If you made a list of all of your unfinished business, what would be on it?
I’m talking about all of the incompletes you’ve been carrying around; the projects that got halfway done and stalled; the little annoying fixes you never got around to; the great ideas that were never developed; the improvements that were never implemented; the conversations that you always meant to have.
All these bits of baggage weigh on us, taking up mental space, and requiring energy to keep them at bay.
Here’s a way to reclaim that bandwidth.
Make The List
Get everything out of your head. Brainstorm rules. No judgment. Every item belongs. Repetition is okay. It’s fine to repeat yourself. When you think you’ve finished, wait 5 minutes because there’s likely to be another burst of insights after the initial one.
The point of this exercise is not to feel bad about yourself. It’s to clear the air, bring the dark into the light. Take a deep breath and forgive yourself, knowing that your intention is good. You are doing this process to acknowledge the past and move into the present.
Review The List Dispassionately
Look for themes. On my list there are a lot of home maintenance items. They never seem to rise to the top of the priority list until they are an emergency. What do you see repeated?
Look for the nice-but-I’m-never-going-to-do this ones. Be honest with yourself. I promise you will feel relief when you cross this off your to-do list. Examples might be mending those slacks or finishing that knitting project. See any of those taking up space in your garage or spare room?
Sometimes a ritual helps. You can cut the “never gonna happens” from the list and burn them saying a fond farewell. Or create a journal page honoring the idea and that time in your life when it was important. Do what you need to do to consider it finished, and let it go.
I’ve mentioned before the notion of parallel universes, and fantasizing that in that other world I finished that novel or took that idea to market. It helps me.
You may have some items on the list that cannot be completed, for example, heal a relationship with someone who is no longer living. Even in that case it’s possible to find some closure, perhaps through a letter, or a journal entry, or with the help of a therapist.
And of course forgiveness works here as well, of yourself and others. The point is to let it go and move on.
What’s The Deal?
On my list there are a number of items that say “deal with X.” Productivity gurus will tell you that action items must have a verb to pull you toward what needs to be done. “Deal with” is a lame version of that. I’m using it to mean decide, budget for, find a contractor, schedule– dozens of different activities.
The “deal with” items need to be examined, broken down into steps. The critical parts need to be prioritized. The rest filed away– not forgotten but not taking up top of mind space.
One of my favorite aspects of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system is the notion of the Maybe Someday file. These are items that are valuable enough to be saved but not at the top level of your consciousness. They will come up in your GTD review process and may at that time advance in priority, but you don’t need to spend energy worrying about them. It’s not their time.
A Fresh Look
Just maybe there’s an item on your Unfinished Business list that just keeps calling to you. You try and hide it away but it won’t stay hidden. Maybe you always wanted to finish your degree but think it’s too late. Listen to your heart.
If there is a lifelong dream on your list you can find a way to make it come true. I still remember at my college graduation a fellow classmate getting her bachelor’s degree at the age of 96. It’s never too late.
The Finish Line
I get enormous satisfaction taking a fresh Sharpie and drawing a big black line through an item on my list. At the end of this exercise you should have a bunch of black lines through anything that is no longer important to you. You are done carrying it around.
You will also likely have some clarified tasks that deserve your attention, a few to be filed under Maybe Someday, some inspiration for your journal, and a lightness in your step due to the burden you have let go.