Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversations on Charlie’s book Start Finishing. In our last conversation, Kerra Bolton talked about the practical magic of rewriting the stories we tell ourselves. In today’s conversation, Steve Arensberg talks about overcoming FOMO to finish more projects.
I’m one of those people who seems to be motivated by fear. Not the extrinsic, somewhat reasonable fears like fear of deep water or poisonous snakes, but internally created fears like people’s judgment or failure. Another manifestation of this fear is FOMO (fear of missing out).
I think I get this particular fear from my mother. Now that she’s retired she opens and reads every single piece of mail, junk or otherwise. She’s afraid she’ll miss some important tidbit of information, some sweepstakes to enter, or some request for her opinion on Social Security, Medicare, or some other social or political issue. And don’t get me started on the charities…
I’ve tried to convince her to not bring the junk mail into the house, and instead sort her mail at the recycle bin, pare down to the important stuff, and only bring inside those few pieces to read and process. She can’t do it.
I’ve even tried to explain to her that by making every piece of mail important, now NONE of them are important. I’ve used quotes, too, such as the following one:
If everything is important, then nothing is. – Patrick Lencioni
She’s not buying it. And in some situations, neither do I. Projects, for instance, send me into a FOMO tailspin. But I’m getting better at minimizing or at least managing the fear, and so can you.
I have a long list of projects I want to accomplish in my life. (I suspect you’re much the same if you’re reading this.) Things I want to do, see, experience, and create, with each one feeling equally important. And me wanting to do them all.
For a long time, that was the problem. As I tried to explain to Mom, if everything is important, then nothing is.
But I realized, with the help of Charlie and his book Start Finishing, that there was another problem underlying this desire to do it all: fear. My FOMO was creating a project pile just like Mom’s junk mail pile—huge, unwieldy, and full of things I perceived as equally important. As a result, I was struggling to do any of them, to get any of them finished, because I didn’t want to miss out on any one of them.
You Have to Create Limits to Be Free
The game-changer for me was how Charlie explained displacement and the constraint of finite time. In chapter three of Start Finishing he says, “Every action we choose to do displaces countless others we could have done in the same space and time.”
In practice, this first requires accepting the (sometimes uncomfortable) reality of our mortality. Our time is limited, no matter if we live five more years or fifty. When Charlie used the concept of five-year projects (“that significant, impactful ideas will require at least five years of focused action to complete”) to put concrete numbers to my best-case scenario for the number of significant projects I had time left to accomplish, two thoughts came to mind:
- Damn, I’d better get busy, and
- I really must choose.
I think, deep down, I was denying this fundamental truth of my own limits. I believed — and maybe you do, too, deep down — that I had all the time in the world to do #allthethings.
Acknowledging that belief and its underlying FOMO brought two other realizations to light. The first was recognizing the logjam of projects they created, and how it limited the flow of my creativity. I always called this my idea logjam; Charlie’s more visceral term is “creative constipation.”
The second realization was that I was using them to put off (read: avoid) the projects I found most challenging and scary. I could justify myself by saying, “I can always get to them later, when I am ready. I have all these other projects to work on in the meantime.” In reality, all FOMO did was give me another excuse to avoid the fear of “not good enough” for a while longer, and avoid my best work in the process.
Surprisingly, I found the application of that time constraint not limiting, but liberating. I no longer had to do or be good at everything. I could stop believing something was broken in me or that I was lazy and undisciplined when I didn’t get the most important projects done. The truth is that projects require resources, and my resources (and yours, too) are finite.
Once that thought took hold, I could focus my TEA (time, energy, and attention) on the projects that mattered most to me. Yes, that meant mourning the loss of some project ideas I loved but knew I would never get to. But as Charlie says: “To trade up, you have to let go.”
What’s Your One Project?
In Start Finishing, Charlie asks readers to “pick one idea or project to work on or use as an anchor to apply the insights from this book.” That’s super helpful advice. It gives you a test case for working through the framework. Makes perfect sense.
But for me, it was necessary to go one step further in unpacking the “closet of ideas and projects.” (That concept always conjures the image of the cartoon character, back to the bulging closet door, before the avalanche of stuff comes pouring out.)
Rather than asking myself to pick one project to work on, I asked, “If I had to choose only one project to put out into the world — ever — what would it be?” It didn’t take long for that project to put up its hand. (And so Bearing Gifts, “A Christmas Adventure for All Ages,” became the project that I started finishing this year.)
With that first most-important project all but finished — one log finally making its way down river! — I could ask the question again. “If I had to choose only one project to put out into the world — ever — what would it be?” When I did, I again clearly heard the answer to what my next best-work project needed to be.
I encourage you to ask the question of yourself. If you only have one thing — one best-work project — to represent your legacy on the planet, what would that project be? Maybe the project will announce itself to you, surprising you the way mine did. (Tweet this.)
Or perhaps it’ll be the project that’s left after you’ve eliminated the other less-important ones — that kernel of wheat that appears in your palm once you blow away the chaff.
I suspect, if you’re like me, you’ll experience two things. First, the energy of making a decision will fuel you to get busy and start finishing. Second, you won’t feel FOMO as acutely for those projects you’ve had to release back into the universe.
(Now if I can just get a handle on my FOMO about all the books I’m never going to have time to read… Sigh.)
Want more information? Start Finishing, the book that kicked off all of these Core Conversations, is your deeper dive into all aspects of how to turn your ideas into projects, and how to start finishing your best work.