Unfinished Business

Grander house projects than mine get done all the time—so why can't I complete even the smallest one?

1 ×

 

My plan is to finish a project this weekend. That's the plan.

That is often the plan. The reality, compared with the plan, looks different. Actually, the reality looks sadly the same as it looked last week. That's the problem.

How hard could it be, really, to finish a project? Far bigger projects than mine get finished every day. The Great Wall of China. They finished that. Of course, if they had only worked on it every third weekend between the kid's soccer games, when it was warm outside, it would have never gotten done either.

I start projects all the time. My projects range from the mundane and necessary, like transferring the now near-dead flowers from their little plastic nursery tubs into the ground (this is known as a time-sensitive project, a project that needs to be done by a certain time, otherwise the plants become insensitive to any amount of water), to the visionary, like putting the garage on wheels so we can move it to where we need it.

To understand how projects don't get done, you have to understand weekends. Weekends are like little sacks of gold that they hand out on Fridays. That's what they mean when they ask how you "spent" your weekend. Unfortunately, like any sack of gold, it's never big enough.

The most immediately satisfying way to spend a sack of gold, of course, is to blow the whole thing at once—say, on a spectacular weekend at the beach. The less satisfying but more boring weekend investment method is to diversify, dropping a coin here and there, over the course of the two days free from paid work, hoping to ­gather a few less-than-spectacular things—maybe a nap, a televised sporting event, or even a done project. But everything has a cost, even lying around, and everything you buy with your gold (lying around) is something else you can't have (a done project). The system is very hard on people who want everything.
My plan is to finish a project this weekend. That's the plan.

That is often the plan. The reality, compared with the plan, looks different. Actually, the reality looks sadly the same as it looked last week. That's the problem.

How hard could it be, really, to finish a project? Far bigger projects than mine get finished every day. The Great Wall of China. They finished that. Of course, if they had only worked on it every third weekend between the kid's soccer games, when it was warm outside, it would have never gotten done either.

I start projects all the time. My projects range from the mundane and necessary, like transferring the now near-dead flowers from their little plastic nursery tubs into the ground (this is known as a time-sensitive project, a project that needs to be done by a certain time, otherwise the plants become insensitive to any amount of water), to the visionary, like putting the garage on wheels so we can move it to where we need it.

To understand how projects don't get done, you have to understand weekends. Weekends are like little sacks of gold that they hand out on Fridays. That's what they mean when they ask how you "spent" your weekend. Unfortunately, like any sack of gold, it's never big enough.

The most immediately satisfying way to spend a sack of gold, of course, is to blow the whole thing at once—say, on a spectacular weekend at the beach. The less satisfying but more boring weekend investment method is to diversify, dropping a coin here and there, over the course of the two days free from paid work, hoping to ­gather a few less-than-spectacular things—maybe a nap, a televised sporting event, or even a done project. But everything has a cost, even lying around, and everything you buy with your gold (lying around) is something else you can't have (a done project). The system is very hard on people who want everything.
2 ×

 

Spending heavily up front is what they call a no-brainer. It makes you look good and sound good—"To hell with projects! We're going jet-skiing!"—and as with frivolity with real money, you will collect lots of friends.

The problem with a Slo-Spend weekend is that any project gets prop­ped up against all the other ways to spend the gold, just to see how it looks. And almost anything—like lying on the floor in the den—looks better than almost any of the projects. Should we get out the clippers and look for the garage behind the hedge? Or watch TV and eat snacks? Potato chips vs. physical labor is also a no-brainer and guarantees that no project will ever get completed until they bury Dad.



So the projects pile up. In various states of unfinishedness. When I am not in complete denial, I can identify the stages of The Unfinished Project thus:

Stage 1: "That is a great idea. We should definitely do that." Chances of this happening: 1,000:1.

Stage 2: You bought all the stuff for the project, maybe even removed the old one because, of course, you were just going to "pop the new one in." Chances of completing a Stage 2 project: 10:1.

Stage 3: Mid-stage. Stuff everywhere. This project is clearly well under­ way, desperately seeking momentum. Chances of completion before you move to another house: 4:1.

Stage 4: This project is done—Alleluia!—except for that screw. If you ever get that screw, you can cross this project off your list forever. Likelihood of going and getting that screw and completing this job: 2:1.

Stage 5: This project is actually done. It was probably started and completed before you even got there.

(Note: One of the reasons there are so many unfinished projects scattered about my life is because I think I can do them myself. If I could be realistic about my track record for getting projects done, then there would be far fewer ­unfinished projects around my house because I would never start them. But I remain steadfastly unrealistic.)
3 ×

 

Although unfinished projects can be annoying to some, the ability of the human animal to adapt, accept, and finally ignore, is remarkable to observe. The lack of a wall separating the backyard (outdoors) from the kitchen (indoors), for example, is, in the modern era that we live in, notable, and typically undesirable. Even notable unfinished projects, however, if left to molder long enough, become invisible to the people in the house. The people living in the house become what they call "house-blind," which describes someone who can't see that their own house is what they call a big "hellhole."

"You're missing a wall there."

"What?"

"A wall, over there. It is completely gone."

"Oh. I can't see that. Some days I am lucky to even find my house."

The only possible salvation for many of my unfinished projects is a large social gathering at our place. Suddenly, with the extravaganza only days away, it is as if the blinders have been lifted from mine eyes and I am made able to see: "Honey! Were you aware that we live in a hellhole?! We have got to get this place put together."

Even visitors, though, won't necessarily get the wheels back on a Stage 2, which is now part of your lifestyle. But not to worry, because most guests won't mention the floor-to-ceiling blue tarp in the kitchen, due to: a) shock that anyone can live this way, b) pity, and maybe just a whiff of c) fear. No visitor wants to be the one to say, "Excuse me, but were you aware that your family lives in a hellhole?" They will talk about your unfinished project for a long time afterward, but not to you.

The impending get-together does motivate me to finally summon the whatever it was I needed to gather up, to get the screw to at last nudge the Stage 4 over the cliff. Usually it takes about 7 minutes, plus the 12 cents for the screw and the drive to and from the screw store.

My weekend is a success, a bit of my gold well-spent. Unfortunately, the guests don't seem to care.

At first this bothers me, and I try to subtly turn the conversation and their attention to my screw and the finishedness of my project. "See that? I just put that in. That's a twelve-cent screw." But it sounds kind of stupid when I put it that way. So I let it go.

Later, though, I wander over to my wife. "Hon," I whisper, pointing discreetly to the new screw, "We should have done that a long time ago."
 
 

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