So many experts advise us to simplify our lives. But our lives already have momentum going in the opposite direction, based on our past habits and choices. How can we shift direction? I have found that a good place to start is project reduction.

Goal - A Limit of One or Two Projects at a Time

Juggling Too Many Projects Can Be HazardousStrive to have no more than one or two projects going on at the same time. Finish the project you are working on, including clean-up and putting tools away, before starting another one. In order to do this, you may have to rethink your definition of a project. Choose a project that you can finish in a week or less. If a job is going to take longer than a week, divide it into two or more projects. Instead of weeding your property, divide it into weeding the front yard and weeding the backyard, or weeding the lawn and weeding the garden.

Step 1. Make a List of Current Projects

Make a list of all the projects you have already started but not finished. Keep this list limited to projects you have already started. Note what you've done and why you did it. Then note what's left to do and why you haven't done it.

As an example, a partial list of my projects was:

Make Curtains -- I bought material to make curtains for the front room before I had time to sew them because fabric was on sale. I can't make the curtains because I still need to buy matching thread and lining fabric and a curtain rod; and I haven't had time to go to the library and look through magazines to determine exactly how I want the curtains to look. I loved the fabric when I bought it a year ago. I still like it, but I've had it so long that I don't really feel excited about it anymore. Actually sewing the curtains is a chore and I'll get to it when I can.

Mending a Patchwork Quilt -- I have a patchwork quilt that was given to me when I was a little girl by a favorite Aunt. It is worn in a few places and needs to be mended. I patched up one area with scraps I had available. Then I stopped and decided to wait until I found more fabric scraps to patch the rest. The dog groomer always puts a kerchief on my dogs after their baths. I planned to wash those kerchiefs and use them as patches, but the kerchiefs they have given me the last few times weren't the right color, so I haven't finished the quilt yet.

Set up Chimnea -- I got a chimnea, then realized I needed to put it on a stand rather than setting it directly on the ground. I got the pavers and sand, and constructed a sturdy base. I even went and bought the stand and set it up. But the chimnea is too heavy for me to move and I haven't gotten anyone to move it from where it was originally delivered and place it on the stand. I forget to ask. One day someone strong will be visiting and I'll remember to ask them to move it.

Replace Slats on Bench -- I have an old cast-iron bench that one of my neighbors was throwing away. The boards were rotting so it can't be used for seating, but they will be easy to replace. I just haven't gotten around to it.

Making Family Videos -- I always take digital video of family events as well as every-day activities. I would like to have a collection of videos put together of each year so that I can play it and remember all we have done. I have 3 years worth of videos. I'm familiar with the video editing software. I know how to slice and put videos together. I even know how to make titles and credits at the end. I just haven't sat down and done it because there is always something more pressing to take care of. Now that I have 3 years of videos, the task seems overwhelming.

Step 2. Notice Patterns of Behavior

What patterns do you see when you look at the descriptions of what you have and have not done? Do you finish projects for your kids, but not projects that just benefit you? Do you finish the objective of your projects, but neglect to clean up or store tools back where they belong? Do you have a long list of projects that all require something you don't have such as money/space/time/knowledge/inspiration? Do you stick with a project until a certain phase, then quit? Have you started projects that you would rather not complete but feel obligated to do so because you've already started?

Do you see a pattern to your behavior? After listing all 32 partially-completed projects, I saw a pattern to mine.

1. I really like the creativity of a project -- the planning, visualizing and acquiring materials. But the finished product is rarely as dazzling as my vision because I'm a perfectionist. Even when the results are good, it takes a lot of time to get it right and I don't have a lot of time.

2. Based on my behavior, I don't value the orderliness, utility, and serenity of my environment nor consider them a priority. In return for all the time and effort I have put into these projects, I have a bench that I can't sit on, a chimnea that I can't light, a quilt I can't put on the bed, family videos I can't relax and watch, and a window covered by a sheet rather than nice curtains. My life has not been enriched one jot by the pleasure I envisioned, because I never got the project to a finished state. I'm worse off than if I had not tried at all, because then I wouldn't have the disarray caused by all the half-finished projects.

Do you see a pattern to your behavior? If not, ask a friend or family member who will give you feedback kindly. Just being aware of what you are doing will help you to modify your behavior to include more productive habits.

Step 3. Simplify!

Now it's time to simplify, to reduce your list of ongoing projects to one or two. Start with the list of projects you've just made. Choose the project you would most like to do right now. Some people say you should always start with the project that is most important -- I say that is hogwash. Just pick the one that you want to work on right now. Whichever project you pick is the right one. Just pick one.

Work on the chosen project until it is finished, including clean-up and putting tools away. Scratch it off your list. Take time to savor your accomplishment and congratulate yourself! Light that chimnea and enjoy it! Sit on that newly-repaired bench and relax in the sunshine! The recognition of a job well done reinforces the habit of finishing projects that you begin.

Step 4. Choose Another Project, but Always Choose NOW

If you have time to work on another project now, choose another project from your list. However, if you do not have time to work on another project now, DO NOT CHOOSE ONE. Do NOT choose what you are going to work on next if you can't work on it now. Keep your list, wait until you have time to work on another project, and pick one AT THAT TIME. Always choose the project you want to work on at this moment. But once you've chosen it, work on it until it is finished before choosing another one.

Overwhelmed? Redefine!

If you can't choose a project because all the projects on your list are overwhelming, you need to divide one into smaller chunks. For instance, if one of your projects is to clean out your garage, you might be overwhelmed about the prospect of cleaning it out in one sweep. Reorganize your goal. If you have weekly trash pickup, decide that you are going to fill up the trash bin every week in time for trash pickup day. Today, clean out the garage until the trash bin is full, deliver any items set aside for charity, and you are done until next week. Of course, you can always do more than that if you feel like it.

You're On Your Way

Continue choosing a project from your list and working on it until it is finished. Do not start any more projects until you have finished this list. If you decide that there are some half-finished projects that you don't want to complete, that's OK. To get them off your list, however, you still need to bring them to closure. You could give the supplies or half-finished products to charity, decide to throw them away, give them to someone who wants to finish them, pay someone else to finish them, or any other solution except for leaving a half-finished project lying around. Bring it to closure and scratch it off your list.

By the time you finish with your current list, your momentum will have shifted and you will have developed the habits of a simpler life. You will suddenly realize you are experiencing these benefits of the simpler life:

  • Working on smaller projects, and only a few at a time, is less stressful than multiple huge projects.
  • There is less chance for overwhelm.
  • You will be motivated to complete the project you are involved with so that you can start the next one.
  • You can stay enthusiastic about the project you are focused on rather than prematurely beginning another project.
  • Having only one or two projects underway minimizes space that is in disarray or "under construction", which leaves the majority of your home in order.
  • You will be able to enjoy the process at hand rather than being pulled in a million directions at once.
  • Projects are finished in a short period of time, rather than "taking forever".
  • You will have an ongoing sense of accomplishment as you finish projects on a regular basis.