Why It’s So Hard for You to Finish Even the Smallest Half-Done Home Projects
Somewhere in a (probably dusty) corner of my two-bedroom house, there’s a cardboard box of brand-new, brass and bone drawer pulls from CB2. I bought the pulls back in September during a flurry of home improvement inspiration, with plans to upgrade the dated hardware on a plain old dresser in my bedroom. I spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon clicking through tabs and tabs of drawer pull options before I finally settled on these, and I couldn’t wait to see the before-and-after. Nearly six months later (and long past the 90-day return window), those pulls are still wrapped in plastic and tucked into the box in which they were shipped to me.
This defies logic. I have the pulls, I have the dresser, I have the screwdriver, and I have the time. But I haven’t been able to find one thing to get the job done: the motivation to simply do it.
The same goes for the bat house I ordered for the backyard online last summer, which currently lives on a shelf in my (thankfully bat-free) laundry room instead, and the nakedly unframed artwork collecting dust in a stack on my desk. Compared to some of the other projects I’ve successfully tackled since owning a home—like painting inside and out—these tasks are small-potatoes and low-stakes, requiring little in the way of time, money, planning, decision-making, or risk. Yet I just can’t seem to get any of them done.
In the world of interiors and DIY, there is truly no end to the fixes, upgrades, and repairs one can make—there’s always, it seems, something that can look or function better in a house. And when it comes to major projects, like costly renovations or big repairs, it makes sense that those might hang out on the to-do list for a while: money needs to be saved, spare time needs to be set aside, and big decisions need to be made. But why would it take six months for me to do something as simple as dealing with drawer pulls I already own?
At least I’m not alone in my shame. I turned the question over to the Apartment Therapist Facebook group and found so much solidarity in the way of abandoned curtain rods, unhung picture frames, a toilet paper holder that fell off and simply never got re-attached, and a bathroom door knob that doesn’t really work, but doesn’t not work enough to prioritize replacing it.
The reasons my fellow project-procrastinators gave were many and myriad, and pretty much every single one of them resonated with me. There’s the unfamiliarity and the disruption of routine, factors which contribute to an increased cognitive load. (“I think it’s that it’s not something you do all the time,” wrote Natalie of her curtain rods, “so it’s just different enough to take a little more time.”) There’s the brain’s inconvenient penchant for remembering the project when you’re otherwise indisposed, like in the shower or driving down the highway, and can’t do a thing about it. There’s also the simple fact that, as some pointed out, planning the project is usually more fun than actually executing it. (See: my enjoyable Sunday afternoon last fall flipping through page after page of potential drawer pulls—all the fun, none of the labor.)
Clearly, there is no shortage of excuses with which to rationalize unfinished tasks. That’s part of why Rachel Hoffman created her online guide, Unfuck Your Habitat, after searching for cleaning and tidying advice tailored to people like her—”messy, maybe a bit lazy, no kids, a full-time job, and without a ton of free time”—and coming up dry. “I think a lot of us have a tendency to build things up in our minds, so what is actually a quick and easy project becomes this overwhelming undertaking when we think about it, so we put it off and put it off, and the longer we wait, the bigger of a deal it seems,” she says. “But once you finally do start the project, it almost never takes as long as you thought, and you’re almost always so much happier once it’s done.”
Personally, this tracks. Procrastinators like me typically do a pretty terrible job of judging how much time something will take, says Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University who has studied (and published books about) the cognitive science of procrastination. Plus, he adds, humans are adaptable—in this case, sometimes to a fault. That thing where the lopsided lampshade or broken picture frame starts to become invisible to you? “You’ve habituated to it,” he explains. “It was a good mechanism for human beings through evolution to adjust to these things,” says Ferrari. “It allows us to make room for new information.” In my case, it also allows me to completely exorcise the old drawer pulls from my brain. (And the box of new ones hanging out in the corner.)
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve mastered the art of procrastinating. Yet something about all these half-finished projects felt less like delay, and more like disaffection. In fact, it reminded me of Anne Helen Petersen’s widely shared 2019 BuzzFeed essay on millennial burnout, in which she probes at the idea of “errand paralysis”—the feeling that tasks as seemingly simple as a trip to the post office are insurmountable, or at the very least, not immediately germaine to one’s livelihood enough to warrant prioritizing. Petersen, whose book about millennial burnout will be released this fall, often explores the tension between the pressures millennials face, and the surprising ways it manifests in our decisions, purchases, and daily lives. (She also, I should add, has her own checklist of home improvement projects she’s been attempting to work her way through. “As soon as you get to the end of your list,” she says, “there’s just another list.”)
There are a number of factors at play, says Petersen: the demise of shop class (resulting in the sad fact that many of my peers and I lack basic skills around the house), for one. This generation has also seen the pace of home interior trend cycles become nearly impossible to keep up with. “My grandparents furnished their home in the 1950s as a nice suburban home, and many of those things had not changed by the early 2000s,” said Petersen. By contrast, contemporary home decor becomes dated so much more quickly: why take the time to hang that animal print wallpaper in 2019 when, by 2020, we’ve already fully moved on to scribble motifs?
But there is also this fundamental question, Petersen suggests: Do we actually want to do these projects? “Or,” she says, “does this feel like something you need to be doing, that you need to be optimizing your space to make it more Instagrammable?” The former is a hobby; the latter is an expensive and time-consuming kind of labor. And in that case, says Petersen, “you have an end goal to it, instead of it just being this thing you like to do. It evacuates the pleasure, to some extent.”
The compulsion to keep up with the Joneses certainly isn’t new, but when Instagram gives us literally no shortage of Joneses to whom we can compare ourselves, the stakes feel a little higher—and the risk of burning out feels greater. Hoffman says she’s put a lot of thought into how Instagram and HGTV have given us unrealistic expectations for how other people actually live, and as a result, make us feel as though we are never doing enough. “There are way more of us out there with falling-apart IKEA pieces and mismatched furniture and just-average homes than there are people who live like everyone seems to on Instagram,” she says. “But the pressure to measure up is constant, and when you look at where you live and constantly feel like it’s not good enough compared to everyone else, it’s hard to resist the pressure to improve.”
In January, Amanda Mull, a culture writer at The Atlantic, wrote about the prevalence of brands like Le Creuset and KitchenAid in millennial kitchens as a means through which to signal domestic capability and sophistication online. Le Creuset Dutch ovens and KitchenAid stand mixers “aren’t just culinary workhorses,” Mull writes, “they’ve become small markers of stability and sophistication, coveted by young people for whom traditional indicators of both often remain out of reach.” I reached out to Mull because I suspect the same is true for certain home interior projects and purchases—and maybe my own chronic “project paralysis” stems from me feeling tired of all that signaling. Turns out, Mull is also the proud owner of a brand-new drill, which she purchased on Black Friday to hang some artwork and which, like my drawer pulls, has been sitting in its shipping box ever since.
Back in November, Mull was excited to tackle the project. But once the drill arrived, she realized how many separate sub-tasks would come along with it: determining which prints would need custom framing, planning out placement of the artwork, and so on. “My brain just sort of stalled out,” she says. “I thought I had decided things, and actually I just opened a trap door to many other decisions.”
Mull, who has a sizable platform on Twitter, often fields unsolicited commentary about her home when she shares photos of her apartment (and her cute dog) online. “It opens up my home to this rolling commentary from strangers,” she says. “I definitely feel the need to make sure it looks nice and is as ‘improved’ as possible because of that.” That pressure isn’t new, Mull points out: “Having a tidy, nicely decorated home has always been a marker of success, and people internalize that from childhood, I think,” she says. “But having the opportunity to signal that success to more people does make the performance higher-stakes.”
Hoffman’s Unfuck Your Habitat guide, which strikes a balance between empathetic and tough love pep talk, miraculously inspired me—a person with a dedicated “not clean but not, like, dirty” clothing pile in my bedroom—to stop saving the dishes til tomorrow and to wipe down my kitchen counters each night. (Okay, most nights.) So, I asked for her advice in getting over these humps.
Her insight? So simple in theory, so tricky in practice: just start. “Get started with the understanding that you don’t necessarily need to finish all at once,” she says. “Tell yourself you’ll only work on whatever it is for 20 minutes, or an hour, or even five minutes, and then give yourself permission to stop. A lot of the time, you’ll find that taking the pressure off of yourself to get everything done will make the project a little less overwhelming, and you may even find you have the motivation to see it through once you get going.”
In the course of working on this, I did frame one of the pieces of artwork that previously hung out on my desk. I even hung it on the wall! It was just enough momentum to inspire me to return to those drawer pulls, still sitting in the box they were shipped in, back in September.
I, a person high on the powerful drug of turning over a new leaf, approached the box with confidence and a Phillips head screwdriver. A few minutes later, after removing one of the old pulls and fiddling with its replacement, I realized I’d need to buy smaller washers, too. I let out a long, deep sigh at the thought of this matryoshka doll of maneuvers — going to the hardware store, figuring out the correct washer diameter, attempting to install the pulls yet again — that lay between me and the seemingly simple upgrade my dresser deserved.
My dresser not only continues to retain its original hardware, but is also now missing the pull I removed to make room for its replacement. I’ll get to it eventually.