How to Find Joy in Unfinished Projects
The phrase “unfinished project” brings something specific to mind for each of us. For you, it might be the novel you’ve been working on for the past decade, or the pile of knitting supplies sitting in the corner of your bedroom, or the stack of half-read books collecting dust on your coffee table.
Whatever it is, I’m willing to bet that thinking about it makes you a little uncomfortable. Anything uncompleted tends to have that effect. Oftentimes, the discomfort is not even about the project itself — it’s a reminder of all of your shortcomings and failures. “I’ll never finish my book because I’m a terrible writer.” Or “I never finish anything I start. I need to grow up.” An unfinished project can make you feel like your whole life is unfinished.
At some point, the self-flagellation becomes counterproductive. It only makes the project seem like a chore, and who wants to spend more time on chores?
So recently, I’ve been trying to see things differently. As uncomfortable as it may be for our minds to leave things open-ended, there are good reasons to find joy in unfinished projects.
For one, they’re a sign you’re doing something right. There are scraps of stories all over my laptop and they are increasing in number. Yes, this is unsettling. But my unfinished projects are a reminder that I’m consistently doing stuff that makes me happy.
Second, while it feels good to finish a writing project and see it published, the joy of finishing is not as fulfilling as the process of doing the work. The writer Kelsey Ramsden calls it a success hangover: The inexplicable feeling of emptiness you get after reaching a big milestone. “When what we have mastered becomes mundane, we feel pain,” Ramsden writes. “The antidote is pursuit.” Reaching a goal brings you a momentary sense of satisfaction, but working toward a goal brings fulfillment. The joy is in the pursuit.
Besides, unfinished doesn’t mean never will be finished. Creativity doesn’t have an expiration date. Recently, I wrote an essay that pulled from an experience I had five years ago. Back then, I’d written about the experience but left it in an unfinished draft on my computer. I wasn’t sure what to do with it or whether it was even worth working on, but five years later, those words came in handy.
If it’s a creative project, your work might need time to “compost,” as the writer Natalie Goldberg puts it in Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg explains: “Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time.”
If the idea of composting feels uncomfortable, it’s not just you. It makes me nervous to even suggest putting a project aside before it’s complete, maybe because our culture prioritizes achievement over process. You’ve gotta get things done. But in a push to check things off my to-do list, I often rush to finish projects for the wrong reasons — not because I want to create something nice, but because I want to be productive. There’s something to be said for not letting your perfectionism get in the way of progress.
Perhaps most important of all, it’s hard to enjoy working on a project when there’s an added pressure of finishing it. The minute I start to think, “I really need to finish this book,” is the minute I stop actually reading the book. I take in the words, sure, but am I letting myself get lost in the story? Not so much. I’m not reading anymore. I’m working toward a goal.
Over time, I’ve learned to love the unfinished projects on my hard drive and in my life. They’ve become a reminder that the goal of living creatively is not to cram in as many achievements as possible, but to enjoy your time working on those achievements — which is a lot easier to do when you’re not piling on added pressure and guilt. Some things need to be finished, sure. We all have deadlines. But for those unfinished projects that truly leave you feeling stuck, perhaps the first step in making progress is to let go of the pressure to get it done and get back to a place where you can remember why you started.