How to Finish What You Start

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How to Finish What You Start

Want to make meaningful progress on your incomplete projects and dropped resolutions? Psychologist and author Neil Fiore, Ph.D., shares his tips for overcoming procrastination and tackling seemingly overwhelming or tedious projects.

There’s that guitar you never quite learned to play gathering dust in the family room. There’s the exercise bike that’s morphed into a clothes rack in the basement. There’s the smattering of materials left over from that abandoned bathroom remodel.

If only those unfinished projects would pick themselves up and quietly leave by the back door. They never do.

Aside from messing up your home, incomplete endeavors can leave an unwelcome mark on the psyche. They can sap self-confidence, perhaps convincing you that you just can’t stick with anything, or that you don’t really know what you want to do. Whatever feelings your abandoned ventures might inspire, they’re not likely to be positive. And, as other projects pile up, they can make completing anything harder — as you get harder on yourself.

You can override shame and procrastination, though, with concrete, reasonable plans, and by using action as a source of inspiration. Psychologist Neil Fiore offers simple prescriptions for increasing follow-through that focus on choosing limited and achievable objectives.

BARRIERS TO OVERCOME

Nerves If you’re putting off pursuing a project that really matters to you, says Fiore, it’s often because of a fear of failure — or fear of success. Procrastinating is an attempt to relieve that anxiety, one that may succeed in the short term but fails miserably later as the project gathers dust and haunts you.

A focus on the outcome Ambitious goals are fine, but when we define our efforts in relation to the finished task — fluency in French, playing “The Wind Cries Mary” on the guitar — we create an intimidating gulf between where we are and where we want to be.

Perfectionism One major source of project paralysis is the feeling that whatever effort you expend, it won’t be enough to achieve perfection. So why bother trying?

“I should . . .” or “I have to . . .” When you use these phrases, says Fiore, “you create a kind of negative hypnosis that tells your brain ‘They’re making me do this.’ ‘I should’ or ‘I have to do this’ actually means you don’t want to, and that’s the message your brain gets, increasing the resistance and rebellion.”

Distraction When you keep checking Facebook or scrubbing an already-clean sink instead of tackling your project, Fiore says, “it’s a good indication that you’re trying to avoid a task you define as more painful, boring, or fraught with the potential for shame and criticism.”

Vagueness about commitment One guaranteed obstacle to completion is a lack of clarity about what part you’ll tackle first, and when.

Superperson syndrome According to Fiore, we often give up on projects because we’re simply involved in too many at once — and believe we are supposed to be able to complete them all.

STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS

Know that you can’t do it all “Accept the simple fact that you’re a human being, that your time and energy are limited,” says Fiore. “You must choose what to focus on and what to let go.”

Don’t wait for motivation Anxiety and resistance to starting a task are normal and inevitable, according to Fiore. So if you’re waiting to “feel good” about starting, or about yourself, you may be in for a long wait. Action brings inspiration. Fiore recommends choosing to get started “even when your ego lacks motivation.”

Use the calendar “The brain needs specificity about what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it,” Fiore says. “Rather than ‘I’ll give it a lot of time next week,’ try ‘I’ll put in 15 minutes next Tuesday at 9 a.m.’ That reduces anxiety and helps your brain and body get into doing mode. It also keeps you from feeling overwhelmed by the size of your final goal because it focuses your energy on a specific task and window of time.”

Pay your project a mental visit “Facing your resistance and devoting even 10 to 30 seconds of thinking to your goal is enough to tell the brain that you no longer want to use the avoidance response,” explains Fiore. “Your brain will switch into its higher problem-solving function and it will lower the stress response — and then you can continue.” Fiore describes this process as akin to a “fear-inoculation shot.”

Watch for your “no” moment Observe yourself when you think about starting on your project, says Fiore. What do you tell yourself that keeps you from picking up the instrument, the art project, the book? Note resistant thoughts with curiosity rather than judgment, and pay attention when you choose to start in spite of fear or doubt.

Breathe deeply If you’re starting on your project and a distracting impulse comes, Fiore suggests taking a series of deep breaths. “Believe it or not, in five seconds or so, your mind will present you with something else, and the original distraction will usually be gone.”

Execute in small segments “I’ve written seven books and a doctoral dissertation,” says Fiore, “and never once did I say to myself, ‘I have to finish writing the book today.’ Instead, I face the resistance I feel, choose to get over it, and then write for 15 to 30 minutes. Then something comes to me and I go from not knowing to knowing, surprised at how much I’ve accomplished.”

Get training Sometimes we shy away from a pursuit because we lack key knowledge about how to move forward. There are workshops, classes, and courses that will teach you almost anything. Where appropriate, take advantage.

Let go of what’s really too hard “If you’re hopeless with numbers, learning bookkeeping is going to be too much of a challenge,” Fiore says. “Every pursuit takes effort, but if your pursuit is so hard that it’s a painful struggle, find another way to accomplish your larger goal.”

Let go of what you don’t really love Sometimes we lose interest in former fascinations. If something no longer stirs your passion, let it go. Free up the space it’s been taking up on your to do list, and reclaim the energy it’s been demanding from your heart and mind. Saying an enlightened “no” is often the very best way to get to an inspired “yes!”

Are you in the middle of something that feels impossible to finish? What do you do to get started and stay motivated? Tell us in the comments!

Related

  • LOLNOPE

    The stock photo along with this story is composed almost entirely of LOLNOPE. We don’t look like that crossing the finish line of a race, people. ARE THEY WIZARDS?

  • Majadin

    Haha they are! The paid model kind of wizzards :). Well, I do no actually have any fysical unfinnished projects but I do suffer from initial hesitation towards some personal goals in life that I would like (need) to achieve to become (even more) happy. A lot of this advice, if read in a different light, still aplies. Thanks!

  • Kh

    Looking for a starting point in improving my life overal….I really appreciated “don’t wait for motivation” it makes a lot of sense! Thank you!

  • Kaithlyn

    Hello!

    Thank you so much for that wonderful, inspiring blog! Very helpful in terms of my plans/goals towards success!! I just have a couple of concerns regarding this, and I really need your help!:) I’ve been struggling with success in high school(I’m graduating next year), and I need your help! Tank you in advance!

    1) If say we’ve already found our “no” moments. I, for example, have noticed that I say no whenever I don’t feel motivated, or I’m simply just tired. I’d become aware of this, and tried to force myself to do it. As said, “don’t wait for motivation”. But many times it happened that I just ended up failing at this ‘motivating myself” kinda method. It’s not easy. And my question is, how can you make it easy?
    2) “Let go of what’s really too hard.”/”Letting go of what you dont love”– I’ve discovered the truth of this in school just earlier this year, when my teacher told me that we all have our “weaknesses”. This really hurt me, and I took this hard since I’m the kind of person who wants to be the best in everything as much as possible. But I guess as mentioned here, “we’re all humans”, and we can’t really do everything at once. What a bitter reality this is. I mean, it’d be awesome to be able to play the guitar, play the piano, be good in my higher level Social Studies class, as well as my Math higher level class, etc; without fail right?! But unfortunately, I can’t be like that cause I’m not superman. I mean, some gifted people could probably excel at those I’ve mentioned above! But not me. I can only be good in Math cause I was born like that. No matter how much I train myself to be the best in my Social Studies Class, I’ll never be good enough to be in a higher level social studies class; cause I wasn’t born that way. And believe me I’ve tried. Moreover, do you know what my Social studies teacher said about this when I had discerned about stepping down to a lower level Social Studies class? Instead of encouraging me, he told me “it was OKAY”. What??? He said that sometimes, we have to face the “reality”. Ouch. I guess we can never be good at everything no matter how much we try, or train ourselves. Sorry for this long explanation. But my point is, I don’t get it! Why, why, why do we need to “LET GO”?? Are humans’ capabilities really limited to what they can do in life…is there really no time to be good at everything?? If true, then why NOT? Why not? I want to be able to do and try everything! BUT Why not?

    -High School student

    • ashlay helton

      Because you have to prioritize according to what you want to devote time and energy to, You can be better in social studies. But it will take time and effort- and it won’t be that you just add time and effort to something. It has to be taken away from something else. but “born this way” is bullshit. you have a natural inclination for math- that’s awesome. you can develop that inclination for social studies, but it will come at the cost of something else. you can’t make it easy. easy is a lie. a myth. if you really want something, you have to work for it and there are no shortcuts. sorry. high school wasn’t that long ago for me and i remember having the exact thoughts. i wish someone would’ve given my the the no bs version back then. you know what you have to do, that isn’t the hard part. the hard part is doing it and that’s where most people fail. they get stuck on the method and quit because it’s too hard or takes too long, or it’s unpleasant or they don’t want to give up something to make it happen. if it’s that important to you, you find a way.

      • Kaithlyn

        1) Prioritize. It will never be easy. I just need to try harder. No short-cuts.
        2) Being better at something (e.g. Social) is possible, but will come at the cost of something else.
        –Do it. Don’t quit. If it’s important to me.. I find a way.

        Your feedback makes sense, thank you so much!!