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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Dealing With Failure

Why Can’t I Finish?

Having difficulty completing a bold, creative project? We look at how to diagnose and conquer your fear of finishing…

They can only hide it from me for so long: Sometimes it takes a day, a week, or maybe a month—but eventually it comes out. The Fear of Finishing.

As a time management life coach, I’ve found that many of my clients have a dread of finishing that they keep hidden away—hoping that no one will ever notice that they get a lot of little things done while never quite completing the really important stuff.Whether it’s due to a rabid perfectionism, an aversion to criticism, or just an inability to maintain enthusiasm for the long haul, we all have challenges and fears we must overcome to produce work that matters. But pretending they don’t exist won’t get us anywhere.

Here’s a guide to diagnosing and treating what I’ve found to be four of the most common barriers to completion:

1. If You Believe Nothing Can Ever Really Be Good Enough to Be Finished

The mental battle: When you’re convinced that “settling” for anything less than a perfect-quality product is unacceptable, you tend to unconsciously lower your standards in many other areas. This could include missing deadlines, falling behind on other responsibilities and feeling stressed all the time.

What to do: Evaluate your overall performance. To clarify the cost of trying to do everything “ideally,” make a list of what else could suffer (sleep, relationships, emotional state?). Then, when you feel tempted to push closure off in the relentless pursuit of perfection, look at this list for a reminder to stop.

Here’s the kind of thought process that breaks the tunnel vision: I could stay up until 4 a.m. doing tweaks that no one else will notice, but then I’ll be useless for the next two days. Instead, I’m going to get the entire project to good enough and then give myself permission to obsess over the kerning of the characters in the logo until 8 p.m. (I want to be really proud of my typography.) Then, I’m stopping. Pushing myself to work later isn’t worth the cost to my health and overall productivity.

Perfectionism can cause you to unconsciously lower your standards in other areas.

2. If Finishing Seems Like You’re Closing Off Options

The mental battle: When you feel constrained instead of liberated by the idea of finishing, crossing an item off your list can feel terrifying: What if you want to change your mind later? What if some new alternative arises? Unfortunately if you allow your fear of commitment to keep you from wrapping up your current work, you keep yourself from moving forward on new options by default.

What to do: Write a post-game plan. As soon as hesitation to finish starts to set in, you need to clarify the exact steps to complete the project and to pass seamlessly through to new opportunities. Brainstorming all of the possibilities that will open up once you move on from your current work will help you see that finishing actually creates new beginnings.  For instance, an entrepreneur could start a list of investors to show his finished business plan. A writer could research agents who could pitch her completed book proposal to publishers. And an artist could find out the call for entry deadlines for exhibitions that could feature his latest series.

As soon as hesitation to finish starts to set in, clarify the exact steps to complete the project.

3. If You Lose Excitement Before Finishing A Project

The mental battle: Abandoning projects at 20%, 75%, or even 99U done adds up to 0% benefit. When you feel like giving up on a project because you’ve lost your enthusiasm, think about all of the effort that you’ve already put into it that you would have to exert again if you started fresh. Then imagine the (relatively) small amount of work required to drive your existing creative effort into the end zone.

What to do: Partner with persistent people. If you struggle with maintaining the energy to finish, individuals who insist (sometimes to the point of annoying you) on pushing through can be your greatest allies. Scheduled accountability and transparency gives you positive peer pressure to keep at it when your initial energy wanes.

Here’s how to make it a part of your routine: Break down your project into actionable, written goals such as: read the requirements, make note of important points, ask the client questions, etc. Then tell someone who prides themselves on follow through exactly what you will do and when.This could look like you having a daily or weekly accountability meeting where you list off your progress, or it could look like you making a commitment to call or send an email with a status report when you hit a deadline.

For instance: On August 16, I will email my extremely detail-oriented friend to let him know that I’ve completed the rendering of the first architectural model. Because he’s super reliable, he’ll follow up with me if I don’t give him an update.

Scheduled accountability and transparency gives you positive peer pressure to keep at it when your initial energy wanes.

4. If Finishing Feels Like Submitting Yourself to Criticism

The mental battle: Fear of judgment can keep you from turning in an assignment. But if you hide your work for too long, you deprive yourself of receiving valuable feedback and open yourself up to criticism for not delivering on time or for veering off track.

What to do: Reframe the situation or conversation. If you feel like your external success determines your internal worth, you will see the results of each new project as a judgment of your value as a human being. To help you overcome that mindset, you can say to yourself: I am a good______(graphic designer, writer, etc.). If they don’t like the first draft I submit, I am not a failure. I need to step back from the situation, clarify what they want changed, think about how I can implement their suggestions, make the adjustments, turn it in again and move on.

Or if you don’t mind receiving feedback but need it communicated in a certain way, consider talking with your boss, co-workers, or even clients about how to constructively give their input. For instance, you could request that you initially receive comments via -mail before a meeting so you have the opportunity to process them before responding. Or you could say something like: I really appreciate it when you let me know you feel unsatisfied with a presentation. But it would help me to meet your needs if you could clarify what specific changes you want me to make instead of just telling me that you’re unhappy with what I showed you.


Victory shall be yours: With the right approach, you can push through to 100%.

How About You?

Do you have a fear of finishing?

Have you identified the root cause? How have you overcome it?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at

Comments (96)
  • Chandra Achberger

    Oh my word. This is sweet, sweet perfection (<–recovering perfectionist). Thank you from the core of my can't finish soul @elizabethsaunderstimecoach:disqus.

  • Mars Wong

    Thanks for the advice. The third can be exceptionally dastardly!

  • erm3nda

    Mental battle saw me that i don’t want to know the whole list of things to do😦
    That’s all i know.

    I have spend some time on useless projects that initially sounds good, but lately i see are a bunch of nothing and didn’t learn anything even if i’d finished.

    Sometimes, i do 50% of a project or less, and really helps me on other similar stuff by learning new things.

    Sometimes we don’t take care about the important thing, just look to “if i finish or not” and i think is not right.

    Thank you for great article. The valuable point for me was the “What to do: Partner with persistent people.” This is me😦 and i already know what i have to do. Just smiling😀 when readed because i say “fuck you” a couple of times to my annoying friend…

  • Alison

    Thank you! This is perfect timing. I finally managed to overcome my fear, doubt and procrastination and finish a small project and now I am struggling with post finishing fear! While it feels great to have seen something through, it also gives me insight into why I have abandoned so many projects along the way.

    I see so many people around me struggling with these issues, not feeling good enough, fearing judgement and attack when they finish that their great ideas join the ever growing pile of disappointment.

    Great insights, thank you!

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  • Rae

    I spent a long time insisting that I never finished writing anything because I got distracted. The truth, I’m realizing, is that once I finish writing and editing it I have to do a lot of things I don’t like (dealing with editors, marketing myself, compromising, taking criticism, handling rejections) in order to get to do what I do like (sharing my writing and having things done). It scares me but when I don’t finish anything I end up feeling suffocated by the number of unfinished things.

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  • ImNotAGuest

    One of the most hardest things in my life is finishing a project.So instead of working earlier i postpone the work until i have only few days or hours to present it.therefore,the work is not will done and i keep blaming myself for that.

  • Julianne

    My main barrier is always #4 combined with #1. I always want to perfect my projects before I submit it to anyone who can advice me and then never have time for receiving advice and polishing up my work.


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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.