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Complete your past in order to move on

  • Story Highlights
  • Life coach says incomplete items from past can hold you back
  • Expert says make a list of incompletions, set date for completion
  • You can also decide not to complete something, mark it off list
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(Real Simple) -- Life coach Gail Blanke shares her three-step program for finishing old business and moving on.

If you feel bogged down by all the unfinished business in your life, you're not alone.

A woman I coach named Kelly has been divorced for three years but isn't "over" her marriage. She obsesses about what she should have done, what she should have said, and things that still make her mad. Friends have tried to fix her up with interesting men, but Kelly has no energy to go out.

Another client, a pianist named Brenda, played in a concert recently and, in the middle of a concerto, made a noticeable mistake. She received one pretty bad review and three good ones. She was invited to play at an even bigger event but refused, convinced she would blow it again. She hasn't performed publicly for months.

A third, Iris, was fired from her old job, primarily due to the jealousy and the insecurities of the woman she reported to. About five months later, Iris landed a plum job in a first-class company. But instead of being confident and proud of herself, she's worried about making a misstep. As a result, she is bringing only a fraction of her talent to the new gig and is having a hard time producing the results she's truly capable of.

So what do these three women have in common? They're stuck in the past. Although the marriage is finished, the concert is over, and the old job is kaput, each of them is "incomplete" with what happened. Incompletions -- the unfinished business of the past -- worm their way into the present and make us feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and anxious. They distract us from our current goals and drain our energy.

When we don't complete the past, we harness ourselves to the old life and dampen, or even kill, our dreams. And, hey, it's spring -- the time to dream big.

Think right now of the things you feel "incomplete" about. They may not be as enormous as a divorce or losing a job. But even little incompletions add up. So here's an exercise to help you identify them and finish them off for good -- a method that I've been using for more than a decade with clients, including Kelly, Brenda, and Iris, that will take you from distressed and distracted to "complete."

Keep in mind, the aim isn't just to feel better. The aim is to clear the decks so you can unleash your energy and get on with your life.

Step 1: Take an inventory of your "incompletions."

Using the following categories, look at various aspects of your life and consider the gaps between where you are now and where you would like to be. Believe me -- you'll be surprised, amused, and possibly moved by some of things you write down. But don't agonize over what to write. Just put down whatever comes to mind.

1. Things I want to start but haven't started.

For example, I want to start doing Pilates. I've said that for two years now. I even sat next to a woman on a plane a couple of months ago who offered me a free introductory session. I haven't taken her up on it.

2. Things I want to change but haven't changed.

"I want to change my attitude to be more upbeat on a daily basis," a friend told me recently. "I don't like the way I always go for the negative point of view, not the positive." OK, so she could write that down here.

3. Things I want to stop but haven't stopped.

Kelly said she wanted to "stop obsessing" about her ex-husband. "This is endless," she said. "It's like every day I think about him. I don't even like him, for heaven's sake. Yet I'm giving him power over me."

4. Things I started but haven't finished.

I've said for years that I'm going to organize all the pictures of my daughters, Kate and Abigail, into nice albums that they can show their children someday. I always think that if I were a "good mother," I'd do that.

5. Things I want to do but haven't done.

"I've always wanted to go to Italy with a few friends and have my own Enchanted April," said a usually unadventurous woman that I know, referring to the movie. Several fit people I know have "always meant to" run a marathon.

6. Things I want to say but haven't said.

"I want to tell my ex-husband, 'There are too many fish in the sea,'" wrote Kelly.

Iris wrote: "I want to tell my old boss that it's OK she fired me -- it's the best thing that ever happened to me."

And Brenda said, "I want to tell myself that I'm a really good pianist."

7. Things I want to learn but haven't learned.

The Enchanted April woman wants to learn Italian so she can fully appreciate the people she meets on her trip. I have always wanted to learn chess because I think it will make me feel smart. A pal of mine wants to learn salsa dancing to help her be "freer" with her body.

8. Feelings I have but haven't expressed.

This is a big one. Unexpressed feelings will drag you down every time. One client of mine was so busy caring for the rest of her family after her mother died that she never allowed herself to grieve. Another woman I know is still harboring anger toward her father for the way he left her mom and her years ago.

Step 2: Assign completion dates.

Now brace yourself. This is where the rubber meets the road. Go back to your list of incompletions and, in the margin, assign a "completion date" to each thing on your list, using these symbols:

N, for "Now." And that really means now -- as in, pick up the phone. My clients usually have a lot of N's, especially under "Things I never said."

L, for "Later." But you have to say when, so put down a date. The date shouldn't make you feel too pressured but shouldn't be too far off, either. The Enchanted April gal put down "April 2009" for her magical trip.

C, for "Complete." This is a terrific category. There will be things that you can declare "complete" right this minute, either because you've decided to just let them go and get over them or because you can do them in an instant. For example, Brenda put C in the column next to where she had written, "I want to tell myself I'm a really good pianist." She completed it. Over and out.

NTL. This is my favorite category. It means "not in this lifetime." For example, you might put NTL next to "become a contestant on Survivor." Or you might not.

Step 3: Start crossing things off.

Now, you're in charge of this list; it's not in charge of you. That's why I always start Step 3 by crossing off my NTL's -- the stuff I'm just never going to get to and no longer give a rip about. (Boy, is that freeing!)

Try to check your list every week. Cross off the things you're "done with" and celebrate. Tell someone what you've done and how good you feel about it. Add new incompletions as they pop up. And remember -- your list is a work in progress, just like you are.

Neither Kelly nor Brenda nor Iris -- nor any of the other women who have ever done this exercise, for that matter -- are in a state of total completion. It's impossible. We're human, after all.

But Kelly did go out for a coffee with her ex-husband and got some stuff off her chest -- and just a couple of weeks later went on a blind date.

Iris put her hand up to manage what could be a breakthrough project for her company.

And Brenda has signed on to play in a concert in May. And guess what? She plans to play that same concerto.

But what's really important is that they've all developed "the completion habit." And that powerful new habit has allowed them to focus their attention on embracing the present, rather than being sucked back into an incomplete past. You can develop that habit, too. Start right here with this worksheet.

Oh, and by the way, I've signed up for chess lessons. But much to the relief of my family, I put NTL next to "learn to belly dance." E-mail to a friend

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