Guilt is a burden. These unfinished projects encumber our minds, preventing new initiatives. Sometimes the feeling of "I oughta" is such a strain that it stops any productivity. Progress seems impossible on this task, and we can’t imagine doing something else worthy when not doing this one. We step back to doomscrolling, watching a funny video, or other non-taxing activity to alleviate the feeling of pressure.
How did we get here? Many of us start more projects than we finish. We start with the best of intent. That's a good idea! Doing it would make us / our family / our community better off. Sometimes the notion is born of passion: the initiative speaks to us with a loud voice, like inspiration in a shower. Sometimes the project arises from a sense of duty - the thing we really should do because it is "important."
But whatever the reasons at the beginning, many initiatives lose steam. Maybe this was just harder than we thought it would be. The impetus has faded. Or the emotional energy that got us to start and begin is not present anymore. "I'll take a break from that today" becomes "this week" and then more. The longer the project sits on the shelf, the more dust it gathers.
To move forward, we need to return to the reason we do any of these projects in the first place. I like Seth Godin's invocation of The Work. The Work is our mission to provide meaning in the world. Each project we start furthers that mission as we expand our capability and perspective. Everything we share promotes that mission by enhancing the knowledge of others. We need not be "done" to our internal satisfaction to bring meaning to the world around us. The Work calls us to create, and that means the freedom to begin.
To begin, we need to be gardeners of purpose. We must tend both to the ideas we are growing and the cognitive soil in which they grow. Untended projects are weeds that hoard the good brain space that lets us cultivate meaning. The guilt they cast on us blocks the growth of the more youthful but high-potential notions that could otherwise thrive.
Marie Kondo's KonMari approach to tidying one's personal spaces suggests a more positive metaphor. We should celebrate those tasks and ideas that were part of our past, without requiring that they hem in our present or future. We thank them for their service to our creative and intellectual growth. And then we release them from their claim on conscience.
In that vein, I propose the 25% Club. We who create should be free to start, work with an idea, and move on to the next as the previous one loses steam or urgency. The name comes from the phase where we have invested some time - and probably some ego - into a project we are at the direst risk of allowing it to burden us. There is no standard for completion, nor is there an expectation that we can do this in the first ten minutes of toying with a notion.
I would not add the project to a "backlog" or a to-do list for later review. Most of the time, ideas that come around again do so independently, and the old notes are not as valuable as the new spin on the ball. "Burn your backlog" is a mantra among progressive engineering groups and product managers.
Celebrate your ideas by releasing them. Manifestations of the 25% Club involve shipping the knowledge fraction of the idea we gained along the way. If sufficient, let's write an essay. Maybe we cut a short video and post it to YouTube. Post that incomplete codebase on GitHub. John Weiss recently wrote about printing out the work to make a book.
I have found freedom by just tweeting a notion. When shipping something a little more substantive than a basic idea, I can use a simple tool like Thread Creator to make a small threaded tweetstorm linking to the artifact. This process need not be a grand event.
But shipping is release. The act gives us that feeling and reality of being "real artists." The job of knowledge workers and artists is evolving our understanding and perspective on the world. As such, shipping knowledge is the purest form of shipping. Sharing what we learned along the way is respectful to our project while providing someone somewhere a leg up in their journey.
The shipping metaphor makes me think of putting this released idea into a longboat and pushing it out to sea. According to (apocryphal) legend, the Vikings of old would push a respected leader to sea after he (in these stories, it was always "he") passed away, setting the ship on fire to announce his passage to the next world. Our vision of "shipping" is similar in the release and announcement, giving freedom to the idea to find another home as we continue our lives without it.
And we return to the garden: burned vegetation enriches the soil, readying it for a new generation of ideas to sprout. We replenish our garden by releasing our burdens. We can grow - and create - again.
If you choose to release your unfinished work, let me know! I would celebrate with you.
I thank many in the foster.co community who commented on the seeds of this essay. Special thanks to Heather Eddy, who pointed me to the metaphors of the garden and Viking funeral. Also to David Burt, who provided editorial feedback.