages filled in.

Unfinished projects are irritating in themselves, and they also contribute to clutter, because it’s so tempting to leave an unfinished project out in the open, as a reminder to finish it. But then it doesn’t get finished it! For days, weeks, months!

I have a friend who leaves all her paperwork on her kitchen counter next to the sink, to remind herself to deal with it. It sits there, untouched, getting spattered and stained, as weeks go by. I said, “Why don’t you put this stuff in a drawer or a file, so it’s out of your way?” She answered, “But then I’d never cope with it!” In fact, keeping her papers in the open doesn’t prompt her to act -- and just makes her feel worse, because her kitchen looks like a wreck.

For me, one of the most persistent, nagging, draining unfinished tasks is dealing with our photos. I just don’t enjoy the process of making digital photo albums. I should keep up with it, so that I don’t have to deal with a million photos at once, but I don’t, so whenever I do force myself to tackle it, it’s a very big job.

I love looking at photos albums – and so does my whole family – and I know that in the long run, making these photo albums will bring great happiness. Happy memories of the past are an effective way to make yourself happier in the present, and things like photo albums, mementos, and one-sentence journals are great ways to keep happy memories vivid.

One problem is that the minute I put one album together, it’s time to start the next! After I do my next one, I think I will create some sort of schedule – to work on it for an hour once every two weeks – so I feel like I’m on top of it. Finishing mini-steps will make it easier to finish a major projects.

Dealing with email is a common happiness challenge, and in part, that’s because email is always an unfinished task. More emails arrive, all the time. I don’t try to maintain a zero in-box, but even being reasonably responsive can feel overwhelming. (I usually do a pretty decent job, but if you emailed me while I was on my book tour, I really wasn’t able to keep up. I apologize.)

Email is an exception to my resolution, because it can’t be finally completed or abandoned. But I’m going through my apartment, looking for unfinished projects. I’m pushing myself either to finish them, or call an end to them. They’re weighing me down.

How about you? Have you ever felt this way about an unfinished project? What was the project?

* Why am I so fascinated by time-lapse photography? No idea. But here's great time-lapse video of Russia.

* Did I ever happen to mention that The Happiness Project hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list? Oh right, I did. Yay! If you’re curious about the book, you can…
Order your copy!
Read sample chapters!
Watch the one-minute book trailer!
Listen to a few chapters of the audiobook!
If you're inspired to start your own happiness project, join the 2010 Happiness Challenge, to make 2010 a happier year.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

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