You don’t need to finish everything you begin

There’s abundant advice, here on Unclutterer and elsewhere, on overcoming procrastination so incomplete work gets finished. But in some circumstances, the best approach might be to forget about completing certain things.

I’m in a book club that’s been meeting for years, and I just finished our latest selection — a book I really enjoyed.

But I haven’t enjoyed all of our choices, and when that happens I just stop reading that month’s book. Fortunately, my book club still welcomes me to attend the meeting, and it’s interesting to hear the different reactions. Even if those who didn’t finish the book were not welcome, I’d still give up on the book. Time is such a precious resource, and I’m not going to spend my limited reading time with a book I’m not enjoying.

If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, it might help to know that some authors quickly give up on books that don’t grab them. Eleanor Brown doesn’t finish about 20 percent of the books she starts. She stops as soon as she’s no longer interested, which could be on page 2 or page 150. John Scalzi writes, “I put down books the instant they bore me.” As Laura Miller notes in a New York Times article, Michael Chabon gives up on books after just a page or two. Myla Goldberg goes a bit further, but still only gives a book 15-20 pages to convince her it’s worth her time.

I make similar choices when it comes to reading news stories. I’ll sometimes begin an article and realize I don’t feel a need to know anything more than what’s in the title, or maybe the first sentence or first paragraph. Or sometimes I begin a long feature article I thought I’d enjoy, but I don’t. In these cases, I stop reading the article and move on.

It’s also fine to give up on a movie, although you’ll want to be considerate of others if you’re watching in a theater rather than at home. (It’s easier to leave if you’re on an aisle than if you’re in the middle of a row.) And you might decide to stop watching a particular TV show or to abandon a weekly show mid-season.

I also see lots of people with partially completed craft projects that got set aside many years ago. When Susan Reimer of The Baltimore Sun asked people about long-unfinished craft projects, she got stories about a dollhouse kit that had been unfinished for 27 years and an unfinished sampler that got moved to eight houses. The same thing can happen with woodworking projects and other such activities.

If the person no longer has any real interest in completing that project, for whatever reason, it makes sense to just let it go. It can be a relief to acknowledge a project is not going to happen and to dispose of the supplies set aside for it by selling, giving away, or repurposing them for more compelling projects.

16 Comments for “You don’t need to finish everything you begin”

  1. posted by Dorothy on

    This. This “permission” is so freeing. We have so many actual “shoulds” and “musts”. No reason to self impose them upon activities that are supposed to be enjoyable and relaxing.

  2. posted by Sassy on

    Such good advice. One of my aunts was in her fifties when she complained to a friend about the awful book she was reading and how she could not wait to finish it and get on to a better book. When the friend told her it was perfectly okay to stop reading a book, it was a revelation to her, almost life changing. Since I read the first chapter and then the last to decide if I am going to actually read the book, I was already on board.

    And giving up craft projects! If anyone is hesitating, let me assure you it is quite liberating to pack up all the materials and instructions (if you are using a kit or a pattern), put them in a ziplock baggie with a label and pass it on.

    Same feeling when I cross things off my massive to do list that I realize I will never actually do — pure relief.

  3. posted by MarthaH on

    I decided back at the beginning of this year that I wanted to finish a sampler that I started 21 years ago. I made a goal to do one letter a month which put me at August. I’m on the letter Z! Right on track
    This was worth it to finish thought it will go to my nephew’s first child rather than to him:)

    But other craft projects I have passed on to others and I don’t even remember what they were now. Sometimes it is good to stop and other times it is good to complete something even though it takes a lot of work.

  4. posted by Annie on

    Thanks for this article. I have such trouble letting go of unfinished tasks, projects, and books. Not too long ago, I donated some craft supplies to a thrift store and about burst with happiness to have them out of my life.

  5. posted by Robert on

    I started reading a work of fiction that covered 14 volumes. Part way through the third volume, I was like, “I’m not liking this enough to make such an incredible time investment.” So I stopped right there.

  6. posted by Ruta Arellano on

    Sometimes my apparel projects don’t progress as hoped for (usually it’s color or shape). Rather than throwing the item away unfinished, I complete it and donate it. I’m quitting the project for myself and perhaps it will work for someone else.

  7. posted by Abby on

    2 craft things:

    I started a fisherman knit sweater coat in Summer 1975. I was fine until I hit the collar and didn’t understand the instructions (I was kid) and I have faithfully toted it from place to place ever since. I keep thinking I’ll go back and finish it off now that I have a better understanding of instructions, so much money and time. And then there is a part of me which says: Why? You hate acrylic now that you have the money to buy good cottons, linen, cashmere and silk?

    I had been seeing this guy for a while and he asked me to knit him a sweater. A husky guy. So I started and had done a lot of it before we broke up. The first thing he did say after the break up is: “Well, you are going to finish my sweater aren’t you?” I was so relieved at getting out that I said yes. A friend’s daughter asked me why I was doing this. I copied the instructions and bundled them up with all the parts, the not yet used yarn and left them at his house with a note: “For your next girlfriend.”

    It was liberating. I think I will toss that old project and be done with it.

  8. posted by Reenie on

    I have been doing this with books, articles, TV show and movies, but not often with projects. I suppose I’ve invested so much in materials and tools that I can’t bear to give up on entire categories of crafts, but starting today I’m taking a hard look at those I haven’t worked on in years! Thanks for “permission” to do so.

  9. posted by Michaela on

    This article reminds me of a microwave I have in my basement. Basically about 3-4 years ago my mom got it in her head I needed a new microwave. Yes, I agreed I would like a new microwave for Christmas since mine was too small and I didn’t like it to begin with. So fast forward to the holidays and I get this HUGE monstrosity delivered to my front door, which is my new microwave. I’m imagining something I can take out of the box and plug in. Well NO – she bought this stainless steel top of the line model that needs hardwired into my wall. Nevermind the wall she wants it hardwired into has no electric. Nevermind I would need to install cabinets to put it on the wall. Nevermind those newer cabinets would never in a million years look like my old cabinets – forcing me to either repaint or replace all my existing cabinets to match. Nevermind the wall is TEXTURED (not to mention 100+ years old) and I would need someone to basically renovate to put this thing in properly. Nevermind I was not in a financial state where I could even afford to do this.

    So I politely asked for the receipt so I could return it – I was going to get something I really needed that fit my life and maybe put the leftover money toward something else. The store was happy to take it back with proof it was purchased there. She absolutely REFUSED to give me the receipt. She threw a fit about how she spent $500+ on it and I was to put it in immediately. If I could not afford it, then that was what credit cards were for. No amount of my reasoning would seem to sink into her thick head.

    How does this story end? With this microwave sitting in my basement, completely unused and unopened. At one point wanted to sell it on Craigslist, only to have my husband give me a guilt trip about it. Later my mother found out, and proceeded to guilt trip me about it also. I (once again) offered to give it back to her, and she refused to take it, and started to tell me how I should install it into my kitchen. So it sits in my basement, and after reading this . . . I may just quietly go list it on Craigslist and sell it when my husband isn’t around. And then go buy the exact microwave I want, that plugs into the wall and doesn’t cost me time and thousands of dollars in kitchen renovation . . .

  10. posted by Nan on

    I skip to the middle of the book to see if that might be more interesting, If not, I’m finished. I used to read the last chapter to see how things might end up. However, after knowing, most of the time I couldn’t get motivated to read the whole book.

  11. posted by Anne Stockwell on

    I rarely give up on books. Persistence has in the past been rewarded! Or maybe I’m just good at picking books out.

  12. posted by susan steele on

    Michaela, Your mother sounds like a controlling gift giver. Don’t let her guilt you into keep something with such bad vibes all around. Just sell it on Craigslist or donate it and if anyone asks where it is be honest and tell them you tried to do the right thing by returning to the store or to your mother and your efforts were blocked. No one should have to keep something because the giver is a control freak. Don’t let there be a next time. Time we all politely discouraged all this gift giving obligations.

    I can’t imagine reading a book I didn’t like. I watched 2 episodes of Breaking Bad and stopped. I felt like I was supposed to like but I didn’t. Not going to waste time on something that doesn’t appeal to me.

  13. posted by SkiptheBS on

    The advent of the free Amazon novel has taught me that I am not being paid to read the editor’s slush pile.

    Sewing is my bete noir. My distrust of the cheap, plastic, reconditioned machine is exacerbated by my employer’s wife’s insistence upon conversing with me while I run it. Aggravation + bore = find a solitary task and let the fabric pile up.

  14. posted by Corstiaan on

    Interesting read :-). In his book Antifragile, Nicholas Nassim Taleb writes:

    “The enterprise needed to be totally effortless in order to be worthwhile. The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one instead of giving up on reading altogether—when you are limited to the school material and you get bored you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement. The trick is to be bored with a specific book rather than with the act of reading.”

    I could not agree more.

  15. posted by Dianne in the desert on

    Frankly, life is overly filled with “ought, must, should” do items. I can deal with those. What I do not do is stick with anything that turns boring. When I am picking out a book to read, I take the time to look at the leaves of the cover to start with, but before I get there, I read the reviews available elsewhere. If I am going to spend good money to get a book, then It will be a good book.

    I have a rule! “Allow no one else’s compulsion to become your own unless it makes good sense to you.” That rule alone has saved me time and money.

  16. posted by Steve on

    There is more to it than that. You don’t have to finish, and you don’t have complete either. There are plenty of subtle options; freeing you to take the path that you prefer.

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