A more unified theory of fear, excitement, and completing projects

Sondra and I had a discussion this morning about getting things done. We've both completed projects of various scales in our lives but were trying to figure out why it's so hard to finish the last step. We focused on creative projects where one starts with but an idea and makes that come to physical reality — step-by-step. It seems like it's not too hard to get a project started although there is some resistance because there's not yet a foundation which makes a creative idea alone pretty easy to dispel (except those ones that really nag at you). Once things get rolling it's even easier because there's always some next step to strive toward. But then right at the end, it seems the last few steps are just drudgery. We wanted to figure out why.

Since I've been on the kick of blaming everything on fear, I decided to do that here too. Like I blogged before, I feel that fear and excitement differ only in one's attitude: that if you're anxious, it's fear, but if you're joyous, it's excitement. In both cases, it's a reaction to your logical mind's "no answer" reaction — it happens when you don't have enough information to divine the best course of action … or you just don't know what's about to happen at all.

So with the end of a project, all the facets you tried to control are finally put to the test — and then there's all the things you didn't think of. Will it be like I thought it would? Will people react to it like I thought? Will it last? Will it fail? — All these unknowns suddenly come to the forefront.

But then we were discussing it and neither of us really felt that we were afraid of finishing a project. Usually we pushed through with either force-of-will or were excited to finish it, but never really "afraid" per se. But I still felt it fit the pattern of fear and the reaction to it: the process of dawdling through the last steps of a project indicate a fear of completion — that anxious reaction to the unknown.

So if there is indeed a fear/excitement (or fexcitement, if you will) reaction to this unknown event, is there a way to uncork it, let it out, and handily finish a project? Why was it that some projects we worked on seemed to never touch that dawdling stage but even accelerated to completion?

Yes.: it's celebration.

Whenever we had a project that was easy to complete, there was a celebration at the end. That's what I get from Burning Man: it's a celebration to declare the completion of projects and the presentation of them.

In fact, the more general case is that one celebrates a rite-of-passage. By celebrating, there's focus on the opportunity: the new, unknown things that are to come. By not celebrating, it's a focus on the loss: the absence of what was, and a dreary apprehension toward living without that ever again. For instance, a high-school graduation party celebrates a step toward adulthood, taking focus away from the death of childhood and coercing fear into excitement.

So projects call for a rite-of-passage celebration as well: from "in process" to "done". Because when a project is completed, the activity stops and the project makes the transition from something that is "to be" to something that "is". Focusing on the activity of the project and the end of "doing" — and specifically ignoring that transition to a new form — makes it a mourning experience of loss, an unpleasant experience to avoid.

I want to far overuse this technique in the near future, celebrating everything. But then I might skip that step and save it for the "big" things that really need a kick-in-the-pants.

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