Focus and Finish: The Keys to Completing Organizing Projects

If you’ve joined us for Week 1’s assignment — working on your pantry and refrigerator and tupperware – you may have already found yourself in this position:   You were raring to go, got an enthusiastic start, you began emptying things out, and then…  

  1. You looked around and got overwhelmed by the volume of stuff you had to deal with now, and suddenly realized what you thought would take an hour, may take 4,
  2. You started getting angry or upset with yourself for things you’ve found that was expired, stale, turned, or just plain wasted,
  3. You began replaying or creating imaginary arguments in your head with other household members about the process, or about what you found, or about why it was so bad in the first place, and it was getting you aggravated,
  4. You got distracted by other things along the way, and started to say, “let me just take care of this while I’m in here”… or,
  5. You got so overwhelmed and self-critical about the fact that you thought that you could really make a change, that you just scooped everything up and put it back where you found it (-ish) and said, “Nope!  I guess organizing just isn’t for me!”

Starting can be easy, but then we find ourselves in the middle of something, and we just plain don’t get it done.  We get surrounded by 90% done projects, or projects we don’t even start because we’re afraid of the work it will take.  I get it; really, I do.

How you can you train yourself to get past this? Well, it’s about understanding FOCUS and FINISHED.

focus and finish


First, ironically, I’m going to start with “finished”.  I often will work with people on a task and we’ll discuss the end goal:  “What does FINISHED look like?”   Why? For 2 reasons:

  1. I want them to have an end goal in mind, so that they can compare their progress to where they are at, and know what a completed project should look and feel like
  2. I want them to make sure they have a handle on what “good enough” is, and that they’re not imagining an unachievable end.   Not only will that frustrate them (“I’m never done!”) but it is also an impossible goal, which can frustrate them from trying other projects that ARE achievable.


 So, first, when you start a project, go through an exercise for yourself of what FINISHED is: “When I’m done, the refrigerator will only have unexpired food, that we need and will use, and I and everyone else in the home can find what they need when they need it. The shelves will be clean from drips and messes. And the expired food will be properly discarded. ” 

Okay, now that we have our end goal, how do we make sure we don’t get distracted from that path, after our strong start was interrupted by our wavering? 

  • Minimize distractions that you CAN control.  This means strategies like paying attention to how you choose the time to start your project, and how much time you can reasonably anticipate to have in a particular work session.  It also means things like getting the kids self-occupied, turning off the phone or the email notifications on your computer.
  • Set yourself specific rules like, “I’m going to work on this straight for 30 minutes, and this is what’s important now.  I’ll only allow an interruption if it is something truly important, like one of the kids got hurt, or something like that. This is an investment in my sanity, and I’m valuing it above other things today.
  • Do your tasks to music. Put on a play list of a few of your favorite, energizing songs.  Not only will it help keep your energy up, it will help you keep track of time (“I’ve been working hard for 3 songs so far!”) and it helps occupy one part of your brain, while letting your decision-making part be more intensely focused. (Side note: Do not spend more than 2 minutes creating said play-list, okay?)  
  • Identify, but do not jump, to other tasks that grab your attention along the way.  When you’re cleaning out the top cabinets, you’re likely to get a different view of the rest of your kitchen. This is not the time to stop what you’re doing and then head over to clean the top of the fridge.  But it will bother you now, won’t it?  Create a list (use your phone, or pen and paper) and start capturing the “when I have time” list of those distractions.  Get them out of your head, but don’t lose them forever.  
  • Create a “goes in another room” space.  When you find things that don’t belong where you are, don’t just put them back down in the space you’re working and don’t just jump up and put them where they go. Designate a space (get a laundry basket for easy toting around the house) for those items, so you can stay focused on the task at hand. 


These strategies of FOCUS combined with your vision of what FINISHED look like, will help you from wavering after the ambitious start!





  1. Ellen Delap

    Love this chart! Many times people who waiver get too distracted or discouraged to finish. When you build this into the process, as a natural part of the project, it’s creating a way to accept waivering.

    I also like to think of the waiver time as a percolation time. Perhaps we have changed the finish a little and that built in percolation time gives us a better product.

    What a great way to view any task or project!

    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks, Ellen! Your comment reminds me of a professor I had in grad school, who was confident that every project plan should have built into it “miracle occurs” because it represented the impact of external factors you just couldn’t anticipate at the beginning. Wavering is good percolation time… as long as you’re able to get back on track (even if a slightly different track as a result of productive percolation!)

  2. Sabrina M Quairoli

    Great tips to help one be more present and complete the project. I like the idea of creating a list of tasks so that it doesn’t distract the person while organizing. I like to take pictures of items that I don’t want when organizing another area, that way, it will remind me what I was thinking to get rid of afterwards. Thanks for sharing.

    • clevergirlorg

      Love the idea about the pictures… another quick way to capture and move on! Thanks, Sabrina!

  3. Natalie

    Having that parking spot (pen and notepad) to create a running to do list as you work on an organizing project really is the key to staying focused and completing the task at hand. Even professional organizers can be tempted to drift off into another related project or task without using the “when I Have Time” list.

    I also use a relocate basket during the organizing process to stay focused. Awesome tips to share with those who are working towards achieving their organizing goals!

  4. Autumn Leopold

    Love this post and I love the Identify But Don’t Jump! I have a bad habit of doing that which I inherited from my mom! We called it zig zagging! Love the idea of having a pad of paper and writing down what comes to mind but staying on task. Love the idea of defining what finished is before the project starts as well.

    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks, Autumn! Glad this one spoke to you!

  5. D

    I’m a retired widow & overwhelmed by all the categories of things I’ve already started sorting and organizing, but never completed before starting something else, ie, piles & boxes of old & current paperwork… some of it IMPORTANT… excess clothing…
    boxes & tubs of Christmas decor, gift wrap… piles of books stacked in a spare room… jewelry… art supplies… toiletries… makeup… kitchen… refrigerator… garage… I’ve been paralyzed by the overwhelm. I’ve worked with two pro organizers & that only made a dent in my mess. How do I know what to finish first? I’m indecisive & bad at prioritizing (obviously). I think I need a simple, step by step plan to get me out from under all this. Help!


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