“I Never Finish Anything”: How to Stop Feeling Guilty about All of Your Unfinished Projects
Photo courtesy of Julie Rybarczyk.

“I Never Finish Anything”: How to Stop Feeling Guilty about All of Your Unfinished Projects

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Multipotentialite Patterns

Many (many) years ago, I decided to take up wood carving. I went to a local arts store, bought a bunch of tools and materials and things… and then promptly did absolutely nothing with them. Ever.

The sole lasting legacy of this tiny episode is that whenever I remember it, I feel guilty forever, even though it had zero effect on anybody’s life, and nobody but me remembers – or remotely cares – about it.

I bet, however, that a large percentage of people reading this have their own “wood-carving tools” story. And perhaps you’re even fighting off similar “oh god, I wasted so many things/so much time and I never finish anything” guilt right now.

There are Many Reasons for Failing to Finish

We’ve talked before about why we might lose interest in something. But failure to finish (or, in some cases, like with me and the wood-carving, to even start) isn’t just about losing interest.

Sometimes it’s because the work gets difficult. Or perhaps we’re scared of failure, or of success. Maybe we’re genuinely unable to find time, or something unexpected comes up to get in the way. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive; figuring out the specific reason(s) we struggle requires great self-knowledge, and is a worthwhile project in its own right.

But meanwhile, maybe we can get better at perseverance. No matter the circumstances, having greater perseverance will always help.

First though, let’s learn to let go of this guilt.

It Doesn’t Matter Where Guilt Comes From

Objectively, it doesn’t matter that I bought some wood-carving tools and never used them. Nobody, bar my bank balance, was hurt by it. So the guilt must come from some deeper story I believe about myself.

In situations like this, we could spend forever delving into our psychology, searching for deeper reasons and childhood incidents and painful beliefs. This is all worthy work, but sometimes…

Chasing the origins of this guilt down a psychological rabbit hole only gives it more power, time, and attention, none of which it deserves. Instead, simply recognizing the excess guilt can allow us to let go of it.

Sure, our failure to finish may cause ripples in our lives even today (small moments can have huge effects, after all), but feeling guilty about it does not serve us.

Worse, this guilt can become a self-perpetuating problem, which makes it harder to persevere next time. We start to believe our own hype that we’re incapable of finishing, which simply isn’t true.

So if you have guilt about unfinished business, let it go. And let’s work on persevering with the next thing. Here are some tips to help.

Change the Story You Tell About Yourself

If you have to prove to yourself that you can finish, start something small and see it through to the end. Write a fifty-word story, or draw a single picture, or learn ten words from a new language. (If that doesn’t work, go even smaller.)

Congratulations, you’ve just finished something! This means that all those times you beat yourself up for “never finishing,” you were wrong: you can finish.

The trick is this: every big project is made up of multiple smaller ones. We just need the right mentality to chain them together.

Finding Satisfaction as We Go

There are two aspects of any project: the results and the process. Or, if you prefer, the finish line and the journey.

Focusing on the journey – those mini projects that make up the full project – makes it much simpler to finish. At every moment in time, we think only of the next step along the way.

For example, if I’m learning to carve wood, perhaps the first step would be “locate the right materials.” Instead of being distracted by the glorious wooden sculpture I’m going to someday make, and then being demoralized by the inevitable flaws in my first attempt, I focus only on getting the materials. After that, I focus on the next step. And then the next.

At each point I can be pleased with the progress I’m making without being distracted by the imaginary end result.

I’m not a natural at this mentality. In fact, if anything, I’m naturally bad at it; my instinct is to be results-oriented, only taking any satisfaction at the very end of a project. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. I can learn to take satisfaction during a project by thinking about how far I’ve come.

A Practical Recipe for Perseverance

I’m currently working on a couple of very large projects – one personal (my health and fitness) and one professional (writing another book).

In each case, I’m consciously working on several habits for maximum persistence and minimum guilt. You might like to adopt them too:

  • Focus on one step at a time. (If you don’t know what the next step is, the next step is always “figure out the next small step.”)
  • Periodically look back at how far you’ve come. Keep a log of words written, minutes spent exercising, hours spent productively, etc. Take regular moments to review this log and feel genuine satisfaction at the effort put in, regardless of the results, which will come eventually.
  • Recognize that at times you will inevitably fail to put in the effort. Try not to feel guilty about it; shake yesterday off and put in the hours today.

Perseverance isn’t a Stick to Beat Yourself with

Persistence is a great skill to develop, and a necessary one if you want to make progress on your various projects. At the same time, beating yourself up won’t get you anywhere.

The main lesson to draw from not finishing something is that you weren’t interested enough in that particular thing to finish it in the circumstances you were in at the time. That’s it.

Don’t draw broader conclusions about yourself. Instead, move forward and focus on the actions that you can take today.

Your Turn

Has your guilt over not finishing ever held you back from pursuing something new? Share your thoughts in the comments.

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

32 Comments

  1. Silvina says:

    I surely know what not finishing things and feeling guilty afterwards feel like. I think it wouldn’t be a problem for me if it wasn’t for nosy people who keep asking me why I didn’t get my degree if I was so close to it, or why I gave up playing the drums. “I’m not interested” doesn’t seem enough for them.

    Thank you for this post!! It made me think of all the things that I DID finish :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly! It’s so easy to fall into that negative mindset and forget all the things we DID finish. Some people say keeping a “have done” list instead of a “todo” list is a good plan…

  2. Thank you for this! It was perfect for me today, as I was just about to go and fuss at my third grader for not practicing the piano (which he told me this week no longer interests him) to help myself feel better about not wanting to work on several projects of my own that…guess what…are no longer interesting. If only the rest of the world could understand that sometimes, people get what we need from the process and don’t need to actually finish everything we start! It’s hard to be upset at other people for not getting that, though, when I clearly forget it pretty often myself. Here’s to letting go of guilt (and to not projecting it onto our kids). :-)

  3. Wow! I’m the poster child for not completing tasks. Not only is guilt a component of ” not finishing”, but so is shame.
    Shame can be soul murdering if we let it. Shame follows the idea that we are flawed, even more troubling, that we are not enough.
    There are so many reasons why people don’t finish or follow through with something or anything that’s important to them. This can often times lead to depression. The best idea is to be gentle with yourself, recognize this flaw and take one step toward the journey of ” being enough” whether you finish or not.

  4. WOW, this is SOOO me!!

    I have an insane amount of “balls in the air” at anyone time. I just keep flipping between them all, its definitely a case of “bright shiny object syndrome”. I keep going “oooo, maybe that will work, maybe that will make me some money, maybe that will make me feel better….” but if I dont get immediate positive feedback, or ROI, then I get bored very quickly and move on to the next big thing… but then I end up with loads of unfinished projects, which just constantly flit around my head! A case regular point, is the tabs on my chome window, currently I have 33 open tabs, and I have just opened another 3 because of the links above!!! ARRGGHHHH

    I do love the idea of consciously recognising that I DO finish some things (eg I will finish this post) and that if I cant figure out what the next small step is, then it IS to figure out what the next small step is!!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I love that you took some concrete ideas from the post – that’s the point, after all, to make actual changes to our habits so we can be better in future! Good luck :)

  5. I teared up a bit reading this. Gosh, I needed this reminder. I’ve just spent two years killing myself working on http://www.hairmywords.com and a few months ago I just stopped dead. I was just bang out of mojo and ideas about what to do next.

    Every time I thought about the amount of work left to put in I just felt overwhelmed so I started a smaller different project. This reminder to focus on the next step and remind myself of the seven prototypes, four websites, two national magazine articles and a few other things I have achieved in getting this far – mostly by myself – are a reminder that I can do… the next step because I did all of THOSE next step. Awesome, thank you.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Oh wow, that’s an incredible reaction Joshua :) I’m glad it resonated and I hope you can use the reminders of what you’ve achieved to keep putting one foot in front of the other – next step at a time!

  6. Ali says:

    Also, there is the possibility that our enthusiasm and excitement for launching into the project is an acceptance of feel the fear and do it anyway because we are just so MOTIVATED. But we are not superheroes so there could easily be a time when we need complementary skills from someone else – and we just cannot find that someone else to join us in our mission…..

  7. Vicki-Lee says:

    Wow. I this is good to see. This kind of writing can really help people out of a funk. Rock on. Nice work.

  8. Anna says:

    Great Post! This is an interesting topic. I do like to delve into why I did not finish something. I am ok if it is because I lost interest. I am not ok if it is because I was to much of a coward to face a fear (real or imagined). At this point in my journey, I only feel guilty if me quitting something held me back from what I really wanted. That guilt keeps me in check in my next adventure.

  9. Brian says:

    Amazing article! This is me all over. Finishing projects is one of my biggest pet peeves about myself and what I have been working on lately…so this article is very timely for me. My list of unfinished projects is a mile long.

  10. Kisha White says:

    PREACH!! I completely agree. Sometimes my feelings are that I love and almost can’t exist unless I’m managing multiple tasks or projects at the same time. At the end of the process, I feel empty. It seems that I start things only for the sake of starting them. For example completing a certification and never working within that new credential. Yes and I do have several other projects that I have started and have not finished. My guilt ultimatley lies in my feeling of success vs. failure. Ultimately how is success measured?? Thank you for this insightful article!!!

  11. LCJinRoslynPA says:

    Yup. Been there, done that, and am learning to corral the unfinished business so I can bite off a little bit at a time and actually FINISH some of it without beating myself over the head because it is incomplete, which only makes me avoid it more.

    But … while checking something off the list after a long time can feel pretty good, some things along the way just lost their allure, or I’d gotten what I’d come for and didn’t want to pay the (by then, unacceptable) price of doing what others defined as finishing. Some things (like learning to play an instrument or develop wood-working skills) just go better for me with other people involved as coaches, mentors,or fellow travelers. And there are some things that just play out; I find out I am NOT as interested as I thought I would be after giving them some energy, and decide to direct that energy elsewhere.

    Guilt, I have found, is useful only when it helps us avoid behavior that betrays our own values … when its goal is making us behave according to someone else’s values, it’s a direct drain on joy. And shame – directed at our being, not our behavior – is ALWAYS corrosive, whether it comes directly from others’ input, or from our internalized Inner Critic. Better to approach these behavior patterns with curiousity and according to our own priorities than to engage in either “guilting” or self-loathing.

  12. Joe says:

    I just recovered from a 9 year illness. I am now reconnecting with some old projects. They were not unfinished, just “patiently” waiting.

    • Jack says:

      What an awesome way to think of things! Unconsciously, this has been my mindset over the past few years, but putting it into words – the project is not unfinished, but rather it is “waiting” – is rather comforting!

  13. Lyrae says:

    My personal struggles with not finishing and guilt fall right in with all you’ve covered in your article. I don’t really lose interest in nearly all cases. For me, it’s been a matter of time and space because money,work,life,or kids that had to come first. And of course some of the bigger guilt goes along with the promises I made to the kids that I could not keep because of all those things too! Now that my kids are on their own and I’m single, I’ve have more time to get things done, but I find other challenges that stop me, which fall more in the “fear of success or failure” category you talked about. And I’ve had to change my thinking to embrace failure and think of it as merely a step along the way to success. What ever success that comes is going to be different than my original vision. As part of “smaller steps”, I’ve learned to change my approach and processes. I found that giving up my original vision isn’t giving up (on me)—it’s just part of the exploration and creative process. I’ve also learned that letting go of life-long dreams is very similar. Anything can be re-framed. Very NICE article! Thank you so much. I’m going to quote you on my own blog site because you’ve really hit the nail on the head regarding the small steps! :-)

  14. Jack says:

    This is a topic that has frustrated me all my life. The best tip I can offer, which has helped me quite a bit, is to document religiously as I work on a project. I write down (usually on the computer) what I’m doing each step of the way, where I found the information that is allowing me to complete the current step, any pertinent calculations with an explanation of all the variables, and why I made certain design decisions. This way, when I invariably lose interest at some point, I can come back when/if I regain interest and continue where I left off without having to re-research/re-learn the entire background for the project.

  15. J2 says:

    Thank you: I feel absolved! How can I possibly start that other thing that catches my fancy if I’m obsessed with finishing the thing I’m working on right now? Of course, there’s a time and a place for everything: my job favors finished deliverables. However, there are lots of little yarny projects around my home that are, as Joe says so succinctly, “patiently waiting” for my attention.

  16. K.C. says:

    Awesome post and right on time!! As a child of divorce-now an adult-I have spent my whole adult life feeling guilty about ‘not living up to my potential, or what I thought my potential should be’-for my mother who did everything to keep us living in our middle class lifestyle. But in the process I lost me and have struggled for years to reclaim my selfesteem and confidence to do what is important to me. To be proud of who I am, and to accept that I’m good enough. Whether those things are big or small, as long as they bring me joy-for however long-that I am a success. Thank you Neil for this post and continued confirmation that I wasn’t alone in being tortured by this guilt and shame. That I’ve grown in leaps and bounds to get to this space within where I no longer feel the need to apologize for my lifestyle. And thanks to Cancer for putting things in perspective, life’s too short!

  17. Aram says:

    Nice post Neil. I find the “periodically look back at how far you’ve come” idea very necessary for me. I do tend to beat myself up about these things. My wife constantly reminds me of this by saying, “Stop beating yourself up. That’s my job!”

    Aram

  18. Nisha says:

    Omg! Mind blown.. I though I was the only one! The money and time I’ve wasted over the years everything from jewelry making to vinyl printing. I always have these big ideas and how great and accomplished I’ll feel when I complete them. Then the struggle of learning something new frustrates me I lose interest and patience and quit. Leaving me to feel that there’s something wrong with me and this is just the way I am. This helped put my mind at ease (a little).

  19. JJ Biener says:

    I have learned a couple of coping mechanism for dealing with guilt about not finishing. First, I stopped telling myself that I failed when I don’t get to the end of a project. If you ask me about it, I will say I am not finished…yet. When I set something aside, it is always with the intention that I will finish it another time. It is easy to chalk it up to priorities. Something else is more important at this moment, so what I am working on will have to wait. I don’t care if it sits for months or years. It is not a failure because it isn’t done.

    Second, none of the work I’ve done has ever gone to waste even if I didn’t finish the project. The knowledge and experience I’ve learned will be put to use over and over on future projects, so even incomplete projects have value even if I don’t immediately see what it is.

    Third, let’s all be honest. We multipods may have projects we’ve set aside. But when we succeed, when we finish a project, it is pretty freaking spectacular. I think almost everyone here can think back on something that you’ve done which should be a source of enormous pride. Which brings me to…

    Fourth, when we start a new project or a new job or a new anything, we bring a set of skills others can’t match. When we are presented with a problem we can look at it from seventeen different angles and come up with solutions others wouldn’t think of. I made a career doing just this.

    Fifth, this is a tease, and I am sorry. But a few months ago I had an OMG moment when I realized I had figured out something that has been considered a mystery for millennia. I figured it out because I looked at it from seventeen different angles along with some unique experiences. I haven’t figured out what to do with it yet, but I will let you know when I do.

  20. JS MysMan says:

    I have a fully equipped stained glass studio which I have not been into for three years, because I have lost interest. So now I do not learn new hobbies because I keep thinking that I should be doing stained glass after investing all that time and money in setting up the studio and doing the first few projects. I think it is because I like to do things properly (so I need all the equipment) but once I have mastered the skill, I lose interest very quickly and want to try something new. After reading this article, I will go home, identify what I need to keep to do small, fun projects, and get rid of everything else and my guilt along with it.

  21. Seth says:

    Has badgering myself with the guilt of unfinished projects held me back?

    Oh God yes!

    I have two bins full of clothes I’m supposed to have repaired (they’ve sat for months) and a shelf of in-progress plushies that I haven’t finished. I just get excited about the next project and want to do that instead because the one I’m currently working on has become tedious for some reason… sometimes I go back and finish it or force myself to finish before moving on but sometimes the project just gets abandoned.

    I also have a bad habit of never getting anything finished by the deadline for it. All my birthday gifts are finished weeks late, etc. And I just beat myself down again and again for it. I wonder, now, if I’m sabotaging myself by telling that story over and over – that I never get anything finished on time…

  22. Maricel says:

    i do feel guilty when i look back and see many unfinished projects…and it does make me feel like a failure specially when i look at the people who i started with and how far they have come along while i keep starting, then i feel like i have nothing to show for…it’s just that, when i start a project and have laid out all the plans, to me it feels finished and i want something new to work on, otherwise, i just get bored because i feel there is no more challenge…i suppose i do need to find satisfaction in the different stages of the journey and instead of just experiencing it inside my head, find happiness in actually experiencing it…

  23. steph says:

    Thanks for this post. Came right on point this morning :)

    Mmmmh, I’m wondering now: When do you know it is ok to quit because you have learnt enough from the process and can grow now in other directions, or if quitting would be a side effect of shame/guilt and that you should persevere with a different focus (one small objective at a time)?
    I am echoing what Anna said here… Sometimes I can’t help feeling that quitting was an act of cowardice.

  24. Marijke says:

    This article is not about me. Not anymore. And I’m glad. I used to lack confidence and Iwas too naïve to think further when things got difficult. Now I can gladly say I fixed most of that.

    Another thing that helps me visualizing my life and keep track of my goals is keeping a bullet journal. I have the feeling I have everything under control and I can do everything I set my mind to. And I hardly feel guilt.