On Starting, But Not Finishing

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 13: Self Quantification

Western culture is obsessed with starting new things. Everywhere you look there are posters, commercials, motivational speakers; Each encouraging you to “just do it”. Buy our product, they implore. Try something new; Expand your horizons. Then they are on their way, leaving you with lighter pockets and yet another unfinished enterprise.

It seems that as humans we are naturally conditioned to start new things, yet we lack the perseverance to bring them to fruition. We revel in the thrill of new beginnings, yet quickly tire of the labor of seeing things through.

Why is it that when effort levels rise, our default response is to quit? Because we are inexpert in the techniques that can be used to sustain energy and enthusiasm, and lack the experience and reinforcement of the elation that comes with “pushing through.” It’s like training for a marathon – the first time you hit a “pain wall” it’s easy to give up and stop but over time, though the wall is still there, you become more adept at pushing through it.

My Addiction to Starting New Projects

When writing I always kept starting a clean slate, a new page, in Byword, yet I rarely managed to finish my previous articles. This contributed to an endless list of started, yet unfinished work. Unfinished work is like debt; it consumes your time, without adding any value of its own. The interest on your time-debt keeps accruing, and instead of your past working for you, it pushes you away from your goals. Ignoring your unfinished tasks, like ignoring a piling debt, is an avoidance strategy that will doom you to failure. There are hundreds of articles that I’ve started, yet never finished. Some of them lingering in Dropbox or Evernote, waiting for me to pick them up, and bring them to fruition.

Ignoring your unfinished tasks, like ignoring a piling debt, is an avoidance strategy that will doom you to failure.

In the past I have accepted unfinished work, grateful for my desire and drive to start new things. Now, long after I first started this article, I am returning to it, this time with a commitment to complete it..
Coming back to an unfinished article, adding value to it and completing it is a glorious feeling. However, there are hundreds of articles that I’ve started, yet never finished. Some of them lingering in Dropbox or Evernote, waiting for me to pick them up, and bring them to fruition. Can I possibly achieve the same with all my unfinished work?

I don’t believe that there was a day for a past year that I haven’t written something. But writing until published felt like a big hassle and chore; A distraction to everything that was fun, engaging and stimulating.I had the initiative, but I wasn’t completely motivated to take my work to the finish line. That is what made a difference to the output.

My brain was scattered around numerous topics, radiating different energies. Now it is focusing toward finishing those started projects. When you are a “starter”, it is very easy to get caught up in an endless list of projects. But how do you break out of the cycle? Awareness is key.

I had the initiative, but I wasn’t completely motivated to take my work to the finish line.

Four Reasons You Don’t Finish The Projects You Start

Your Projects Become Stale

Over time it’s easy for great ideas to get lost, became irrelevant or unnecessary. The best way to counter this is either to complete the tasks immediately or avoid those projects that you know have a limited “shelf life.” This is especially important if you have a job, and you want to start a project on the side. You must be very mindful of your resources; One wrong step, and you risk burning out or losing interest.

You Lose Enthusiasm

One reason you start projects, hobbies or new things, is because of the rush of positive emotion that comes with novelty. Over time, these “feel good” moments and epiphanies wear off and you admit defeat, or stop trying as hard . These moments, and the rash decisions that accompany them, leave you with yet another thing on your plate that makes you feel the guilt of failure.

Solution: Rekindle the excitement. Remind yourself what it was you were first excited about and restore those neural connections that helped you to associate your project work with that excitement. You’ll soon find those positive endorphins are flowing as your brain taps into your subonscious reward mechanism.

You’re Not Committed to the Desired Outcome

Those who really want to achieve their goal will inevitably end up closer to it than those who aren’t committed to its outcome. A lack of clear desire for the end state will steer you away from the destination, or at least rob you of the willpower to keep pushing towards it..

If you’re carrying out a task, without a clear and desired outcome at the forefront of your mind, you will quickly become focused on the activity instead. A clear outcome will ensure you stay focused not on what you’re doing but where it’s taking you; Without this, you will become grudging of the effort you’re expending, or distracted by something else with a greater novelty value.

Solution: Get focused. Stop thinking about what you’re doing and start thinking about where you’re going to end up. Get that outcome clear in your mind and commit to it. If you’re still not fired up, maybe it’s time to put this project in the bin.

You Have an Unhealthy Desire for Perfection

We are bombarded daily with unrealistic visions of perfection. Sculpted models, brave superheroes and “overachievers” dominate our lives, implicitly admonishing us for our own imperfections. It’s natural to strive for perfection, to better yourself, but it becomes unhealthy when it prevents you from ever sharing the fruits of your particular labor. There is an inherent fear of failure and rejection imbued in all of us, making us reluctant to try and quick to quit on our own terms. In order this you need to recognize the fear, acknowledge and accept it. Avoiding or succumbing to the fear is a lingering poison for your productivity and creativity alike. It is neither rational nor obvious, yet it is very deadly and effective. Fear of failure is probably one of the biggest reasons I’ve been procrastinating on writing this article.

Solution: Get over it. You need to kill this fear stone cold dead, and the best way to do this is to put your product out there. Show your work in progress to friends, family colleagues; get some feedback and become accustomed to having your “imperfect work” under the microscope. You’ll soon get a sense for the difference between the real shortfalls and what’s in your imagination.

Break Through the Wall

Like the wall of pain for the marathon trainer, the key to overcoming these issues is to power through. Recognise the characteristics that are holding you back and take action to resolve them. Over time you’ll learn to recognize the warning signs that indicate you’re in danger of leaving another project unfinished, and powering through will become a habit in itself.