Finishing what you start

Whether you’re writing a book or painting a room, it’s often harder to finish a project than to start it. When enthusiasm wanes, fears set in, energy drops or distractions mount, it can be difficult to follow through until you’re 100% done.

Finishing what you start is essential to accomplishing meaningful goals and turning your imagination into reality. If you want to move things out of a perpetual state of incompletion, here are some ways to do just that:

Decide what’s really important to you

Some things aren’t right for you and won’t ever work out, no matter how much effort you put into it. These include jobs, business ventures, and relationships. In such cases, it’s healthy to quit and move on.

Some things are experimental and okay to drop even before you really get into it. You might have started it to gain a different experience, explore new opportunities, satisfy your curiosity, or shake up your routine. Once the purpose is served, you can shift to other stuff despite not being quite done.

Some things you finish just because there’s little left to be done. Although a project might lose its value over time, if you’re 99% complete, it might be worth it to push through to the end.

Some things are true commitments. This is when exercising self-discipline and habitually finishing what you start are necessary.

Years ago, when I began taking piano lessons, I had no specific plans or clear goals. I just wanted to have fun and learn something new. I didn’t know if I’d play piano beyond a few weeks or months. But once my new hobby turned into a real commitment, I bought a piano and got sheet music for songs I wanted to learn. Although playing the piano is purely an avocation, I’m dedicated to it. I follow through and finish playing a piece even when I get bored or frustrated. I show up for my lessons even when I’d rather be going somewhere else.

If you keep putting off a task, ask yourself what’s stopping you and whether you really need to finish it. Do you enjoy it? Is it consistent with your values? Will it move you toward your big goals?

Decide whether to take it off your to-do list completely or move it to your some-day list temporarily. Choosing deliberately allows you to finish vital projects and create space, energy and time for new opportunities. Finish your most important, active projects before you transition to a new set of projects

Break down vague goals into small, actionable steps

Instead of having “write the damn book” or “paint the freaking room” on your to-do list, break down the project into small, actionable steps that lead to the desired outcome. Completing a book involves drafting an outline, churning out content, and revising, editing and finessing your words. Painting a room includes preparing the room, getting the paint and tools, and starting with the ceiling, moving on to the walls, and finishing with the trim.

Visualize not just the desired outcome, but all the steps it will take for you to achieve it. Picture yourself doing the thing you need to get done, then do it. Imagine how you will feel when you’ve completed the project. Bring that feeling into the present, as you take each step to finishing.

Keep a precise schedule or set routines 

Carve out time and mark it on your calendar to perform tasks that will get the job done. Whether you have 15, 30, 60 or 90 minutes, set precise times for when you will start and finish. This strengthens your habit of finishing things you start rather than give up halfway.

Develop a routine of doing the tasks at certain times of the day, when you have more control over what you do. To finish this post, I chipped away at it first thing in the morning until my toddler woke up, for a few days.

If you want to finish writing a book, commit to putting your fingers on the keyboard and start typing when you wake up every morning. Write 1000 words every day until you’re done.

Once you begin a task and build momentum into a project, you get closer to the finish line. Set realistic deadlines — and tie them with rewards — to complete each step in the project. This will help you prioritize, avoid stalling, and keep you moving toward completion.

Despite your daily responsibilities, you can carve out non-negotiable time for your commitments. If you spend just 1 hour every day on the project, you would have dedicated 365 hours to it in one year. That’s way more time than you need for most projects.

Find your natural rhythm

When you’re in the zone, it’s easier to push through, even when you’re working long hours. But lack of rest and breaks can lead to excessive stress and burnout.  And without sufficient sleep and enough exercise, you won’t function at your peak.

Being self-employed enables me to find my natural rhythm and use it to my advantage. Rather than stick with a regular (e.g. 9-to-5) schedule with lunch in between, I incorporate more fluidity into my day.

On a typical (ideal) work day, I get up early, engage in my morning ritual, and focus on my highest priorities – before my family wakes up. During the day, I answer/send emails, make telephone calls, brainstorm ideas, make notes, read and research, listen to educational podcasts, have lunch, and play with my daughter. My evening routine includes spending time with my family, working, preparing for the next day, and winding down. I shoot for 7-8 hours of sleep, but usually do well with 6. I find that the quality of my work, and the satisfaction I get from it, are way higher when I sync it with my natural rhythm.

I now work in shorter time blocks, but my output — at least on the things that really matter — has stayed consistent and increased in many areas. Personally, I get more done early in the morning or late in the evening, when I’m naturally focused and creative.

For those of you who work in an office or are tied to a traditional schedule, make sure to regularly get up from your workstation, stretch, and walk around. Energy management experts suggest unplugging for 10 to 20 minutes after every 90 minutes of work.


If you’re super busy but can’t finish things, you might simply be doing too much at once. Multitasking is often listed as a desired skill for many jobs. But the fact is, multitasking is a myth. You can “switch task” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks) and “background task” (do two or more mundane tasks like watch TV while you eat or listen to music while you exercise), but doing two things at once doesn’t really work.

By focusing on one task, before moving on to the next, you not only can boost your productivity, but also finish and accomplish things with less busyness. When you need to finish something, avoid interruptions and temptations that make you feel productive, but keep you from getting critical work done. Declutter your desk. Turn off the alerts on your telephone and computer. Tell others when you need to quiet time.

Let go of perfectionism 

Sometimes things go unfinished due to fear of failure, disappointment, and criticism. We can avoid all of that if we keep the project unfinished. You edit, revise and overhaul so you can refer to your work as a work-in-progress, instead of a work product.

Doing things perfectly carries a high cost. It can intensify your stress level, cause you to miss deadlines, affect the quality of your relationships, and interfere with meaningful pursuits. Have a cut-off time for when you will stop making tweaks that no one will really notice and makes no true difference.

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Finishing what you start is essential to being truly productive, rather than just super busy. Having the discipline to follow through and complete important projects paves the way for real accomplishment.


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Photo by: Tim Geers