How to Finish What You Start: 10 Important Tips

Finishing Line

Hi Celes, I am an enthusiastic starter and do all things necessary that would be required to make any endeavor successful such as efficient planning, detailing and execution focus.

However, [after getting started,] I find my interest waning and the journey getting stretched to no end. This eventually affects the overall outcome. I would really appreciate if you could share your views how one can overcome this habit of procrastination. This is something that I have struggled with and now that I am starting a new chapter in my life, I would want to set this right and begin this journey being the best that I can be. – S

Do you have a habit of starting projects, but not finishing them?

Perhaps it’s your new business that you want to launch but you’re still stuck in planning phase. Perhaps it’s the new album you want to launch but you stopped working on it after the first song. Perhaps it’s the book you want to complete but you stopped writing after the first 500 words.

If you have been taking action and working on your goals, that’s a big achievement and you should be proud of yourself! Getting started is your first step to realizing your goals.

However, if you have a habit of starting many new things but not finishing them, that’s something to look into. Many people get stuck in the thinking but not doing phase, and that’s not good because your goals won’t magically get completed without you taking action.

Completing a project successfully takes proper planning and conscious action. If you have ever embarked on a project, you’d know that every goal/project comes with its own set of challenges which are not visible when you first start.

Personally, I embark on many projects in the course of running my business and pursuing my personal goals, and I have a good body of experience on how to successfully take projects from start to completion. Here are my 10 best tips on how to finish the projects you have started:

1. Be selective of what you embark on

When you start on a project (especially if it’s a big scale one), be sure that this is something you are passionate about and you want to see through. Personally I don’t start something unless I’m absolutely sure that I’m interested in it.

I have embarked on things which I was half-interested in in the past, for example learning tennis or learning Japanese. Eventually I stopped them mid-way. This resulted in waste of time and resources which could have been better utilized elsewhere.

Because of that, I’m more conscious of how I utilize my time and energy today. If you set a high threshold on what you want to do, the completion rate is also higher.

If you aren’t sure that this is something you really want to do, you can dip your feet into the pool first – try it out on a small scale and see if it’s what you’re interested in. For example, if you’re interested in starting a business, read up on it first. If you’re keen to be a writer, try a personal writing project (NaNoWriMo is a good place to start) or getting some freelance work. Another way is to sit on it for a few weeks. If you keep thinking about it every day for weeks, then you should probably give it a go-ahead.

2. Estimate the resources you need

In companies they do resource planning, where they estimate how much resources is needed for a project. After which, they plan out the manpower and investment accordingly. For us, that means doing a quick plan on how much time and effort this idea will take, so we can have a bird’s eye view.

It doesn’t have to be exhaustive. Just a quick outline will help. The point is to have something that guides you.

For example Live a Better Life in 30 Days Program is a sizable project which took me about 6 good weeks to complete. When I first started working on it, my first step wasn’t to dive in and write as many words as I could. That’s sort of like running a marathon by dashing right at the start. It’s not going to work and it’s just going to burn you out before you even get anywhere!

Rather, I created a simple, skeletal outline of the key tasks of the project, which were (1) Create outline of the book (2) Put together the raw content (3) Collate pictures, select quotes, etc (4) Evaluate and Rewrite the materials (5) Cover and interior book design (6) Creating the sales page and graphics (7) Tidy up all the details (8) Marketing (9) Final launch preparation.

With the raw outline done, then I broke it down into smaller tasks by each section, starting with the first – creating the outline. I then moved to the other sections. Having this skeletal outline gives me a bird’s eye view on what needs to be done, so I can prepare myself accordingly. This then brings to the next point in resource planning.

3. Budget your time and energy accordingly

After you create your outline, you should have a realistic idea of how much time and effort is needed to complete it. Plan out your time and resources accordingly and integrate them into your schedule/to-do list. Block out time in your calendar for the project. Give yourself some buffer as well, in case of contingencies.

A big reason for loss of enthusiasm or energy is when people underestimate the amount of work needed to bring the goal to life. I remember last year, I started on a book project which never saw the light of the day. I dove straight in without any plan, thinking that if I kept writing for one to two weeks, it would eventually be finished. I spent countless days and nights just writing, but it never got anywhere after months. In the end, I was getting new ideas on new things to do, and it was time to move on to other projects.

Looking back, the biggest reasons why it was never completed was because (a) I underestimated the work required (b) I was being too hung up about unimportant details (see #4 on perfectionism). That led to unnecessary rewriting, which prevented me from moving forward. To this day the book still sits in my computer. I might get to it in the future, but not now as I’ve many things which I’m more interested to work on.

Good planning of resources help you plan out your energy and expectations. You know you have to put in X hours and X work to get the final output, so you’ll manage yourself appropriately to achieve your desired outcome. That’ll lead to a higher project success rate.

4. Quit being a perfectionist

How many of us keep delaying work because we want to get it just right? I’m all for perfectionism and getting the best output, but if your desire for perfectionism is preventing you from getting things done, you should challenge it. If you’re stalled at a stage of the project and you keep revising it again and again, park it for a later stage and move on to a new part. Return to it later on and see it with fresh eyes. You might notice that what you were hung up about really isn’t that big of a deal. Also, constantly referring to your outline (step #2) is also helpful in getting perspective. Your objective is to finish the project, so keep your eyes on the prize.

If your perfectionism is preventing you from even getting started, try these two tips: First, break the task into many little steps, then focus on one part at the time. If you still put it off after breaking it down, then break it down even further into mini pieces. Soon, you’ll be left with such a simple task that you’ll be wondering what was keeping you from doing it from before! The second tip is to give yourself the permission to do a draft version. Meaning, there’s no need to get it done right the first time. Just creating a draft, even if it’s a crappy one, is better than if you didn’t do anything at all. Get started and things will roll on from there.

5. Commit to it

Once you start, commit to it. Whatever you have planned, do them. Give yourself the option to exit a project if it’s really not in line with your vision (see #9), but otherwise hold yourself to your word.

Last month I was overseas in Hong Kong for a conference and a business meeting. While I was there, my friends asked me if I wanted to go sightseeing during the weekday evenings and weekends. I rejected the offer because I was working on Live a Better Life in 30 Days Program and it was falling behind my personal timeline. I knew if I were to go out for the week, the book would never be completed on time, because (a) there was a lot of work to be done and (b) I had other projects lined up after 30DLBL. I wouldn’t feel happy at all while I was out because I wasn’t being true to myself. Finishing the book was about my commitment to myself and also to my readers out there who would truly benefit from it. Sightseeing was something I could always do in a separate time – it was not big of a deal.

Likewise for you, ask yourself what’s more important to you – Going out to party for the weekend or to work on that business you’ve been meaning to set-up? The former might bring you some temporal gratification, but the latter is what truly gives you satisfaction. The rewards you get from doing the latter are rewards which you’ll continue to reap long afterwards.

6. Connect with your end vision

You might have experienced this. Whenever you begin on a new project, you’re full of energy and enthusiasm. Then when you get into the thick of things, this energy fades away, bit by bit. You’re still excited about the overall project, but you’re not so hyped about the nitty gritty tasks that come as part of the work. After all, it’s the beautiful house that you seek at the end, not all the brick laying and cementing work.

But all the brick laying and cementing work IS part of what makes that beautiful house in the end. Every little bit you’re doing now counts toward realizing that end vision. It’s just easy to lose sight of that because you’re caught up in the daily micro-tasks that keep coming, one after another.

The problem here is your end vision is slipping away from you, so just bring it back in sight (both physically and mentally). Surround yourself with anything that’s reminds you of your end goal, such as your vision board, pictures of others who have achieved the same goal, objects that represent the goal, etc. For example, one of my clients has a goal to get a Cadillac one day, so he bought a small toy Cadillac model from Walmart which he puts in front of his desk. In front of my work desk is my life map, an inspiring quote of the moment and pictures of my top goals, and these continuously remind me of my end vision, in a conscious and subconscious manner. That’s environmental reinforcement at work and it’s very effective because it’s effortless on your part.

Creating a mock-up of what you’re doing (where applicable) is extremely helpful too. When I was working on 30DLBL program in word processor in the past, I would regularly export it into a pdf and scan through it. This small action reinvigorates me, since the pdf mock-up draws the immediate link between how what I’m doing now contributes to the end output. If you’re working on a blog/website, then preview the site as it’d look to the readers. If you’re working on a computer program, then run it and test it as a user.

7. Follow the path of highest enjoyment

I found one of the easiest and most effortless ways to complete my projects is to be flexible in my project management approach. In Steps #2 and #3, I mentioned creating an outline of what needs to be done, section by section, step by step. Now, most people will finish the tasks in sequential order. Task 1 comes first, followed by Task 2, then Task 3, etc. Sounds straight forward and easy, doesn’t it?

I did this for a long time until I realized it wasn’t the most effective method. For example, some days I would feel like doing Task 3, but if I follow the project timeline, I had to do Task 1 before I could get to Task 2 then 3. The thought of having to do 1 and 2 first was a downer. This would slow down the project… eventually reaching a halt because it stopped being fun. Working on the goal felt like a hollow activity.

On the other hand, when I give myself flexibility over what to do (while maintaining within the confines of the project), working on the project becomes like a big adventure. For example for 30DLBL program, I created the sales page and the cover design before I started on the book, even though these were the later tasks in the outline. Because I was inspired to work on them, the output came readily. The cover design was finished in the same evening, while a good portion of the sales page was finished in that same session. It was extremely fun the whole time I was working on it and it felt effortless. Subsequently, after finishing them, I then picked the next task I wanted to work on, then proceeded from there.

This approach makes me feel like I’m in a candy store and I get to pick whatever candy I want. It excites me because there’s an element of choice. I also give myself freedom to drop a particular task, move to another one, and come back when I feel like working on it again. Essentially, as long as I’m working on the goal, I’m progressing. So, it doesn’t matter whether there’s something that’s not completed – it’s just temporary. And because I’m excited about it, ideas flow readily and I work faster too.

I refer to this as the path of highest enjoyment – doing what makes you feel happiest at the moment. When you do so, you automatically become productive in your work. Try this out and see how it works for you.

Here’s a related post I wrote in 2009 on how I feel self discipline is overrated: Self Discipline is Overrated

8. Track your progress

Tracking your progress helps you understand how you’re doing and gives you a target to reach. This makes it easier to keep up with your momentum. Create a project sheet that records your targets and your current status. Specify key performance indicators (KPIs) that you want to achieve. If your goal is to lose weight, your KPIs will invariably be your weight, your fat percentage, and perhaps your performance during your exercise sessions (example – the distance covered in 30 minutes, how many weights you lifted, and the like). If your goal is to start a business, your KPIs may be your weekly customers, revenue and net income.

Every week, review your progress. What % of your end goal have you achieved? Is it on track against your target? Why or why not? What are the key things to do next? What is your target for the next week? Tracking makes you accountable to your goal and helps you to stay on track.

9. Celebrate what you’ve done so far

Sometimes we get discouraged with all the things that need to be done. It seems like no matter how much time we spend, it’s impossible to finish it. The amount of work overwhelms us and we opt out halfway.

Here’s the thing – Everything you’ve done so far IS an accomplishment! Many of us tend to emphasize on the last finishing task as the most important task, but really, all that you’ve done and what you’re doing now contributes toward the final product. So celebrate it. Give yourself a huge pat on the back and a big bear hug. Celebrate the process, the resting, the doing, the completion, everything. Take the opportunity to recharge and regroup. When you’re ready, continue on to with what you’re doing. You’re really doing a fantastic job.

10. Don’t force it if it’s really not working out

Sometimes, it just happens that you lose interest in the goal. It happens, and it’s normal. We change, our interests change, and we get new ideas and inspiration the whole time. Some people may feel it’s a waste of their efforts if they do something and don’t complete it, so they push themselves to go on.

Personally, I think it depends on the situation. I think whatever efforts you’ve put into the situation is already a sunk cost, and it shouldn’t factor into your decision of whether to continue doing it or not. The things that should influence your decision are (1) the benefits you will reap (2) the costs involved (future time, effort, resources that are needed). If it’s really not working out for you, then I recommend you drop it and move on to the next thing. Spending more time (and energy) on it is just a big waste. Considering you have no desire to do it anymore, you’re expending a lot of energy just to overcome that resistance! Think of it as dragging a car up a hill. For all that energy you spend battling your resistance, you can already use it constructively on something else.

It might seem like a big waste dropping all that’s done, but it’s not big of a deal. You are creatively capable of achieving a lot more than you realize. What you’ve done so far is just a small speck of what you can achieve. Trying to hold on to what you’ve done just prevents more goodness from coming your way.

I adopt the drop-and-go approach a lot with my work. For the 400 over articles you see here, there are actually about 100 half-written articles that have not seen the light of the day (yet). Some of them are 10% complete, some 30% complete, and some about half done. When I started out, I would make sure that I finish every article I start. Subsequently, it led to a lot of wasted time and effort in rewriting (and rewriting, and rewriting) whenever I tried to complete an article which I had lost inspiration for. On the other hand, when I follow my inspiration, the work is just effortless. (point #7)

You might ask: Wouldn’t all the work that went into writing the posts (halfway) go to waste? Not at all. They all add to my 10,000 hours of experience. I learn from writing them, and this learning will come in handy for my future posts.

Give yourself the permission to drop what you’re doing if it’s not working out, and you might just find many new things coming your way straight after that. Read: Quitting To Win

Of course, don’t just start dropping every single thing you’re doing now just because you lose interest. It’s a benefits vs. costs equation. If it’s almost done (99% completion), and the benefits from pushing through that final 1% far outweigh the costs, then go ahead and get it done. It’s a judgment call that you make from weighing out the benefits and costs.

Apply the Tips

Review the 10 tips above – How can you apply these tips in the project you’re currently working on? Write down your answers and start acting on them.

Bookmark this guide because it’ll come in handy in the future. When you’re starting on a new project, use this list as a guide. If you feel burnt out mid-way, apply the tips and it’ll help you to swing forward.

If you have found this guide helpful, do share it via Twitter and like it on Facebook. Let’s share it to those who can benefit from it.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] How to Finish What You Start

Image: Finishing line