When I work on projects, I want to look at myself in the mirror and say confidently, “I’ve started so I’ll finish”. It’s not always easy, but I reckon I can improve.
When I was little, we would sometimes watch Mastermind on the BBC. People who had worked and striven to learn their chosen specialist subject inside out would take their turn in the big black chair and try to prove how knowledgeable they were. If the time ran out while the unflappable Magnus Magnusson was asking a question, he would always say “I’ve started so I’ll finish”. I’ve never fancied the crazy intense pressure of sitting there blinded by that spotlight, but I do like the catchphrase, and all the determination and certainty it implies.
I love to start new projects. There’s a thrill in the new idea, the sketching, the lists, the shopping or even window-shopping for materials. As I draw up my plans, exploded diagrams and perspective drawings for things I want to build, I hear in my memory the words ‘parallel motion’ in the strong Yorkshire accent of my high school Design and Technology teacher (and wonder if I need to build myself a technical drawing table, with a parallel motion). There is a lovely moment when you understand how to solve a problem you’ve been swirling around in your brain, and can set to work on putting it right. And there’s that feeling of promise and potential as you make the first cut or mark on your materials, whatever they are. I’m sure it provokes some sort of primitive chemical rush, which seems to be addictive.
Unfortunately it’s very rare to be able to finish making, building or repairing anything even moderately complex in the first session. So at some point makers have to put down their tools and go to do other important things like earning money (to pay for materials?), keeping your offspring alive and well and making your home and belongings at least moderately presentable.
Sometimes the stars align, and you can rush back to your project and keep working on it while the enthusiasm is fresh. If this doesn’t happen, there is time for the chemical rush to dissipate, and this is when my projects can stall. In the spirit of self improvement, I’m trying to better understand when and why I might let a project coast to a standstill, which I was enthusiastic about in the beginning. As a maker/crafter who likes to attempt things just to find out if I can do them, there are always a lot of projects on my waiting-to-start list and a lot that are partially completed. Obviously this can get a bit overwhelming and frustrating.
Edit the To Do list!
I definitely make it worse for myself with a tricky combination of over-ambition and thriftiness. Almost everything I need or want gets run through the “I could probably DIY that” filter. Sometimes, the thought process resolves itself quickly: because I can’t weld; because I don’t know anything about electronics; because the purchase of the necessary tools would vastly outweigh the cost and value of what you’re trying to DIY; because the climate here isn’t right to grow your own coffee beans. All the usual stuff. Nothing crazy about that. Is there?
Plenty of jobs make it onto the To Do list, though. I like the idea of self-reliance, of ‘make do and mend’. Come the zombie apocalypse, I like to think I’ll be able to make a go of surviving. Although I will miss chocolate, thanks again to the climate.
I suspect the first strategy to vanquish the evil twins Frustration and Overwhelm, is to take stuff off the list. Just the possibility that I could do something myself in no way guarantees that a) it will be worth it, or b) I will enjoy doing it. Or indeed, that I will do it well, but that’s a separate issue. Either way, I can review and cull items off the work plan, and the world won’t end. Sometimes it really is more sensible to let someone else do the job or make the thing. As I’ve mentioned in another post, I learned this when I tried to make croissants…
A particular consideration for DIYing domestic things is, do I have the enthusiasm and the capacity to keep on doing the same task indefinitely? I have learned how to make yoghurt from yoghurt (which the kids thought was some kind of Inception-style magic). I have made cream cheese and paneer. I can make various breads reasonably well and would improve with more practice. I could grow veggies fairly easily. But I already have a few other regular home-made things going on, such as mixing my own washing powder, dishwasher powder, and moisturiser. I really don’t want to accumulate so many ongoing small commitments that I can’t find the time and energy for anything bigger.
So some things are removed from the list, and some things are only for special occasions, or for my own amusement (cooking is one of my mindful relaxation activities). That reduces the overall traffic jam, but the traffic already in the queue still needs to move on.
One of my purposes in writing this blog was to push myself to finish more projects, more promptly. It has bothered me for a while that I’m not better at doing this. There’s a strange mismatch between the slightly excessive pride and satisfaction I get from things I’ve made, my criticism of all the flaws in what I’ve made, and the reluctance to get on and finish things at all.
There is a fairly obvious explanation for all of it, which is encompassed by fear of failure. As I’ve written before, it can feel very vulnerable to display your abilities, which can make it daunting to begin. Equally, there is a lot of protection in the ‘work in progress’ stage of making. Few people are critical or judgemental of something that’s only half done, and people who love you are usually optimistic and kind. Or at least tactful. We can mostly keep our inner critic reined in too, and reassure ourselves that it if we finish whatever it is to the standard we intend, it probably won’t be too bad.
Then comes the day of actually finishing. This should be, and can be, exciting and rewarding. It’s also the point where the verdict can be pronounced on the end product. “Release the hounds” cries the inner critic, and all the minor imperfections in the project become undeniable (at least to me). Unlike a first time novelist or movie director, I am unlikely to find myself being shamed in the reviews page of a national newspaper, so the stakes shouldn’t be all that high. Yet I think it is one of the major reasons for hesitating to finish.
One possible solution is to cheat the internal judgey-pants, by saying that the project isn’t really finished. I heard Adam Savage, television presenter, special effects master and maker extraordinaire (of Mythbusters and Tested.com fame), talk in an interview about reframing failures of a design or a build simply as iterations. Iteration means repeating a process, perhaps many times, with the aim of getting progressively closer to an acceptable solution or outcome.
I think this is a really powerful shift in thinking, and it really stuck in my brain. In the words of Henry Ford, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
So I’m beginning to find it helpful to remind myself that when I finish something to the degree I originally planned, it can still be changed or improved.
As an example, I designed and built a sideboard for our kitchen. It is my most complex piece of furniture so far, containing nine drawers, made from scratch out of chunky plywood and finished nicely with a router to give lovely smooth edges. I learned and practiced new skills with new tools to make it, which I always enjoy. Part of me was very proud of parts of it. We’ve been using it, not actually fully finished, for quite a long time because we needed the storage. It works, and we can fit a lot of stuff in it.
Yet I stalled, and didn’t complete the last parts of painting it and putting on the final handles. Why? I was really disappointed with how some of the drawers, which are inside cabinet doors, would catch on the doors themselves. I felt like my design hadn’t worked, and I was a bit embarrassed that it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. It being unfinished then added to my disenchantment with it, because it didn’t look that good. So I lost faith and moved on. New projects, you say? Yes, I’d love some shiny new projects! There’s no whiff of failure in new projects…
Then I watched that interview with Adam Savage on the podcast of another favourite brainiac, Tim Ferriss, blogger, writer, and especially author of The 4 Hour Work Week, which I love. I looked again at the cabinet, and let the solvable problem of the doors and drawers (really a problem with the type of hinges) bubble away in my head. I approached it from one angle, didn’t like that and then tried another. It worked! I’m now prioritising the job higher up my list because I think I can live with how it’s going to turn out. I’m proud again of what I accomplished so far. I felt better about putting on the last of the handles, knowing I might change my mind about where they were placed, which I did. It isn’t the end of the world to move them, it won’t spoil anything and I know how hide the fact that I did it. I knew I had to try something and see if it worked, in order to know if it worked. Obviously?
Delayed gratification versus instant reward
Another recollection from high school that seems vaguely relevant to this story, is of studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A quote came back to me yesterday:
I am in bloodWilliam Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act III, Scene 4
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:
What Macbeth is claiming is that on his self-serving power-hungry murderous spree, he has already gone so far that he may as well keep going as per the plan. He’s wrong; it doesn’t end well. But the suggestion is that once you’re in the middle of something, extracting yourself or the consequences of not seeing it through are at least as difficult as continuing. The analysis of cost and benefit suggests you may as well finish, with the hope of some gain.
Even without the bloodstained spouse, haunted dinner parties and scheming witches, this is often not my situation when I have a project on the go. Stopping and letting it lie unfinished is frequently less effort than finishing, compounded as I’ve said by the fear it might be a bit shit when it’s done. Focusing on the inconvenience caused by not completing the job is helpful sometimes, and can push me to prioritise a project over everyday life and YouTube videos of cake decorating. When there’s no immediate downside, it’s a bit harder to motivate myself. Especially in the depths of winter (now, in the Southern hemisphere) where my body systems are attempting to convince me I should hibernate.
The approach I’m working on now, is to focus on the satisfaction I will experience when the project is finished. I’ve mentioned that I feel really proud when I look at something that I’ve made. I have been known to tug on people’s sleeves and force them to admire my handy work, if they haven’t volunteered enough spontaneous praise and admiration. Mainly it’s my poor family who get tagged for this, but friends are not exempt and it can happen via Skype or Facetime just as well as in person. The funny thing is that I feel this way even if I can see imperfections in what I’ve done/made. I think I’m just proud that I did a thing I hadn’t done before, and which other people might not be able to do. I particularly focus on making things which are useful and/or might save the family some money, so they have a purpose that feels worthwhile to me. Being pleased with that seems to me like an acceptable level of vanity, so I’m not trying to stop.
Pride and satisfaction, resulting from something that you worked hard on, can be powerful drivers of future behaviour. Again there are neurochemicals flowing which help to make this productive experience pleasurable so that we’ll repeat it. Serotonin seems to be one of these; there are likely to be others too as it’s a very complex system which isn’t fully understood. Some of our other brain chemicals are possibly more addictive and easier to produce, like the dopamine you get from alcohol, gambling, sugary food or finding the perfect cat (or cake) video online.
I value time hanging out with my husband and kids, so the goal is not to be busy doing something productive every second of the day. That way lies creeping exhaustion, as I have learned in the past. In principle, though, I don’t want to sit on my sofa watching videos and achieving nothing, because the short term enjoyment is accompanied by irritation at myself and a worry that I’m not moving forward. Plus a really intense desire for baked goods, which is counterproductive to the efforts I’ve made for my health this year!
I’ve realised that I need to combine thoughts about the benefits to my brain and body from being busy with making things, and the healthy buzz I will get from completing my project to an adequate standard. This anticipated pleasure can be enough to nudge myself into ‘finishing things’ action, a bit more of the time. Looking around at things in the house that I have completed in the past, and am pretty happy with, spurs me on. As described above I can add to that by noticing how I fixed or improved things which didn’t turn out quite right the first time, reinforcing the idea that I can do the same again if necessary.
The reward after the delayed gratification
I was in my lovely local library recently and spotted a book I have been really looking forward to reading. It’s currently still in the library, though. I have decided it can be an incentive for when I have finished a few more things in the house. So I’m still looking forward to it but now I will feel like I’ve earned it. Because I’m a scatterbrain, it’s possible I forgot I decided that, got some other books out of the library a week later and read those instead, but the theory is still sound, isn’t it?
Humans are not ‘obligate hibernators’
I will freely admit that I haven’t got a reliable strategy to overcome the ‘but it’s dark and raining and I want to be under a duvet’ instinct. I guess I need to keep reminding myself I’m not actually a bear, a hedgehog or a squirrel, so I can safely stay unhibernated until spring and get on with completing some useful stuff to cheer myself up.
In summary? Focus on value and purpose in what I make; focus on enjoyment and satisfaction in working on the project and in completing it; banish the fear of failure by thinking of it as iteration; then I should find it easier to pick up projects I had put down. If it turns out a bit rubbish as I feared, I can easily declare it unfinished again and keep chipping away at whatever it is, until I can say that it’s good.
THE END (ooh, that’s very pleasing to type! Maybe I need an equivalent stamp I can use on my made projects…)
What are you working on that’s proving difficult to finish? Have you figured out why? Leave a comment and let me know it’s not just me!