The Five Stages of Ending a Project


It’s done! That big, terrifying, exhilarating thing you’ve been focusing on is finally complete!

Exhale. Let that knot in your shoulders work itself out. Maybe take a nap if you’ve been losing sleep.

This stage is all about finding physical and emotional equilibrium. You may not feel manic joy at reaching your goal, so don’t force it. There’s no need to start singing, β€œIs That All There Is?”. It may feel more like settling down, a choppy sea returning to a gentle low tide. If this is where you’re at, appreciate the feeling.

But it may also feel like slamming on the brakes. Your mind and body have been working hard, and when at a loss for where to direct that energy, it can feel like everything is shaking apart. On more than one occasion I’ve reached a deadline or gone through an event that tested my endurance to come out the other side and wind up with my immune system waving the white flag. The post-deadline cold or flu used to be a given.

I wish I could tell you there’s a secret to avoiding that crash. I wish I could impart some bit of sage, been-there-done-that wisdom that will save you grief. All I can say is that paying attention to yourself on your way to the finish line and being mindful of what your body tells you takes patience and practice. It’s worth the effort, because you’ll be better prepared for what follows.


Even if something you did was entirely manifest by your direct effort, you didn’t do it in isolation. This is not a time for some Randian, bootstrappy gloating about your success. People helped you in other ways, like offering mental support, reminding you to eat, or picking up the slack elsewhere while you were laser focused. They deserve your gratitude, and they’ll appreciate being included in however you choose to celebrate.

If others collaborated on what you were working on, they definitely deserve thanks. If their fingerprints are on it, you need to respect and honor that involvement.

Gratitude isn’t just polite, it helps you to acknowledge the scope of what you just did. To see the full picture of the effort it took to complete.

For example, say you made yourself a cup of coffee in the morning. Someone had to stock those beans for you to purchase. Someone had to roast the beans. Someone had to ship those beans from where they were grown. Someone had to pick those beans. If you want to get even more granular, there were some pollinating insects involved, too.
And we haven’t even touched on how your mug came to be.

If your coffee can warrant that much gratitude, whatever you just completed has its own web of responsible parties. Take the time to let them know you see the part they played.


There’s a gap in your to-do list now. It’s a space that doesn’t yet have anything to fill it and you may not feel a sense of clarity or urgency to amend that.

Check Twitter every few minutes. Watch a bad movie. Take another nap. Spend far too long picking out your produce at the grocery store.

Rearrange the icons on your phone. Like, really do it right this time, you know?

The worst thing to do is berate yourself for this lull. That’s like telling someone who just finished a marathon that you can’t believe they want to get a ride home instead of running back.

Don’t do that. Embrace this lethargic fugue state like the hard-won boon that it is.

Clean Up

But sooner or later, you need to snap out of it. There are things to do. Small things. Things that fell through the cracks or weren’t considered important enough to focus on as you set your sights on the goal line.

That haircut you’ve needed for a month. That stack of dishes. Returning phone calls and emails. Sweet Jesus, the laundry.

How long have you been out of salt? Do you even remember? Time to fix that.

The time for tunnel vision is over. Being a person involves lots of little tasks. Maintenance tasks. Smaller parts of a whole. The things you can take care of easily when you’re not consumed by something, body, mind, and soul.

Make a list. Start working down it. Keep doing the small things. Keep putting them on the list. It’s an uphill climb, but you need to build up some momentum.

What’s Next?

There’s two variations on this stage, which I’ll be describing as Hamiltonian and Bartletarian.

In the Hamiltonian version, there’s a sense of confusion, trepidation, and uncertainty. What Comes Next isn’t clear, and requires some trial and error.

Bartletarian is all about forward momentum and a clear progression of goals. You may have had an inkling of what was next in line as soon as you achieved your goal, and now you’re ready to tackle it. Like a puma. Or Martin Sheen.

Either way, you know that something new is coming up. Best to get ready for it.