How to Stop Abandoning Projects

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

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #184

ideas for many projects eventually abandoned

Each of us has abandoned a project at some point, whether as simple as a lapsed exercise plan or as complicated as the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, which has technically been under construction since 1882.

But why does this happen? What gets between the light bulb of the bright idea and the finish line of completion? Turns out there are lots of reasons, which, lucky for us, means there are lots of solutions. This week, by request from from listener Soni from Sydney, Australia, we’ll look at why we abandon projects and how to salvage them.

First, let’s get organized: There are two big buckets of reasons for abandoning projects. The first bucket is filled with problems of motivation—you don’t really want to do the project, you don’t see the point, or it’s boring or aversive.

The second bucket is filled with problems of follow-through. These are markedly different: you can’t make time, can’t get organized, or are feeling overwhelmed.

First things first: Let’s start with solutions to problems from the first bucket—motivation.

Tip #1: Dig deep to find the “why”

It’s essential to give a flying fig about what you’re doing. Projects often get abandoned because the dust kicked up by any new project—changing your habits, doing unglamorous work, putting in the long hours—can cloud the loftier big picture of potential benefits.

So find a compelling answer to the question, “Why am I doing this in the first place?” Why are you taking this pointless algebra class? Because getting your GED would open up better jobs and make you a great role model for your kids. Why are you going through the pain of giving up coffee? Because you want to get out of the tired-wired cycle and feel more in control. Why are you slogging away on this paperwork? Because getting a loan would enable your small business to really take off.

Tip #2: Rethink accountability

A classic tip to get motivated for a project is “tell someone so you’re accountable,” “share your goal on social media,” or “send it out to the universe.” Holding yourself accountable works wonders for some individuals, but not for everyone. In fact, for many, it backfires.

For a lot of us, feeling accountable is akin to feeling hemmed in, controlled, or deprived—as soon as you know others expect a certain result from you, you rebel and lose all motivation. Counterintuitively, the appeal of not doing your project grows exponentially as soon as you make things public.

The perfectionists among us also get hamstrung by telling others, because you might get caught floundering, messing up, or doing a less than stellar job. You’d much rather work on something in private until it meets your standards, and then reveal it to the world. Telling the world before you’re ready deflates your motivation faster than a holey air mattress.

If either of these mindsets ring true for you, it’s okay to keep your project to yourself. If playing things close to the vest gets you the jackpot, it’s totally justifiable.

Tip #3: Remember there are stages

A new project can be like a love affair. At first, we’re smitten—it’s all we can think about. We get a little thrill just thinking and planning and picturing our project. But then something shifts. Just like every relationship has a first fight, every project has that first onerous task. While it might be fun to picture yourself looking cute in your new workout clothes, the moment will come when it’s twenty degrees and dark outside and it’s time to go to the gym. It’s fun to think about starting a food blog, but at some point you realize it’s really, really hard to take a photo of a charcuterie board that’s doesn’t look disgusting.

That’s the point at which we abandon things—when it stops being the stuff of fantasy and starts being the stuff of reality. But just like the solution to every relationship problem isn’t “start a different relationship,” the solution to hitting the nitty-gritty of a project doesn’t have to be “find a new project.”

Which brings us to execution. Therefore, let’s tackle the second bucket of reasons for abandoning projects—the problems of follow-through. I’ll skip the classics, like breaking down projects into bite-sized steps (though that can work wonders—it’s a classic for a reason). Here are some more of my favorites.

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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