Stefano Ganddini gives us a truckload of brilliant, actionable advice in this guest post. His advice is sound and much of it mirrors what I wrote about in How to Be an Imperfectionist. This is a superb read.
Finishing is hard.
It’s one thing to be working on a project with strict deadlines like you have in school, work, and other similar types of environments that come with external pressures and consequences if you don’t meet your deadlines.
But when you’re working on a personal project and no one is forcing you to finish what you start, it’s easy to let it fall through the cracks. Life will go on, you’ll still have your job, and no one will think of you any differently. No one will know.
That is, no one except you. You alone will know and you alone will start to think of yourself differently. You’ll start to think that maybe you’re just not capable of finishing. Maybe you just don’t have enough self-discipline. Maybe some people are born with the special gift of finishing, and you’re just not one of them.
But I don’t buy it. I think you’re more than capable of finishing what you start. I think everyone is. I think the problem is just that most people aren’t using the right strategies.
For the last 8 months, I’ve been posting an article on my blog every other Sunday night, and every single time, it’s still a struggle. Writing this article was no exception. As much as I enjoy writing, it does not come easy to me. It is a difficult process that makes my brain hurt. And every time I post something, I’m terrified that it’s going to be a flop…
What if all my subscribers finally realize that I’m actually not a good writer, and they all leave?
What if I put in all this hard work for nothing?
What if I’m just wasting my time?
These same exact thoughts go through my head every single time. But I post anyway.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last 5 years since I began my self-improvement journey, it’s that if you want to achieve anything great in your life, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. At the end of the day, nothing worth having comes easy.
That single insight alone has changed my life, but I’ve also learned a few other strategies and psychological principles that have helped me finish every project that I start, even on the days when I just don’t feel like it (and trust me, there’s lots of those days). If I can do it, you can too.
Here are my 12 best tips on how to finish what you start.
1. Commit less often.
The truth is not everything is worth finishing. But it’s important that you make this decision before you decide to try something new. Don’t make the decision when you’re in the thick of it, when you’re caught up in your emotions.
You should mentally categorize any activity that lasts more than a day as either an experiment or a commitment before you begin. Experiments are okay to quit, but commitments are not.
If you’re not sure if you want to fully commit to a big project, you should do a smaller experiment beforehand to get a better feel for what exactly you’d be getting yourself into. For example, if you want to write a book, try writing just one article on the topic first to see if you’d want to put in the work of writing an entire book.
If you determine that yes, this is indeed something that you want to fully commit to, then recognize the power of what it means to commit to something. It means that you will see it through to the end, even if you lose your motivation halfway through.
Thinking about your commitments in this way will force you to take them more seriously. You will make fewer commitments, but the ones that you do make will be more successful in the long-run.
2. Be like Apple.
In one of my all-time favorite TED talks, Simon Sinek explains that all great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world think, act, and communicate the exact same way—and it’s the complete opposite of everyone else. Rather than starting with what they do and how they do it (which is what most people do), the most inspiring leaders and organizations start with why they do what they do.
If you look at Apple, for example, the reason why they’re so successful isn’t because their products are that much better than the rest of their competition, but because they’re able to clearly communicate what they stand for. Apple stands for challenging the status quo and thinking differently, and that’s what people buy into.
You see, when you communicate by starting with the why, you are talking directly to the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls all of human behavior and decision-making. So, if we emulate Apple and start taking a deeper look at why we do what we do, then we can learn to take greater control over our own behavior.
Before you begin a new project, spend some time to clearly define the reason why you’re doing it. Dig deep and don’t settle for surface layer reasons. The bigger, more inspiring your why, the more likely you will be to finish what you start and the less likely you will be to give up on your goals. Even when you feel like giving up.
3. Prepare for the worst.
Most people are overly enthusiastic in the beginning of a project, but as soon as things get difficult, they get frustrated and eventually give up. If you want to become a finisher, you have to be prepared for the struggle. You have to expect to run into obstacles along the way, and prepare accordingly.
At the beginning of a new project, spend some time visualizing the difficulties that you are bound to face. Imagine the mental strain and self-doubt you that you’ll feel when things don’t go your way. Imagine the moments when you’ll feel like giving up. Then, visualize the way you will handle them–with a keen awareness of the situation, with a calm confidence and resolute focus. Unfazed and undeterred because this is exactly what you had prepared for.
When those difficulties actually come, they might hit you harder than you expected. But at least you’ll be ready for them. You might lose your balance for a brief moment, but you won’t get knocked down like you would if you were hit by surprise. You’ll take the hit and then you’ll keep going.
4. Create consequences that you’re not willing to pay.
Willpower is a finite resource. Don’t rely on your limited amount of willpower to finish what you start. One of the easiest ways to maximize our willpower is to add an external pressure (like we have in school or work environments) by putting something on the line. Doing so requires a small amount of willpower in the short-term and will greatly reduce the amount of willpower needed over the long-term.
For example, if your goal is to finish writing a book by the end of the month, tell a friend that you will pay them $100 if you don’t follow through. With a little bit of money in the game, your chances for success will be greatly increase. This type of external accountability will take you a lot further than sheer willpower.
5. Plan as little as possible.
Planning is important. You don’t want to rush into something without thinking about your options and coming up with some sort of game plan. But your focus should be on getting started as soon as possible.
The problem with planning is that it feels productive. But after a certain point, planning can become another form of procrastination. It’s easy to get stuck in the “researcher” phase, for example, where you’ll spend countless hours reading blog posts and brainstorming ideas, but never taking any real action.
Planning is helpful, but don’t use it as an excuse to keep pushing back the real work. Don’t fall victim to analysis paralysis. Give yourself a time limit to come up with a plan, and then start taking action.
6. Set alarms.
If I didn’t give myself deadlines, I would never finish a single blog post. The thing about blog posts is that they can always be improved. No matter how much time I spend on a post, there is always room for improvement. As a perfectionist, this makes things difficult.
But what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t need to be perfect. It can’t be perfect. If I tried to make it perfect, it’d never get done. So instead, I just give myself a deadline, I do the best that I can do within that time constraint, I hit “Publish,” and then I move on.
Another helpful tactic is to block off chunks of time out of your day dedicated solely to specific tasks. Then, when you actually sit down to do your work, set an alarm on your phone. This does two things:
- It creates a time pressure which forces you to work faster. Parkinson’s Law (in case you’re not familiar, it’s the age-old adage, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”) is very real.
- It eliminates any decision-making (or lack thereof) about what to do, because you’ve already made this decision beforehand. By the time you sit down to do your work (at whatever time you’ve scheduled it on your calendar), you already know exactly what you need to do. It separates thinking mode from doing mode–a very important separation to have.
7. Be willing to create garbage.
It’s completely unrealistic to expect everything you create to be perfect when you’re first starting out. Don’t let an unrealistic expectation prevent you from creating. Aiming for perfection is how you paralyze yourself. You need to remind yourself that once you have something that’s “good enough,” you can always go back and make it better later.
If I showed you my first draft of this post, it’d be extremely embarrassing. My first drafts are complete garbage. It usually isn’t until my 3rd of 4th drafts that I finally start to think, “Hey, this actually isn’t that bad.”
I like to think of myself as a sculptor. Every post that I write starts off as a giant chunk of marble. With each draft, I chip away at it and eventually, slowly but surely, it starts to look like something you can recognize.
8. Screw inspiration.
This quote from one of my favorite books, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, has forever changed the way I think about inspiration:
“Someone once asked Somerset Maughham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
Sitting around waiting for inspiration or some other mystical force to strike is a great way to never finish what you start. Instead, you should be proactive and create an environment that forces inspiration to strike. The more consistent you can be, the better.
For example, for the last few weeks I’ve started writing every day at 9:30 AM with a hot cup of coffee in hand. From 9:30 AM – 12:30 PM all I do is write (usually in increments of 25 minutes, using this app). It’s a nice little ritual I’ve created to maximize my output–when I sit down at my desk and take a sip of my coffee, my brain knows that it’s time to start writing. Sometimes I feel inspired, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I write well, sometimes I don’t. Either way, I write.
At the end of the day, like most things, it’s just a numbers game. Increase the number of times you sit down to do your work, and you’ll increase your output.
9. Choose your pain wisely.
Tony Robbins once said: “The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.”
The reason most people fail to finish what they start is because they associate more pain with taking action than not taking action. But if you reverse this, and start associating more pain with not taking action, then it will become nearly impossible to not finish what you start.
When you start looking at your projects from this perspective, it’s a complete game-changer. We all know that the more difficult something is, the more rewarding and satisfying it will be to finish it. But taking this one level further, you realize that the more difficult something is and the more satisfying it will be to finish it, the more painful it will be to not finish it.
Which leads to the following question: do you want to live with the short-term pain of hard work for long-term life satisfaction, or the short-term pleasure of doing what’s easy for the eternal pain of regret?
10. Redefine success.
If you go into a situation hoping for a particular outcome, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and disappointment.
What I’ve learned through my writing is that there are lots of things that are not in my control– the outcome of my finished product, people’s reactions to it, and ultimately, my product’s level of “success.”
But the act of finishing is the one thing that is fully in my control. So that’s what I focus on.
In my mind, as long as I’m hitting that publish button on my blog every other Sunday night, I have succeeded. Obviously, I’m a human and I can’t help but hope that people will respond positively, but I try my best to detach myself and my self-worth from the result (whether it’s good or bad). If I didn’t, I would never be able to finish a single article. The thought of failure would be too terrifying.
You have to remember that you are not your work. Don’t worry about scoring every shot you take. It’s okay if you fail. Just focus on what’s in your control and then forget about the rest.
11. Be quick to adapt.
Think about what your end goal is, and then do whatever it takes to get there.
An entrepreneur’s goal, for example, is to create a successful business. How he achieves this goal is less important. A good entrepreneur knows that he must be flexible with his idea in order to reach product/market fit. He knows that he can’t get stuck on any single idea because the product that helps him achieve the goal is simply a means to an end.
Similarly, if you make a commitment to yourself to finish writing an article by tomorrow, and you start out with article titled “How To Start What You Finish,” it’s okay if you finish with a completely different article on a completely different topic. This happens to me all the time. I used to always try to make my original ideas work out the first time around, but sometimes when you’re struggling to make one idea work, you come up with a better idea. When that happens, don’t be afraid to run with it and abandon the old idea.
Remember to take a step back every now and then to think about what you’re actually trying to achieve. What’s the big-picture goal? Commit to the goal, not the method.
12. Don’t believe yourself.
Navy Seals are known for being the toughest soldiers on the planet. One of the mental frameworks they live by is known as the 40% rule. This scientifically proven mental framework states that when your mind is telling you that you’re done and you’ve reached your limit, you’re actually only 40% done. In other words, when you think you’re done and you can’t go on anymore, don’t believe yourself. There’s always more in the reserve tank than you think.
I love this. It’s something I’ve always believed–that we are all capable of doing so much more than we think we can. But if we’re not willing to push ourselves, and push our limits, we’ll never find out what we’re really made of, and what we’re truly capable of.
“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison
The next time you feel like giving up on something half way through, refer back to the strategies I’ve outlined in this post. Keep pushing, and you will finish.
Free Cheat Sheet
In order to prevent this blog post from being just another thing that you read but never put into practice, I’ve put together a free “Cheat Sheet” for you so that you can quickly and easily review these tips whenever you need to: Finish What You Start [Cheat Sheet ]
Download it, print it out, put in on your wall and share it with those who might find it useful.
Stefano is an engineer turned self-improvement writer. He writes at Collegetopia.co about how to optimize your life for success and happiness by building powerful habits, developing extraordinary focus, and above all, by doing meaningful work. If you’re ready to start taking action to create a more meaningful and passionate life, click here to join his free newsletter.