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The failure to finish & how to get better at completing projects that you start

March 25, 2020

“There is no failure, except in no longer trying.” - Chris Bradford

Full disclaimer - I had no idea who Chris Bradford was before I read this, but this quote resonated with me quite profoundly, and thus it finds its way as the opening statement to this post.

What is the failure to finish?

If you were to peruse any sort of literature, be it historical or contemporary, you will find a multitude of trite sayings or expressions, all pointing out the value of failure -

  • How failure is acceptable.
  • How it is a stepping stone to achieving that greatness, that is oh-so-close, if you put in the effort. 
  • How failing is the only way of succeeding at something. 

I don’t intend to buttress this argument by adding any truisms of my own. What I do intend to do, however, is highlight a problem that I have been facing in the past few years. I am talking about the inability to finish projects. I will unwrap all the details behind that statement, but I think it will help if I gave you some context about myself. 

I love doing stuff. I love working on exciting projects. I love working on side hustles. I love thinking about how to optimize processes. I love thinking about politics and science. I love reading books. I love photography. I love going to the gym and working out. I love debating the deep questions of life and the universe. 

The truth, however, is that I don’t do most of those things anymore. It is not because I don’t like doing any of those things. No, no. It is because in the past few years, when I have attempted these tasks, I have not had any success in finishing those off to completion.

The definition of “finish” is a bit fuzzy unless you have objective goals associated with tasks. In my own loose definition, to ‘finish’ is to see a task to a point where if I were to revisit it, I will not feel any feelings of incompleteness. This is not to say that finishing something is the equivalent of achieving perfection. It is a bit naive to assume any task you complete has no room for improvement in the future. In fact, if you work on something the “right” way, you should always be in a place where you are learning and improving on that something. 

Without beating around the bush, my explanation of not finishing my tasks or side hustles is that I just did not finish it. Terminar. Khatam. Finire. That’s it. Plain and simple. Everybody will know for themselves what that means.

The crux of this post is to delve into the why and the how. Why is it so tough to finish something we start and how can this be fixed?

Why do people fail to finish?

I want to list out some of the reasons that make it hard to see a project all the way to completion -

  • Premature initiation - You don’t believe in the idea, but you start working on it anyway
  • Pressure from the Big Picture - The big picture of achieving your idea can start to get overwhelming  
  • Lack of a Feedback Mechanism - There is no feedback mechanism i.e. not realizing instant achievements or things that you are doing well, that end up feeding the egotistic part of the brain. A close analogy is when you go to the gym and you feel the “happiness” from all that serotonin, makes you want to go back to the gym to recreate the experience
  • Imposter syndrome - You might be filled with misgivings or self doubt and the feeling of not being competent enough. You might wonder if the things you are working on are even unique and if not, what is the point of doing it.
  • Challenging - The task/project you chose to do, is actually quite challenging, be it physically or mentally. So instead, you watch Netflix or go out to the park. Your mind might play games with you such as “Why go through the mental and physical pain, when instead you can turn on a Hulu show?”
  • Distractions - Our attention spans are getting shorter. Whether it is notifications that you keep receiving on your phone, or your now-muscle-memory to check twitter/reddit/instagram/Netflix, it is just way to easy to not have a dedicated block of focus time where you can do some deep thinking to finish off your task in chunks.
  • Banality - While the idea that you start with is grandiose, there are little things that need to be done to accomplish it. You might find those to be incredibly boring and that might be a trigger for you to switch focus off your project.
  • Unreal expectations - Setting unrealistic expectations, for both for timeline completion of projects as well as the intended result.
  • Lack of measurable and definable goals - Not setting, or not being able to set, deadlines or goals for accomplishing your objective, can lend to a lack of joie de vivre towards working on your project.
  • Lack of finishing - This is pretty meta, but unhappiness at not getting things done, ends up creating a feedback loop of not getting shit done. This is not constructive unhappiness.
  • Shiny toy syndrome - There might be a lack of focus along with jumping around without finishing any one thing. Prioritizing what to work on at any given point in time, is one of the most under-rated skillsets known to us in this modern world. If something new comes up, there is a very alluring temptation to dump the current thing and pick up the new thing. As a result, you might be half-assing all of your projects. As Ron Swanson said, “Never half-ass two things, Whole-ass one thing”. Ron
  • No stakes involved - You aren’t creating the right incentive structure to achieve success, be it money, fame, charity, or just creating goodness in the world.
  • Procrastination - This is probably a symptom of one of the causes listed above, but is a key indicator that what you should re-evaluate the why behind your intent on working on your project in the first place.
  • A laundry list of excuses made up by yourself to justify not working on your goal, some of which can be -  
    • lack of motivation
    • lack of skills
    • lack of market
    • lack of investors
    • lack of interest
    • lack of product stickiness or differentiation
    • lack of network

How do we succeed at finishing?

  • Set measurable goals - Create small realizable goals with active results. Do things like a/b testing to measure the goal. You can use frameworks like OKRs or Daily TODOs be held accountable 
  • Surround yourself with good company - Surround yourself with ppl who get shit done. Do not surround yourself with people who talk negatively about getting stuff done.
  • Improve your focus - Yoga, meditation or any kind of mental peace routine will help you calm the brownian motion of your thoughts. Once you achieve a semblance of calmness, you can apply constant never ceasing vigilance and discipline to continue to be focussed.
  • Keep the goals small - Look at the small picture and hack away. Don’t let the focus of your project be the absolute end goal, but instead focus on the incremental milestones along the way. Alabama has produced one of the best college football programs today, and the head coach Nick Saban , after speaking with psychiatry professor Lionel Rosen, realized that the average play in football lasts just seven seconds.

It’s impossible to read and execute every play to perfection for the entire game. But seven seconds? Anyone can do that. Execute, rest, repeat and you eventually have a game.

  • Do not move the goalposts - Avoid creating new targets for what you are attempting to achieve. Doing so, will undo all the gains you make, both mentally and from a project perspective, and might need you to start from scratch. Unless there is an incredibly real need to do so, avoid it.
  • Single task, don’t multi task - Humans by nature, despite our many attempts to fool ourselves, are only really good at doing one cognitively intensive task at a time. While there can be outliers, smart money would say that is the exception rather than the norm.
  • Get feedback from people - Deliver small things quickly to build up self-confidence and proactively ask people for feedback to get better at the process
  • Create incentives to finish - Do your projects with a partner. Peer pressure can work wonders sometimes. Other ways to create incentives
    • Put money on the line
    • Solve a problem close to your heart
    • Put your reputation on line by telling people about it
    • Having a self-grading system like a college GPA
    • If you have a mentor, ask them to challenge you
  • Perfect is the enemy of good - Don’t fuss over details and don’t be a perfectionist. Just do it and ship your idea. The common saying goes - “If you aren’t embarrassed of your product, you’re too late”
  • Pivot - Know when to stop working on an idea. Don’t run your idea into the ground and then realize you spent too much time on it. Successful people give up too; they give up on failed ideas.
  • Record - Record all ideas. Even if you aren’t getting things done today, there is no reason you won’t get to them at “some” point. Don’t let those ideas be lost, and this might be a good way to get away from working on multiple ideas at once and still give yourself the sense of achievement of doing something about the new idea you just had.
  • Set your mind free - 
    • when you think you lack expertise, think of the Southwest founder who had no airline expertise
    • when you think you lack ambition, think of Elon Musk starting SpaceX, without having the adequate knowledge to start a space company but soaked in all the information to be able to do so
    • when you think your idea lacks seriousness, think of companies like Yo and HQ Trivia. Even though they didn’t stand the test of time, they tried, and discovered a market for their application
    • when you think you lack investment capital, think of Instagram when they started not having any funding, and basically having just a couple of guys bootstrapping the enterprise

Wrapping Up

If you see a similar pattern with how you have been approaching problems of late, there is a “simple” 3-step plan to fix it -

    1. Be honest with yourself, and acknowledge there is a problem, if you have one.
    1. Figure out what might be the root cause of the issue and embrace it. Do not run away from it.
    1. Take countermeasures to prevent the problem from happening again. In short, don’t NOT finish. FINISH FINISH FINISH

It might be easier said than done, but I send good vibes for all of the side hustles and hobby projects that you have in your mind, and hope you can see them through! 🌟 🦄

I’ll sign off with -