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When to Throw in the Towel on a Project

Jun 22, 2020

When to Throw in the Towel on a Project

Jun 22, 2020

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This post contains affiliate links. I earn a tiny commission, at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Read my disclosure here.

Not all projects go smoothly, and sometimes, you just need to throw in the towel and move on. One of those hit me last week, unfortunately, so I’ve been thinking about this ever since. Here’s how to know when it’s time to stop working and reconsider your options, rather than continuing to plug away.

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Have We Ever Stopped a Project? You bet!

I’m pretty lucky because I live with a near-expert on most DIY and home improvement projects. Wyatt is my go-to resource, and if he doesn’t know how to do something, he knows who to ask. With that said, let me tell you that we don’t have a 100% success rate. We’ve started plenty of projects that don’t go as planned, which comes with the territory of home improvement. The important things to know are when you need to adjust your plan, when to ask for help, and when you need to call it quits.

Last Sunday, I started staining the fence that Wyatt has been hard at work building. About two boards into the project, I realized that I absolutely hate staining fences. Who even invented stain? It’s the most miserable outdoor project ever. Granted, I started at noon on a 90-degree day. Smart, I know. Running through my head, on a continuous loop, was Gob in Arrested Development, saying:

Gob: I've made a huge mistake

At that realization, I stopped. I realized that I was in waaaaay over my head, and I desperately wanted to turn back the clock and leave the entire fence unstained. After running through options, I sheepishly asked Wyatt if he could replace the stained boards at the end of the project. Imagine his delight.

Now, here’s the real plot twist: Home Depot has just discontinued the cedar boards we are using to build the fence, and we’ve already bought ALL of the boards we could locate in the Denver metro area. True story! We should have plenty of good cedar, but some of them are cracking and warping as they dry out, so we won’t know for sure until we’re closer to the finish line. I’m going to have to wait and cross my fingers that we’ll have enough left over to replace 9 stained boards. The alternative is too depressing to write about.

Throw in the towel on staining this fence
>> Ready Seal stain in pecan <<

Questions to Ask Before You Throw in the Towel

It was pretty easy to decide to stop staining the fence. However, I mentally ran through my options before suggesting to Wyatt that we waste the $160 bucket of stain. (Some of you might balk at that expense, but have you tried to stain a fence by hand? Yeah. That’s why I’m eating the cost.) Not all decisions are this easy, so here’s what we usually discuss when we consider quitting. I’ll break this down, but you should ask yourself:

>> How important is this project?
>> Are you past the point of no return?
>> Can you afford to continue/stop?
>> Are you able to complete the work?
>> What other options do you have at this point?

How Important is This Project?

Along these same lines:

  • Is this work necessary for a future project to happen?
  • Is anyone relying on you to complete it?
  • How much do you truly want to complete it?
  • Is it worth your time?
throw in the towel on staining the fence

In our case, staining a cedar fence is completely optional. It looks pretty (I do love the stain color), but it’s entirely cosmetic and this isn’t our forever house. Staining our fence might subtly add to the home value, but not enough to notice (replacing the ratty old chain-link fence is the important factor here). All that is to say, it’s not that important.

Who’s waiting on me? Our neighbors need us to finish building the fence, but I was only planning to stain our side anyway, so no one is relying on me to stain. Plus, considering how much work lies ahead, I’ve lost motivation! Not to mention, we’ve got a million other projects on the docket AND I need to take care of two little kids. Wow, just writing that out makes this decision seem even easier!

Think About Stopping While You’re Ahead

Are you past the point of no return?

This is often a very literal question when it comes to home repairs. Did you pull out the bathtub and then realize the new one is the wrong size? Are you replacing the front door and there’s a gaping hole in the house, but now you’re running out of daylight? Sometimes, you just can’t stop and have to find a path forward. Now decide:

  • What the worst that will happen?
  • Could you substitute an alternative?
  • Can you finish the project later?
  • Can you hire someone to finish it instead?

Let’s Talk Money

Can you afford to continue/stop?

Obviously, it stinks to waste money. However, if you haven’t sunk too much relative cost into the project, think forward to the cost at completion. Decide if you can sacrifice that money for the sake of your health/sanity/time. Is it worth it?

Along the same lines, can you afford to hire someone else to complete the work? In the case of our fence, I’m sure we could hire someone, but I’d rather not. Since it’s an optional project, it just doesn’t seem worth the expense and headache. I might change my mind if it turns out that we are short of 9 replacement boards and need to stain the entire fence to match…

throw in the towel on staining the fence

How About the Mental and Physical Demands?

Are you healthy enough to complete the work?

This question is important on many levels. Physically, you need to be able to work without sacrificing your health. While staining the fence, I realized that while I’m always tired after painting a room in our house, I was really struggling the outdoor labor. Between the heat, the sun, and the hours and hours and hours of labor ahead of me, I doubted I would have the stamina for that entire project. Not to mention, I need to care for two little boys full-time. What use would I be if I spent all of my energy on this one project?

Mental health counts here, too. Can you sustain the stress caused by working on a difficult project? In addition to your own mental health, will your relationships suffer? After the hectic, scrambling rush to get our first house finished before selling it two years ago, I’ve learned how to take stress seriously. While working on that house, I was exhausted and stressed out for months, and my mental and physical health really suffered. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a project that we could quit, but I would caution anyone to avoid that level of stress, if possible.

Consider Your Other Options

What options do you have at this point?

I come to this question quickly anytime I realize that a project is heading south. Rather than get in too deep, stop and think about your choices. You know the saying, “work smarter, not harder”? To me, that means don’t let your pride get in the way of common sense.

The fence scenario is a great example of stopping to think about other options. Here is what I’ve considered:

  • Would a paint sprayer work? After reading the manual, I’m nervous about the warning to ground the machine in order to “avoid explosion” from oil-based stain. No thanks.
  • Could I hire someone? That would probably cost at least $500 (?? No idea!) and they would have to be very careful to keep the stain on our side of the boards (per cost-sharing agreement with a neighbor). In my experience, laborers are not finicky about details like that, and I want to avoid even more drama.
  • Another option is to suck it up and keep going, but if I get too far into the project, we won’t have enough lumber to replace boards. I know I’ll regret it, if I pass the point of no return and then change my mind.

So that’s why my best idea is to replace the few boards I stained. I feel bad asking Wyatt to redo that work, but he’s being a great sport about it. I smell homemade cookies in his future. My penance is staring at the lovely stained cedar for the remainder of this project. I’ve learned my lesson, but I wish I’d learned it from Tom Sawyer before I got started!

throw in the towel on staining the fence

My Best Advice: Quit While You’re Ahead

OK, that’s not always realistic, but the idea is a great goal to keep in mind. Creative thinking and problem solving are part of the learning experience with home improvement. All of this just comes with experience, so if you’re new to the world of DIY, stick with it! It’s empowering to know you can do something yourself. Plus, it’s easier than ever to learn how to make home improvements, thanks to the Google and YouTube.

If you do find yourself thinking you might throw in the towel, I hope this post is helpful. Good luck with your next project!

Read More From List in Progress:

A Work in Progress – Our Second Home Tour
Fixer Uppers: Should You Get a Real Estate License?
How to Create a Basket Wall With Command Hooks

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Hi! I’m Erin, a Colorado-based home improvement blogger and lover of all things DIY. I aim to inspire creative folks to tackle home improvement with confidence and style. READ MORE

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3 years ago

Call me crazy, but, in the pictures, I prefer the untainted.

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