Unfinished Business

27 December, 2011 09:20PM · 5 minute read

Why are there so many unfinished things in my life? I suspect that it’s not just my life that is the problem. Reality check for most people would suggest there are many “projects” that people start with the best of intentions to finish them but for whatever reason they don’t. Perhaps a self-help book on the subject of motivation is what’s needed. Then again, maybe that’s just another distraction. Perhaps we all just need to knuckle-down and get on with it: tie up the loose ends and finish what we start. Then again, perhaps we should just be more focused in the first place.

What if the problem of so many bits of unfinished business is created by starting too many projects in the first place without truly examining our motivations for starting in the first place?

All too often we look at a problem we are trying to solve and think of obstacles/road blocks in our way. “Oh, if only I had ‘X’ then I’d be able to keep going,” which is promptly followed with either A) giving up or B) obtaining item ‘X’ and subsequently finding yet another (different) obstacle after that.

Triage. I love the concept of medical triage because it puts priority into perspective in a life and death way. If you make a list of everything you have to do and want to do consisting of new projects unstarted, projects underway and moving forward, projects underway but stalled, and projects thought to be finished but defects have arisen, you need to prioritise it somehow: I’d suggest putting it in terms of triage. What items can you live without for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, a few years or perhaps even forever? The value judgement has to be brutal if the list is long. I’d suggest a Root Cause Analysis.

RCA is based on the concept of asking “Why” five times: a method attributed to Sakichi Toyoda and used by Toyota in their day to day business. Whilst I take issue with the use of the number “five” as the number of iterations required the idea is simple enough: take the result and ask the question “Why did this happen?” over and over until the question can’t be broken down any further - be it five or a thousand times. (In reality usually three of four whys is sufficient to reach a reasonable conclusion) The lowest level of breakdown is the level at which you feel comfortable stopping.

An example is a piece of iOS software I was developing in my spare time that is, as of today, still unfinished:

Why didn’t I finish the app? (1) Because it was taking a lot of my spare time.

Why was is taking so much of my spare time? (2) The learning curve was very steep and required more time to learn than I had anticipated.

Why not spend more time learning? (3) [I could also ask why I under-estimated how long it would take but the dead-end answer to that is simply inexperience] I am unable to spend more spare time learning as well as programming.

Why can’t I spend more time than I already am? (4) Because my work and family time would be affected.

Why is that a problem? (5) Work: If I lose my job I will lose my house and risk losing my family. Family: I risk losing my family or at the very least missing out on my children growing up.

At that point I would stop, however you could debate further down the work path:

Why can’t a get I job that takes less time? (6) My skill sets, qualifications and experience lend itself to a specific type of job where shorter hours are difficult to obtain without losing significant income. Loss of income will still threaten losing my house and family.

You could debate further down the family path as well, but I believe the point is made.

There is still the question of why I started writing the app in the first place. To be honest my answers are too personal for this forum so I intend to keep them to myself (sorry). When taking on a new project, you can apply the “Ask Why” method in advance: Why do I want to write this app? (1) Are there alternative apps that others have written? (2) Are there other outlets for this form of creativity? (3) There are many other possible lines of reasoning that are very specific to project under contemplation and your personal wishes and life goals. This line of questioning should (hopefully) weed out flash in the pan ideas that are spurred by incidental conversation, advertising or friendly rivalries to name a few bad reasons for embarking on a project. [That is to say, they are fine if there are other mitigating reasons but alone they are not good reasons]

Whether looking forward or backward at a project what matters is the balance of the factors in the equation. Some people would look at the lines of deduction and conclude that I didn’t care enough about the app as I put my family and my work above the app. If you were to make the creation of the app the key reason for getting out of bed in the morning then sacrifice it all for the app and the equation changes. It comes back to Triage.

For me, the lowest level of breakdown is my family closely followed by the lifestyle I want to have within the bounds of society as it stands today. That is always the driver of my priorities and I understand this. These facts drive my decisions. These aren’t the case for a great many people whose priorities are very different to mine.

If you have a lot of unfinished business, I’d suggest trying to understand what truly drives you and what’s important, make a list and apply triage to it, then start working on the things the matter the most. Be honest with yourself and be brutal.