Can’t Finish What You Start? The Case of the Never-Ending To-Do List

In Getting Things Done, David Allen notes, “Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”

I came across this quote recently and it keeps coming up in my thoughts. It’s fascinating because I feel like most of the major projects that we’re involved with or have launched don’t have a finish line. They consist of a series of action steps that, when successfully completed, lead to the next logical set of objectives, which all come with their own action steps…it’s like an endless cycle. What happens if you can never finish what you start?

This is the blessing and curse of being a creative person. While I live out my career as a “business” person, I’m still an artist first.

I’m constantly improving my working habits to get more done, honing in on my communication skills, getting better at spotting issues earlier on, and keeping my mindset in check so that I don’t get into my own way. Carrying out and overseeing implementation of projects is my main job. But at the end of the day, I am most at home when I’m inventing something.

My brain is always in overdrive, making connections between what I’m learning today and everything I knew yesterday. You’ll usually find me scheming up crazy new ideas and improving the ways in which we do what we do. And so, unless a project truly is very small and contained, I’m never, ever done with anything.

So, if I never feel like I’m “finished” with anything, what do I do with all the resulting stress? Afterall, David Allen isn’t the only one who believes that unfinished work causes stress. In folklore, mythology, and spiritual circles, unfinished business causes so much stress that souls are trapped by it forever!

After some thought, I’ve come up with three strategies that I tend to gravitate towards to offset or rechannel all the stress that comes with not being able to finish what you start. It’s an area that I struggle with a lot and I’m constantly tweaking my approach. Here are my three strategies, but I welcome you to share yours below—I’d love to steal your lifehacks when it comes to this important topic!

#1 Stay present.

If you’re focusing at the task at hand and only on that task, you won’t feel the pressure of all the things that you are not doing and that are not yet done. Plus, there’s literally negative value to constantly revisiting all the things that you currently aren’t doing—thinking about them doesn’t get you closer to completing them, and it actually distracts you from your current work (so it will take even longer to complete).

Plus, when scattered, your mind won’t think on a deep level and you will be more likely to miss things or forget crucial parts of what you are working on right now. That will likely mean that you’ll have even more tasks to revisit on the current project later, tasks that could have been handled much more quickly and easily if you got them done in the first place.

#2 Make lists but don’t commit to them fully.

For me, just knowing that all my tasks live somewhere besides my head gives me great comfort. When I don’t have things written down, I find myself repeating them over and over in my head to ensure that I don’t forget about them. Have a designated list-making and list-checking routine. Perhaps you might use one of the many free task management systems out there like Quire or Asana. If keeping a trusty written notebook is more comfortable for you, so be it. Either way, have a consistent system for both adding to the list and referring back to it at a time when you are able to tackle some of the items on it.

That said, don’t commit to that list fully. Not everything on that list is weighted equally in terms of importance or priority. The only thing that the items on the list have in common is that once upon a time you a thought it would be a good idea to do a given item. But have you ever been wrong? Maybe that thought wasn’t a good thought. Be willing to let go of stuff that actually never needs to get done at all, and leave room for spontaneous ideas or thoughts that could be game changers if given some room on your schedule.

#3 Get comfortable with the journey.

I don’t know when it happened—maybe it was in school when I got a star for completing a task or a grade for completing a class. But somewhere along the road I got addicted to marking things as completed. There’s a special kind of satisfaction that comes from crossing things off my to-do list or knowing that a project is totally done.

But if we focus on completion, we will miss the joy of the journey. And if we’re too focused on completion, the ultimate completion of life is often not all that glamorous! So how can we learn to live with and possibly even to love the state of incompletion? How can we relish in the process of learning, of growing through challenges, of working hard not because we want to get something done but because we care about what we’re doing?

Trust me, this is not an easy case for me to make to myself when I’m still working at 1 a.m. to rebook flights for an artist who had a sudden itinerary change due to a cancelled flight and needs to get to a performance the next day. I just want to get that task done and get to sleep! But if I’m being honest with myself, how cool is it that I’m able to help get this artist whose work I have so much respect for reach their destination so that they can perform for thousands of people and change lives that day?

It’s all a matter of perspective. But I have to keep reminding myself that I only get this one life and I’d like to say that I’m going to direct my time and attention on what I choose to spend my time doing, rather than focusing so much on getting from task to task and getting them all knocked off my list.

Do you agree?

How do you handle the stress of not being able to finish what you start, be it a job or creative project? Leave a comment below.

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