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How to Finish Well

I have always sucked at finishing things.  I’m a fantastic serial starter.  Some people over time have associated me with the term “dreamer”.

I feel like if you want to do something, you should go as big as you possibly can and make it incredibly awesome.  Change the world, right?

I’m sure some of you identify with me on this.

You probably also struggle.  You have incredible aspirations, but somehow those things never quite seem to manifest themselves in reality.

Over the last few years, I’ve fought to understand why I have been the way I just described.  I understand it pretty well now, and I’m coming to the other side of it.  It’s a crazy place to be, and I want to share that journey with you.  I can sum it up in a sentence your parents or coach probably told you once:

It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish.

A Perpetual Starter

I can list out a lot of things for you that I’ve started and either didn’t finish or didn’t finish well:

  1. A media/promotions company
  2. Multiple blogs
  3. A college radio station
  4. Entirely too many songs
  5. Practicing to become a good guitar player
  6. Multiple film ideas
  7. A few written stories
  8. A regular daily vlog

You get the point right?  All of these seem pretty innocent until you add “that is the best and has a widely recognized audience” to the end of them – because that’s what I felt I wanted to do every time I started.

I’d get a good head of steam, and set off with a BANG.

A few weeks later, maybe even months, it would be over.

Before too long it became easy to identify myself as “the guy who can’t ever finish anything”.  I could get big ideas and start to execute, but I could never follow through or influence others to join me and truly commit.

This is a really, really difficult place to find yourself in.  Once you get to this point of self-labeling, it isn’t hard to find and cling to hopelessness.  You’ll say to yourself things like…

I’ll never amount to anything”

“They’re right, I can’t do it”

“I’m not good at this anymore, I’ve lost whatever it is I used to have”

“I’m worthless”

Hard, right?

Picking yourself up

If you see a bit of yourself in this, I have a bunch of super good news.

  • You’re probably one of the worst people at identifying “who you are”
  • You can finish things, and it’s only a matter of practice, not natural ability
  • You can do the things you want.  They just require more work and effort than you thought

In light of all of the things I didn’t finish, let me give you an idea of what I have finished:

  1. My own software product
  2. A proprietary batch processing software for my company
  3. 100% completed a handful of games
  4. I’m currently on a 268-day streak practicing Spanish in Duolingo
  5.  I read 18 books in 2016 (prior to that it was 1 a year if that)
  6. A project of vlogging for more than 30 days in a row

As a perpetual starter, never finisher – just finishing one of those things is a very big deal.

If you’re struggling, just accomplishing one thing could begin the snowball of success, right?

So here’s the reality of the situation.  Finishing things isn’t hard, it just takes focus.  Instead of doing all of the cool things, or getting sidetracked by a rough week, or being too tired, or going out with friends when you planned to work… you have to focus on the mission at hand.

This is most easily built via habits, but that’s a deeper discussion.

Instead, I’ll explain that you have two options to complete things.  What you choose really just depends on how you work and what fits best with you.

  1. You complete your project with a single burst (or very few) of extreme focus.  Everything else is blocked out or falls by the wayside.  You probably break into a very large chunk of “flow”.  You complete projects rapidly.  At the end, you need time to recover before the next project.  But if you know this is how you work you can schedule bouts of consistent extreme focus.
  2. You complete your projects with numerous small bouts of extreme focus.  The best you get is 30-minute chunks at a time.  Sometimes it’s 5 minutes, or 15.  But you repeat these over and over, chipping away at small goals until the big project is done.  You complete things more slowly, but if you’re able to make this consistent, it becomes super addictive.

What I found, in my case, is I thought I worked best with option #1.

I would launch into a new idea extremely excited and put a ton of effort in.  The problems came when I would focus on the wrong things instead of doing the work that mattered.

How about I deeply analyze my blog theme and my twitter account instead of just writing!  What if I spend 4 hours finagling the right Reaper setup and the perfect virtual drums instead of just writing a verse with whatever I’ve got!

As I would burn tons of hours at the start, I would lose energy over time and be unable to make a consistent effort.  Since I didn’t focus on the biggest wins at the start, the project would never finish.

Now that I know this, my workflow is completely different.  When I do it right, this is what it looks like:

  1. I keep a written list of all of the projects in my head.  I separate these in a way that makes sense to me (office, personal work, home, year goals).  Currently, this exists in a Trello board and each separate thing has its own board.  I pick only one item per board to attack at a time.  I also break these down via “Postponed”, “Planned”, “Active”, and “Completed” task lists.
  2. Every Thursday I plan the tasks I’m going to take action on in the next week.  I’ve done this for long enough that I know roughly how much I can get done each day.  This management took some time and lots of failures to learn to do right.
  3. Every day, I check off as many of the tasks to complete as possible.  If I’d rather play video games, for example, I can’t do that until I know all of the things are going to get completed.
  4. I don’t beat myself up if I fail.  If I complete at least one thing, or even the majority of tasks on my list then I’m going in the right direction.
  5. The only thing that trumps my list is my wife.

Those are my rules.  Realize that you’ll have your own, but you need to set some up if you want to finish something.

If you consistently fail at finishing now, I highly, highly suggest you pick one thing to start with.  Make that one thing very small.  It may seem minuscule, but a small, quick win is a very big thing for you mentally.

So pick your small thing, list the tasks required to complete that one thing.  Get super small and granular with these tasks.  Then complete one.  Then complete the next one tomorrow.  The third one the next day, etc.

Then just don’t stop.

For years.  Or ever.

Soon you’ll find yourself building mountains with your work, and accomplishing those things you’ve always dreamed of.  Have fun!

Copyright 2016-2017, Adam T. Croft, all rights reserved.