“Done” Is a Four-Letter Word


I love that accomplished feeling that comes from finishing something important as much as the next person. It’s like scoring a goal or bowling a strike. Yessssssss. Part of what makes that feeling so great is that it is so rare. The simple truth is that good things—especially big, important good things—take time to complete. Heck, maybe they’re never done. (A home renovation comes to mind. So does running a business or raising a child).

And so if you are waiting until you can fully cross something off your list to feel good, you are likely going to be waiting a long time. Maybe even a reeeeaaaallllly looooooooong time. And that’s just not right. Because it’s your birthright to feel good. It’s only your inner meanie—the ego—and your old programming that believes that you can only feel good when all work is through. And you’ve heard me say this before but I’ll say it again. The ego is not your amigo.

Here are 4 ways to boost your good feelings even when you’re in the middle of a project and you still have plenty of things on your to-do list. (Which is, let’s face it, pretty much every day):

  • Celebrate semi-completion

For every little milestone you complete toward your end goal—every group of three emails you send, for example, or a proposal that you finish, or a rough draft you complete. Do something that feels good to celebrate. It doesn’t have to be a massage or a fancy dinner. It could be taking a few minutes to walk barefoot in your yard and look at the garden. (My current fave). Read 10 pages of a book or a long article online you’ve been saving. Going to make yourself a special beverage—like seltzer with a lime instead of just another glass of water. Or playing a turn in Words With Friends.

Sure you can have a party when the whole darn thing is finished. Just please, don’t wait until then to do something nice for yourself! Every step gets you closer to the end; meaning, every step is worthy of feeling good about.

  • Develop your tolerance for things being unfinished

This is a biggie, because your ego will go to great lengths to tell you only deserve to feel as good as you are productive. And that’s simply not true. Don’t buy it!

Quite the contrary, I have found that when I get started on something but then take a break from it to go do something completely unrelated, when I get back I can see the work I’ve already done with fresh eyes and easily make refinements. It helps me create a better end product than if I had sat down and not stood up again until it was done. If I need things to be done before I let myself get out of the chair, the quality of my work would suffer.

  • Remember you deserve to enjoy the process of getting things done

My writer crush, Ann Patchett, wrote an essay that appeared in her essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage that talked about how she decided to check herself in to the Beverly Hills Hilton to finish writing a book with a fast-approaching deadline. That idea really resonated with me, and while my budget doesn’t afford that level of splurge (although she got it paid for by pitching an article about her experiences there for Gourmet magazine—genius!), you can absolutely take yourself to a lovely hotel lobby, or serene café, or even out on your back deck, to work. It doesn’t make you spoiled, it makes you inspired.

After all, there are no extra points for depriving yourself of joy while working on something important.

Something I learn more deeply each year is this:
“The better you feel while you’re in the midst of working on something, the better quality you deliver.” (Click to tweet.) Don’t believe me? Try it!

  • Put this in your pipe and smoke it: Being completion-oriented can actually be counter-productive

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I worked for an Internet company (iVillage.com) where I managed the creation and launch of three new websites in a row. In many ways I was in heaven—I am a content creator at heart and very deadline driven. I loved the adrenaline of racing a launch date and brainstorming creative ways to cover a particular subject in a way that was comprehensive and compelling. Except that after that third site launched, I crashed. Hard. I got so depressed. It took a therapist to show me that being goal-oriented, which seems like such a prized trait in our culture, can actually be unfriendly to mental health because once you hit the goal, it can almost feel like you have nothing to live for. If you throw everything you’ve got into doing something, when it’s done, what have you got leftover?

None of us knows how much time we have. It’s up to us to be present to every day no matter what’s on our plate because the truth is, it could all end tomorrow. (Maybe even tonight!) I’m not trying to be a downer, but sometimes we need the equivalent of a cattle prod to remember to pull ourselves out of living for the future or rehashing the past and just be where we are. Beautifully, wonderfully, perfectly incomplete.


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