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Getting Past Done: What to Do After You’ve Finished a Big Project

Getting Past Done: What to Do After You’ve Finished a Big Project
What to Do When You Get to Done

There’s no feeling in the world quite like the mixture of triumph and sadness that comes after finishing a project you’ve been working on for months or even years. On one hand, you’re done and can finally release your finished product, whatever it is, into the world. On the other hand, though, completing a big goal leaves a little emptiness in your life, like sending your kids off to college — one of the major driving forces in your life is gone.

Since you likely have a little more time on your hands now that you’re not working on your big project anymore, take a moment or two to to reflect on what you’ve accomplished, how to build on your success, and how to avoid the mistakes that you’ve made on the way to your achievement. The end goal is to weave the finished project into the overarching fabric of your life — your mission, your vision, your raison d’être — and to capture the energy and momentum of one success and roll it into your next.

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Debriefing

What you need to do is debrief. Like a soldier returned from a successful mission, you need to ask — and answer — a few questions about what went wrong and what went right. Consider sitting down someplace quiet with a notebook and ask yourself these questions:

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  • What was the outcome of this project?
  • What is good about the outcome of this project?
  • How do I feel about my performance?
  • What mistakes did I make that slowed or otherwise negatively affected the completion of this project?
  • How could I avoid making those mistakes in the future?
  • What was the best part of the project? What was the worst?
  • What strengths did I discover in the completion of this project?
  • What new abilities or knowledge have I learned from doing this project?
  • What do I wish I had known when I started this project?
  • In one or two sentences, what were the lessons of this project?

Building on your success

Once you have a good idea of what you’ve learned, it’s time to consider how to put that learning to good use. This might not be something you sit down and figure out in one sitting; finding your next steps is a process that might take a little while. Still, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to get the ball rolling.

  • Is this kind of project something I enjoy?
  • How can I capitalize on the success of this project?
  • What personal connections did I make in the execution of this project that I can draw on in the future?
  • What sort of project would best complement the one I’ve just completed?
  • What questions were left unanswered, or new questions were raised, in the project I’ve just completed?
  • What is the audience I’ve cultivated with my last project, and how can I appeal to and satisfy that audience again?
  • What have I put on the back burner so I could focus on my completed project?

Looking at the big picture

After pouring our heart and soul into something over a long period of time, we often find that we’ve changed — that what once interested us no longer does, and that we’ve developed new interests in their place. After completing a big project, it’s time to consider those changes and revise our goals and our vision of ourself.

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  • Sit down and write a mission statement. If you’ve written one before, take it out and ask yourself what’s changed?
  • Revise your resume or CV. How does your new perspective affect the way you describe what was important about your previous experiences?
  • Who are you now? Does your old job title still fit? What will you tell people who ask “What do you do?”
  • How has your social position changed, if at all, as a result of your project? Are you financially more secure, do you enjoy new respect among your colleagues, are you famous? How will your life have to change to accommodate these new elements?

It’s totally natural to experience a bit of “hang time” after completing something big in your life. You need a few moments to reflect on and savor your success and to figure out what to do next, before your feet hit the floor again.

It’s natural, too, to feel sad, disappointed, even depressed at the end of a big project, even one that’s a resounding success. The things we do define us as people, and the biggest things we do are the biggest part of us; losing them, even by choice and design, is hard. I think this is why so many people seem to experience a fear of success that’s as paralyzing, if not more so, as the fear of failure: they are not prepared for the changes in their life that success would bring.

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The important thing, though, is to embrace all the mixed feelings that come after a project, understand where they come from, and use them to propel ourselves forward. Use the end of one project as the beginning of the next and keep working to fulfill your life’s purpose and vision.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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