What do to with an unfinished project

Sometimes you read a book and it just hits home. One of those books for me is Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher.

It gave me so much perspective. Things just clicked and fell into place.

The book is seeping with the feeling of “you can do anything you desire and all is possible” in a contagious way, which left me super energised and inspired after reading it. At the same time it’s also very down to earth and practical so not at all full of fluff and motivational rah rah.

But above all, I felt recognised and validated. I felt seen.

Barbara introduces and explains the term Scanner, which is a person that keeps scanning the horizon and explore new things. A generalist and renaissance person, in the most positive form of the word, as opposed to the specialists that the modern western society somehow expect everyone to turn into when they grow up.

Through Barbara’s examples and exercises I finally found an explanation to some of my behaviours. She paints the picture of how bees go from flower to flower, and they don’t pick one flower that they stay with indefinitely. When they got what they came for they go to the next one, and we would never dream to criticise them for not being able to make up their minds or not being “finished” when they leave.

When a Scanner has got what it wanted from an interest or a project, he or she moves on. Even though the project might look unfinished to an outside observer. To the Scanner, there’s nothing there any more to keep up interest. There is no reason to stay.

As a consequence, Scanners often beat themselves up for not finishing what they start or for moving on to something new. They tell themselves that they are lazy, have a problem with attention, or are simply immature because they cannot make themselves finish something they have initiated.

I know exactly that feeling.

A project that never finished

Once upon a time, I decided I wanted to learn how to knit. I signed up for knitting classes which I attended once a week for half a year. I got to practice the basic knits and some different knitting techniques. We learnt how patterns were notated and how to follow them, so we could create actual garments and not only make simple squares and rectangles.

After doing small test patches of one knitting technique after another I decided it was time to put this knowledge into practice by making a sweater. Many of my course-mates were on maternity leave and they were knitting baby clothes and children’s stuff. But I didn’t have a child, and wasn’t close to any people that did, so the sweater for my project had to be adult sized.

Now a sweater is not knitted in one piece. You knit the front patch, the back patch and then the two sleeves. After that, you ideally “block” the knitting by wetting it and letting it dry flat in a place where you can nudge and pin it into the desired measurement and shape. Only after this can you seam it all together and you have a final sweater.

I picked a nice pattern of a turtle neck sweater and bought enough yarn for the whole thing (note: knitting is an expensive hobby!). The stitching pattern was mildly difficult but not out of my comfort zone. The biggest hurdle was that a sweater is quite a big project with a lot of stitches to make.

And so I began to knit. I started with the front patch but when I got as far as the armpits, where you have to start to decrease the number of stitches and keep count of where you are in the pattern, I stalled.

At the time, I was knitting while travelling on tour and I found that it demanded a bit too much concentration from me. It was hard to have to leave and come back to it all the time because I forgot where in the stitching pattern I was. It was easier when it was just knitting backwards and forwards until I hit the end of the row.

So I started on the back patch, figuring that I could always pick things up and finish it off when I got back home from the tour and could give it more focus. The back patch found itself in the same fate as the front patch: when I got to the armpit area, I stopped.

When I finally got home from the tour I told myself that I should finish this project someday. But to this day, that time has never come.

This was over ten years ago. Ten. Years.

Haunted by the thought that I should get it done

I still have that half-made sweater lying in a closet somewhere together with all of the remaining balls of yarn. Like a reminder and a tiny bad conscience telling me that I give up too easily and I’m a lazy quitter.

And here comes Barbara, telling me that not only is there a reason for me not finishing, but that it is totally ok and I should celebrate and acknowledge the reason for it!

Because when I look back, I didn’t take knitting classes because I wanted to make a sweater. I took knitting classes because I wanted to learn how it’s done!

As soon as I understood that and had built up some kind of ability to do it myself, I lost the drive to continue. The actual knitting of that sweater became a chore that I was forcing myself to do, only because I had previously said that I would do it.

My joy lies in understanding, in figuring out how things work and how they are being made. I’m ever curious and I love learning about new things.

But executing on something that I already know, that has turned from barely within my grasp into something mundane and routine, bores me out. There’s nothing new to learn, so there’s nothing there to keep me interested.

The idea that I stopped when it became difficult is just an excuse. It wouldn’t have been hard at all to keep track of the pattern if I still had been interested. But the project had turned into a matter of counting stitches all the time and I just couldn’t force myself to do it.

The Scanner’s finish

The solution, says Barbara, is to wrap the project up in a box or simply wrapping paper, and tie it off with a string. Put a note on it describing the project, what the goal was, why you started it, and what state it is in and the next steps to take (should you actually want to come back and pick it up again in the future).

Put this on display on a shelf in your home as a celebration of your exploration. You can call it “My Life’s Work Bookshelf” or “Souvenirs of an Adventurous Mind”. See it as a travel record of your creativity.

And now you can walk away from it, without any pretence of returning. It’s a Scanner’s finish. Your Scanner’s mission have been accomplished, no matter how finished something looks to anybody else. You are ready to move on to the next flower.

I can’t even begin to say what a relief I felt from this! To understand the true reason behind this project, and why it is in the state it’s in, have been very liberating.

The truth is of course that I’m not a quitter. I’m not unable to finish my projects. I finish lots of things all the time. I just start way more things than I see to completion, and now I know the reason why.

I got what I came for with my knitting. I wanted to know how to make a sweater, and when I did that I was done. I understood knitting faster than I was able to do the knitting itself. Which is obvious of course: you have to understand how it’s done before you can do it. But I didn’t need to make the sweater afterwards, that just felt like trying to get blood from a stone.

I see the importance of finding the true motivation behind why I do what I do, and recognising when I have gotten what I wanted from a project – or any endeavour.

A piece in the puzzle of knowing myself

Having a name for this trait of mine is like a precious gift. I know myself a little bit better after reading this book. And if you are remotely like me, I encourage you to pick it up too.

I will never stop exploring. I love learning new things, for the sake of learning and figuring things out. I think that’s why having a job in tech works well for me, because it’s constantly changing and there are always new things to learn. That’s also what led me throughout my dancing career – I was constantly exploring, trying new things and learning new skills.

I could never choose one thing and stick with it for years and years. The world is too fascinating for that. But this desire to do many things have also been a source of stress.

When there are too many things you want to do, and you can’t choose and discard some of them, you try to do them all at once. There’s a sense of urgency in the background, as if something bad is about to happen soon and you have to do everything asap or you will end up with nothing.

The good news is that I don’t have to choose. This was also a big takeaway from the book, and the whole premise behind its title.

I can’t do everything I want to do at the same time, but I’ll get to them all over a longer time frame. Knowing how I function on this level has instilled a sense of calm in me. There’s no need to hurry. I’ll get to do all the fun stuff in life.

Isn’t it ironic that finding a lot of things interesting and fun can create so much tension in you, so you lose the sense of fun and ease that was the source of wanting to do them in the first place?

This is another takeaway from the book: you are allowed to do something just because it’s fun. Just because you enjoy it. You don’t have to try to make everything you love into a career. Find a way to do it anyway.

Is there a Scanner in you?

Perhaps you recognise some of yourself in this description too, and have said one or several of these things to yourself:

  • I lose interest in things I thought would interest me forever
  • I can’t stand to do anything twice
  • I think everyone’s put on earth to do something; everyone but me, that is
  • I keep changing my mind about what I want to do and end up doing nothing
  • I start so many things but finish almost none of them
  • I know I should focus on one thing, but which one?
  • I keep going off on another tangent

If you have, and if it’s been a source of stress and anxiety in you, I encourage you to read this book. It just might change your life.

Identifying yourself as a Scanner means changing the way you see yourself in the world. Barbara’s book has definitely changed my perspective, and I’m happy to have found it.

We are ok. There’s nothing wrong with us. We just function slightly differently than the norm, and armed with this knowledge we can create a life that lets us flourish instead of trying to force a round peg in a square hole.

Now, which one of the projects on my list am I going to tackle next? Which interest shall I dive into now?

It doesn’t matter. I know I will get to all of them.

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