Is Your Unfinished Project Really Worth Doing? (The Sunk Cost of Clutter — Part 2)

Unfinished Project BoxMy client and I are sorting and purging her belongings. We come across some fabric she has had for years. Decades, in fact. She puts it in the KEEP pile, saying, “I always thought I could make something out of this.” Not being a sewer, or a quilter, she does not otherwise have a stash of fabric she is attached to. I say, “Yes. You could. But do you still want to? Is it really worth doing?” It is a serious question about whether it’s worth it to HER, neither a judgment, nor an indication of whether or not I personally think it is worth it. And that’s all it takes. She puts it in the DONATE pile.

If your unfinished project were really worth doing, wouldn’t you have done it by now? Click To Tweet

Many of us hang on to things because of our original good intentions. Or because we think we should…we should keep it…we should finish it… we should be the sort of person who would accomplish such projects…we should still be the person who formerly accomplished such projects.

Sunk Costs

In my post But I paid good money for that!, I talked about the financial sunk cost of clutter. A sunk cost is an investment you made in the past. Investments can be time and energy as well as money.

When deciding between alternatives it is irrelevant what came before. In this case you are trying to decide whether to keep/finish a project or let it go. You can either:

  1. Keep the item (or supplies for a project) and let it continue taking up physical space and nagging you mentally and emotionally about not having finished it or fixed it.
  2. Make a plan (or set a S.M.A.R.T. Goal) for completing the project or fixing the item.
  3. Let it go and reclaim the space, time, money, energy, and mental freedom for yourself!

Deciding What’s Worth Doing

I’m all for finishing projects that are worth doing. Next time you are faced with an unfinished project ask yourself:

  • Does it support the life I want to be living now? (Have you determined what your priorities and goals are for this stage in your life? It’s OK to change your mind about old goals and projects!)
  • What additional costs will be required? (Don’t forget the hidden costs of clutter.)
  • Can I afford the financial cost, and does it also fit into my emotional, physical, and time budgets? (How else might you like to be spending these precious resources?)
  • Do I know how to do it? Will I need help? (It’s OK to ask for help.)
  • If it was for a gift, will the recipient still appreciate it? (Or, was it a baby blanket for someone who is now a teenager?)
  • Is it really worth doing? (You are the only one who knows for sure.)

If the answer is no, donate the materials, give them to someone who will appreciate them, sell them, recycle them, or throw them in the trash.

And consider this: If it were really worth doing, wouldn’t you have done it by now?

Do you have an unfinished project you are hanging on to? What is it?

Is it really worth doing? Are you ready to let it go?

Please share in the comments below!

P.S. The image is from Why You Need a Project Box and a Master To-Do List.

Copyright 2015-2016 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. Melissa on June 9, 2015 at 11:37 am

    I literally have a baby blanket I started for a kid who is 10. I take care to declutter everything else in my house and life. I keep telling myself, there will be other babies. And there have been, probably 20 of them among my friends and relatives in the past 10 years. I guess it’s time to practice what I preach and let it go.

    Thanks for the kick in the behind!

    • Hazel Thornton on June 10, 2015 at 7:54 am

      Let it go-o-o-o! 😉

  2. Autumn Leopold on June 20, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    I just recently introduced the 20/20/20 rule into my own home. If we can go less than 20 miles, in 20 minutes and it’s only $20, we should let it go. That category takes care of so many things! That wasn’t my idea I heard it at conference when one of The Minimalist guys said it. 🙂

    • Hazel Thornton on June 20, 2015 at 3:53 pm

      I love that rule, too! The way they wrote it in their blog is just 20/20: “…replace for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from our current location.” I’m thinking it applies to most types of supplies — office, hardware, drugstore, specialty grocery items for a type of cuisine you thought you were going to cook and never did. And it’s for “just in case” items. If you use something all the time, and it would be bad to run out, and you have space for it (TP?) I say go ahead and stock up a little. 😉 The 20/20 Rule complements what I tell my clients when they are holding onto an item “just in case”: I ask them what the likelihood is of their needing it. (10%? 50%? 90%?) And how much it would cost to replace. ($1? $100? $1000?) And how much trouble it would be to replace. (Easy? Difficult? Nearly impossible?) We can usually come up with a keep/toss decision without too much trouble that way.

  3. Anna E. Lee - Interior Design on June 20, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Growing up I loved to work on projects – creating art, scrap-booking, sewing, etc. While I occasionally find the time to paint or scrapbook, I really don’t have the time or space for sewing any more. One thing I always wanted to do before I got married was make a quilt. I don’t know why, it’s just always something I wanted to do haha. Unfortunately between going to college full time, working, and planning a wedding it just never got done. I’ve held on to my material now for a couple of years but have realized that it’s just too much time and effort – that it won’t be the end of the world if this quilt doesn’t get done; it won’t take away from me being a good women or wife. Getting rid of my quilting material was so freeing (of my space and mind!).

    • Hazel Thornton on June 20, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      Oh, so you already ditched the quilt project? Good for you! If you ever decide in the future that you still want to make one, it will probably be a completely different one anyway (design, colors, etc.).

  4. Janet Barclay on September 16, 2016 at 9:02 am

    My mother-in-law was quite a knitter, and I acquired her “stash” when she went into a home a few years ago (she has since passed away). Now that I’ve started knitting again, I’ve got it all nicely organized and even gave away the duplicate needles. However, I now have a drawer full of nicely organized yarn, some of which I actually quite like, but I’m much more likely to buy more when I want to start a new project. I should probably find someone else who would actually use it…

    • Hazel Thornton on September 20, 2016 at 8:07 pm

      Good example and analysis. One way to manage that is to decide you are only going to have one drawer full of yarn. And if you start a new project that requires yarn that will make your drawer overflow, or even get crowded, it’s time to get rid of some of the old yarn, even if it’s nice yarn. Conversely, I don’t spend a lot of time and effort purging items that are organized if their container is not crowded and I don’t need that space for anything else yet. What do you think?

      • Janet Barclay on September 21, 2016 at 3:56 am

        In fact, I do have only one drawer for yarn, and that’s basically my position too!

      • Kim on December 19, 2016 at 11:03 am

        This is blasphemy!! 😉 JK, I really need to go thru my stash and donate a bunch of yarn that was given to me. I will never use it and it’s not being a blessing sitting in my craft room unused.

        • Hazel Thornton on December 20, 2016 at 5:21 pm

          Ha ha! Yes, your unwanted yarn will make someone else very happy, and it will make room for more yarn (or space to relax and/or work in) that you love.

  5. Seana G Turner on September 19, 2016 at 8:13 am

    I knew I was going to love this post just from the title. The guilt of the partially-completed project can be crushing. Let it go if you don’t want to finish it! We have a speaker coming to our November NAPOCT meeting to talk about S.M.A.R.T. goals – should be great!

    • Hazel Thornton on September 19, 2016 at 9:02 am

      Glad you liked it, Seana! I have a few project it’s time to turn loose. I’m sure you saw that I linked to a post about S.M.A.R.T. Goals.

  6. Olive Wagar on September 19, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Thanks for giving us permission to say goodbye to unfinished projects! I recently donated several unfinished smocking dresses that I had carefully moved and stored for … over 30 years! Yikes!!

    • Hazel Thornton on September 20, 2016 at 7:09 am

      Good for you! Feels better, yes?

  7. Sarah Soboleski on September 19, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    I bought this fancy personalized stamp from Pottery Barn when my husband and I got married. It had this beautiful wooden finish and a matching ink pad in a wood box that made my desk look oh so regal. I used it to write our wedding thank you notes. And then…. it sat on my desk for something ridiculous like 8 or 9 years. I always thought I would make more of those personalized notecards like I did after our wedding, but sadly the newness and the newlywed life wore off and I never did. Though because I paid a lot, it was from fancy PB, and it was personalized, I struggled to part with it. But once I came to my senses, it was easy to let it go and now I have more space on my desk!

    • Hazel Thornton on September 20, 2016 at 8:09 pm

      I’ve got stuff like that. But not on my desk. Well…(looking around)….I have other well-intentioned items on my desk that need to go, now that I think of it! Hmmm…

  8. Linda Samuels on September 20, 2016 at 6:42 am

    Another brilliant post, Hazel! This issue of keeping the stuff of projects that we mean to do someday is a huge challenge for many of my clients. I love all the questions you pose to help your clients navigate the decision-tree. The most powerful one is that if it was worth your time and energy, wouldn’t you have done it by now? It makes you think about your values and priorities. And that’s the hard part for many of us. We might be stuck in a place of “should” or not evaluated that our priorites have shifted. We hold on to the “project” as an intention when in fact it just weighs us down, taking valuable physical and emotional space.

    • Hazel Thornton on September 20, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      I think stopping to consider your values and priorities is the key to…well, almost everything. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Linda!

  9. Vicki on September 20, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    I don’t think this post fits as well for non-physical projects. A book you’re writing, a presentation you’re planning, a class you’ve outlined.

    There’s nothing physical sitting there; it’s mental. I can’t “replace” it in 20 minutes. The cost is much more (and much less) than $20.

    I have projects I haven’t completed yet and they are Very Much worth my time and energy. But there’s some fear involved in the procrastination. (There’s usually an element of fear involved in procrastination).

    • Hazel Thornton on September 20, 2016 at 7:24 pm

      Thanks for chiming in, Vicki! I agree that there is often an element of fear involved in procrastination. Although this post is about physical projects, and the 20/20 Rule is really a guideline for deciding which items can go that you are keeping around “just in case”, I have to say I disagree that the concepts in this post can’t apply to non-physical projects. Maybe I’ll write a version of it just for that. But meanwhile, think about your unfinished writing projects. There have to be some that are more worthwhile than others. Maybe there is no space cost (unless, of course, you have paper drafts and supporting materials lying around), but there certainly is time and energy cost, and possibly money wrapped up in the project as well. If you ask yourself if it supports the life/business/goals you currently have, some of them may not still measure up. Maybe you need help getting it finished. In any case the question is the same: Is it really worth doing? And it’s OK to change your mind about completing a written or other non-tangible project. It will free your mind and energy to focus on the project that means the most to you right now!

  10. Ellen Delap on September 21, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    Great questions to assess the value of a project. It’s in finding your WHY that makes for the best projects and the projects success.

    • Hazel Thornton on October 1, 2016 at 1:52 pm

      Thanks, Ellen! Indeed, isn’t your WHY really the key to everything you do, and whether or not you should continue (or start) doing it?

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