How to Stop Abandoning Projects

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers five ways to stop abandoning projects and finally cross the finish line.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #184

Tip #4: Pare it down to the specifics

Starting a big, vague project, like “learn photography,” “cook more at home,” or “learn Italian,” quickly gets overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to start, what the next step is, or when you’ve achieved your goal. Therefore, take some time to specify, specify, specify. Paring a project down to its most essential specifics makes it high-speed, low-drag, and much easier to execute.

So instead of “eat healthy,” simplify and specify until you reach “no more soda.” Rather than taking on the project of being bikini-ready by summer (which, when you think about it, can be triumphantly achieved regardless of body type simply by purchasing a bikini), simplify and specify until your new project is “run a mile without stopping.”

Just like the truth, specifics will set you free.

Tip #5: Build in the expectation of do-overs.

Expect to start again from the get-go. Part of launching any big project is learning how to do it. After all, you’ve never built a rabbit hutch, opened a cafe, or learned Photoshop before—it makes sense that there will be some hiccups along the way.

This tip is most applicable when trying to start a project that involves daily habit change, like exercise, diet, or learning a skill that takes sustained practice. Part of learning how to train for a 10K, go paleo, or play classical guitar is figuring out how it will fit into your life. And that takes some experimentation. So build in the expectation of starting over not just once, but a number of times. Rather than labeling a dead end as failure, it’ll become just another signpost along the way to success.

A tendency to start and abandon projects is a common symptom of ADHD.

A final note: Interestingly, a tendency to start and abandon projects is a common symptom of ADHD. Why? ADHD isn’t really a “deficit” of attention, as the name implies. Instead, it’s a deficit of execution. Individuals with ADHD do really well at focusing on things that interest them, and often get hyper-focused on projects that strike their fancy, from trading stocks to making homemade kombucha to learning ukulele to playing Minecraft. But when the project gets tedious or another new interest comes along, the previous obsession is abandoned faster than two-day-old sushi.

What’s more, in ADHD, uninteresting projects are pretty much doomed from the start. Doing taxes, finally sorting all the mail that’s built up on the dining room table, folding the laundry—unfortunately, the mundane everyday stuff is both toxic to the ADHD brain and essential to making life run smoothly. Raise your hand if you’ve had to re-wash the laundry because you forgot it was in the machine for a few days or have ever found your phone in the freezer.

Now, if you don’t have the luxury of outsourcing tedious projects, one workaround is to gamify them—eat an M&M for every five papers you file. See if you can fold your half of the laundry faster than your partner. Play OHIO—Only Handle It Once—with your mail. The first time you touch it should be the only time—immediately toss it, pay it, read it, or file it.

Luckily, ADHD or not, if your projects often linger longer than a Christmas fruitcake, give the five tips a shot, plus use the classic of breaking down big tasks into small steps. Your projects will go so fast they might get a speeding ticket.

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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