Getting over the guilt of unfinished tasks

As I sit down to write this, I can see the nightstand next to my bed. There are no less than four books piled upon it. Inside each book is a bookmark, noting the page I last read. Next to the stack is a Kindle, itself brimming with books waiting for my attention. I even belong to an informal book club that meets in just a few weeks and I’m not yet finished with this month’s selection.

However, I’m done with “Unfinished Guilt Syndrome.”

Despite the made-up name, Unfinished Guild Syndrome has plagued me for years, especially regarding books. In the past, when I have started reading a book, I’ve felt compelled to finish it, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. More than anything, the guilt associated with putting a book down knowing that I wouldn’t pick it back up was the real deterrent. I’ve never liked giving up on a book.

And it’s not just me. The website Goodreads recently published a list of the most “initiated but unfinished books,” as reported by its users. The top ten were:

  1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  2. The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Ulysses by James Joyce
  4. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  5. Holy Bible: King James Version
  6. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
  10. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

These are all classics and I’m sure individuals are more than willing to argue that the books are worth finishing, but still they are only partially read by the masses. So, is pushing through a book you dislike or have lost interest in really the best course? And, obviously, it’s not just books — is any hobby worth pursuing to the end if you dislike it? The time you waste feeling guilty and begrudgingly finishing the project could be spent doing something than you actually enjoy (reading a book you like better, knitting a scarf you really want, refinishing a chair you will use and enjoy).

Understanding what I have to sacrifice to do something I don’t have to do and don’t enjoy, I’ve finally given up Unfinished Guilt Syndrome. It’s OK to stop reading a book that I’m simply not enjoying. It’ll result in a greater number of books read overall, and prompt me to try again in a year or so, when perhaps the time will be right or to give away the book to someone who might enjoy it more than me.

Are you ready to let go of Unfinished Guilt Syndrome?

3 Comments for “Getting over the guilt of unfinished tasks”

  1. posted by Guilherme on

    that’s a big one, especially in corporate environments where one has to deal with over 100 emails a day.

    the 3 key hacks I found for myself are:

    – refining my workflow so I have an overview of what I’m not doing to keep anxiety down
    – set top 3 outcomes for the week and focus mostly on them early mornings + 1-3 hours during they day when I feel I can focus best
    – having a clear overview of external requirements and deadlines especially from key people and projects and communicate proactively to skip some these, boil them down to the essencial, delay – whatever arrengement you can find to save time while keep people happy

  2. posted by Patrick Dowd on

    re: most “initiated but unfinished books,”

    Catch-22 is tied with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as my favorite book.

    I put it down twice while reading it in High school in the 1960’s: not because it was boring but because I was laughing so hard! It probably took me a year to finish and it was worth it.

  3. posted by Elizabeth on

    Funny this should come up now. I’m 2 appendices away from finishing War and Peace and feeling a real sense of achievement.

    My volume (I don’t know if it’s common to all) had a chapter index that grouped chapters by the storyline arc they covered. It was therefore much easier to work out bite size chunks to read and when to close for the night. Admittedly I did have to sit down with paper and pen at the beginning to work out the plethora of characters as they were introduced and how they were related to one another. It doesn’t become clear till later which ones are important and which are minor.

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