Are you a chronic “starter”? Does it feel like you never finish anything? Learn how to escape this common form of procrastination purgatory.
Not finishing projects is a particularly nasty form of self-sabotage.
While you can always point to this or that reason for shutting down an endeavor, in the private recesses of your mind, you know the painful truth: you just couldn’t, or rather, didn’t, see it through.
For you “starters” out there, I feel your pain. I was once a starter, too. But, as we both know, starting without finishing gets old fast—you hit the point where you can’t stand to make one more excuse. You’re tired of buying your own B.S., and you’re tired of selling it to everyone who supported you along the way.
If you’re tired of feeling like you never finish anything, read on to learn why this happens, and discover how Seth Godin’s “thrashing” technique (tip no. 4) can cure you of this affliction.
Feeling the Rush: Why You Make False Starts
Beautiful blogs languishing in internet graveyards. Planet-saving lifestyle choices long forgotten. Billion-dollar app ideas you don’t even put on your CV anymore.
What’s on your list of dead projects?
I’ve left countless dead projects in my wake. And it sucks. Starting without finishing is a waste of time and money. People start to lose their faith in you. You can lose your faith in you, too.
The problem with starting is that it’s an ego rush. You’ve got to have confidence, be decisive, and confront the risk that you will publicly fail. So, you feel special!
Maybe you congratulate yourself a little bit. And maybe other people congratulate you too: “You made the leap! Good for you!”
In other words, starting is gratifying.
We become like the lab rat with its paw on the trigger, asking for another pellet. With stars in our eyes, we forget all the pain and obstacles that came before.
But, as the song goes, only fools rush in.
The Bad Advice That Causes Burnout and Failure
So, you start, and it’s glamorous, and you feel great.
What’s next is that you have a project in its infancy.
Like a baby, your project is cute and belongs just to you, but at the end of the day, it’s got needs.
Projects demand attention at times when you’d rather be watching Game of Thrones. There are costs you never imagined.
You get a week or a month or a year into your project and now you’re tired. You’re not getting the results you expected for this effort.
This is where most people give up.
But, maybe you’re not most people.
If you’re a chronic starter like me, you might learn to tough out a few of these dips.
You watch Angela Duckworth’s TED talk on grit, and you think: “that’s it! I need more grit!”
But eventually, you get worn out anyway.
Then you start asking yourself demonic questions:
Am I not working hard enough? Am I not smart enough?
And then comes the 800 pound gorilla question:
What do those “successful” people have that I don’t?
Now, it’s 100% true that you need to have grit, and resilience, in order to succeed. As Benjamin Hardy has pointed out, the path to success is not a linear one, but is much more like a convoluted, random, messy, ugly-as-hell squiggly line.
But there’s more to finishing than persistence.
Never Again Say “I Never Finish Anything”: 5 Simple Strategies
Going into projects expecting perseverance alone to get us through is like the Roadrunner speeding off the edge of a cliff:
You can pump your legs as fast as you want but gravity is still going to take over.
Working harder is not the answer. Here are some solutions to consider instead.
1. Slow down your start
Most conventional advice about entrepreneurship encourages you to “just start doing”. Ship it! Iterate fast! Get feedback!
But there’s nuance to this advice that you might be missing:
How do you know what to ship first? What should you iterate? Do you have enough data to know if you’re even ready to draw a conclusion?
Consider Hofstader’s law: Things take longer than you expect, even after accounting for Hofstader’s law.
Slowing down at the start and resisting the temptation to just start executing can pay huge dividends by helping you choose what to execute more wisely.
2. Reduce your vision to a narrow, near-term objective
Procrastinators often get hung up because they can see a the beautiful big picture but haven’t fully come to grips with the day-to-day minutiae involved in bringing that to life.
We see the shredded body and bodybuilding medals dangling from your neck, but not the scarcely visible 5 pounds we need to lose in the first month. We picture the interview we’ll give on Oprah’s show, but not the blog posts we’ll write that will go almost unnoticed for months.
As a result, when it comes time to execute, we feel lost, and the destination suddenly seems much further away.
To avoid this, take an extra step in your planning to narrow your focus dramatically to a much simpler milestone—one that is connected to your big vision.
You can still build toward the bigger picture but you need to stay anchored in a near-term milestone in order to make tangible progress and experience momentum.
3. Thrash your way to a simple plan
Even if you successfully narrow the scope of your project, you’ll have a multitude of ways to execute on it.
Seth Godin advocates for thrashing, which, in my view, amounts to mucking about for a while until you can distill your intentions into a clear vision for the future and an actionable plan.
I would add that, a core element of thrashing is deciding what not to do.
The hard part of thrashing is actually embracing that there’s this painful, confusing stage, which can’t be forced into submission by sheer willpower.
You just have to slog through it.
But, by naming the slog and embracing it, you endow it with value and purpose—and, just as importantly, avoid jumping into the execution phase prematurely.
Examples of thrashing:
For a blog: will you post weekly or bi-weekly? What day of the week? Video or podcast? What traffic-building strategies will you use?
For an app: which platform will you build it on first? Which use case will you design it for? What marketing strategies will you use?
These are just a handful of initial questions that lead to countless more. All need to be answered up front. Otherwise you wind up trying to do too much at once or please to many people at once.
As Godin points out, the thrashing is inevitable.
If you don’t thrash up front, you’ll reach a point in your project when it’s clear that you should have done things differently. Or worse yet, you just aren’t getting anywhere. At that point you’ll thrash yourself into giving up.
Make peace with the idea that planning requires thrashing. Then dive in knowing that it will pay off every step of the way afterward.
4. Don’t set goals without goal systems
Goal systems are the actions that you do repeatedly to fulfill your goals.
Your existing routines are all systems. Your morning routine, the route you drive to work, the restaurants you eat at for lunch, the workout you do at the gym. They’re all sequences of actions that you string together in the same order each time, to reduce the effort required to produce a result.
Systems remove all the mental energy required to make a choice. You already know that you’re turning left at Palmer Road and ordering the roast beef for lunch.
Examples of systems:
For a blog: Creating archetypal, repeatable blog structures; making a checklist you go through to conceive, create, edit, post and market a new piece; creating a production schedule and mapping it onto your calendar.
For a weight loss goal: creating a morning routine that involves packing your gym clothes; going through the gym’s class schedule and adding the ones you like to your calendar; creating a tracking sheet and posting it on your fridge.
Once you put a system in place, you can shift your attention from what to do next to how to improve the system as a whole.
Credit for this strategy goes to James Clear, who says:
“Goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress. Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”
As you do your project planning, consider creating a section for systems. Write down every part of your plan that lends itself to being systematized. Then make it your top priority to create each one of those systems first.
5. Choose one focal metric
A good way to know if you’ve got a clear, simple plan and effective goal systems is to see if you can choose one focal metric.
While having one single metric isn’t enough to tell you if you’re succeeding, it serves a very different and arguably more important purpose: to help you stay steadfast in executing what matters most.
I recently set a goal of improving my pull-up strength. The metric I chose was to do 1,000 pull-ups in 30 days. Because I’m a beginner at pull-ups, I needed a metric that would emphasize consistency and frequency, and help me build momentum. A more expert person might choose another metric for the same goal.
You can still use a variety of key performance indicators in your business, but I find it helps to have just one metric to track on a daily basis—something relevant to the next short-term milestone—to keep from getting distracted by the big picture.
Bonus tip: It’s never too late to start over
As you read this, it’s possible that you’re in the midst of a project already.
If so, don’t worry! You can apply all of these at any point in a project.
You may be tempted to think that it’s too late to change course, but that kind of thinking will only waste more time.
As Seth Godin reminds us, thrashing is inevitable, and the sooner you do it, the better off you are.
Sum up: Do this now
For starters, remember that “just dive in” is advice that requires nuance—planning is good and necessary.
Next, realize that perseverance is like spinning your tires if you don’t have the right plan.
Finally, try applying these six techniques to plan more effectively:
- Slow down your start — don’t be in a rush to execute
- Reduce your vision to a narrow, near-term objective — and embrace the minutiae
- Thrash your way to a simple plan — and force yourself to decide what not to do
- Don’t set goals without goal systems — the goal is the outcome, the system is the journey
- Choose one focal metric — this will help you drive results day in and day out and avoid getting distracted by the big picture
- And remember, it’s never too late to stop and plan
What’s your advice on how to finish what you start?
This is a problem I continue to wrestle with and would love to hear what you’ve learned.