Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why Can't I Finish?

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?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Perseverance

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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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 http://www.RealLifeE.com.
load comments (96)
  • Michael

    Thanks for this article.  I use to struggle with finishing off my work. Not because of perfection but rather because of that mental battle.  I find if I write lists and number them in an appropriate order and assign realistic goals far more gets completed far quicker.

  • Dan Peck

    Make time to finish by using DigitalSilence-lite in your day – 3hrs without technology. http://bit.ly/mv4FL4

  • Slslsl

    Innuendo

  • Marias

    Oh, God! I’m sure you were in my head! It is my big problem! I’m never sure that the font of headline is really good, or this tint is not too dark, or I’m angry because “something” in my mind looked better than in picture  … stupidity! Wasting time.Your idea of what I can do to change this, was really helpfull.

  • Hb_kist

    Sometimes its better to be simple, there is a beginning , an end and in between an existence . It is so for every thing , life, love, eating or sleeping why not for work, for project, for dreams . stop thinking, just do, one step after the other.

  • Gemma_Laming

    As a perfectionist and expert at not finishing things, there is a lot of truth in what is said here.

    However, as humans we have the right to learn and change. My ex was a great one to not finish things, and so it was my job to tidy things up for him – which to my surprise I was good at. Funny, hé? It kept our marriage afloat for another decade …

    More importantly, not finishing something is not really so important, unless of course it *needs* finishing. What about the item you enjoyed making, and then became bored with and no longer enjoyed doing. Would it then be something worth doing? Quite aside from the dithering aspects of the article (and I will remind you that I am a serial unfinisher of projects) hobbies are for enjoyment, not for finishing – and if like me you are a gardener, well it is never finished!!

  • DisertationDiva

    I really appreciate this. It pinpointed exactly what Ive been doing wrong & even made me realize that I’m hurting myself more than anything.
    thank You

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    My pleasure!

    Hope it’s going well for you!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Yeah! So glad you’re realizing that accepting the difference between physical reality and the mental ideal is completely reasonable.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    You’re absolutely correct that some things are worth finishing, and it’s completely reasonable to consciously choose not to focus on something any more because it’s no longer your priority.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    A pleasure!

    Thanks for reading!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Gemma_Laming

    Thankyou for your response, Elizabeth.

    To me the essence is in being conscious of the choice. Even if you make
    the wrong choice, at least you made it in all honesty! (Been there, done
    that!)

    Make the wrong choice enough times, and suddenly you learn that
    it is not the right thing for you … it does take a lot of effort to
    see whereyou youreself go wrong. In others it is a sight easier!

    Enjoy your weekend!

  • Vikingfugel

    They sad it couldn’t be dun so i tackle it with a smile and i couldn’t do
    it

  • Meg Renicker

    My problem with not finishing is a little different than perfectionism. When I was growing up I would start working on anything from homework, house chores, reading a book, playing with something and mother would always interupt me and need something. I got tired of trying to finish anything as she always found “just one more thing” for me to do for her. I’m sure now it was part of her game that has left me feeling very scattered and, even tho I was a smart girl, I had a lot of trouble in school, couldn’t focus for more than a few minutes, got bored easily. My mind collects tasks but I don’t start, like right now as I write this there are 3-4 things banging round in my head that I could be doing. I don’t know how to prioritize and I don’t know how to be the one to break away from a visit/break and get back to work, its always their call, like I still need guidence in the smallest things.

  • Meg Renicker

    Maybe you could give yourself a reward when the feeling of punishment sets in. A counter response to the harshness of deadlines.

  • vettesh

    That was the exact problems I’m facing everyday at my job, I always have a fear of finishing my projects with low quality or even missing points in it. as a result, I’m always stressed, powerless, insecure on my abilities. however, I have the ability to finish the projects even before the deadlines and at high qualities.

  • Mick

    I have a fear of thinking of a better solution as soon as I submit final pieces of work.

  • David López Serret

    I didn’t even finish reading the whole post :S

  • Pedro Marin

    What if you get like 30 days to finally read an article untitled “Why can’t i Finish?” ? because that’s what happened to me.

  • Idyllic Software

    Well said. We at Idyllic software, http://www.idyllic-software.com, believe that “Good is the new best” when it comes to finishing up a project. We are a Ruby on Rails development shop and often our software developers struggle architecting the best possible solution. That made use realize the fact that a good solution is best when produced at the right time.

  • Dana Leavy-Detrick

    #3 is definitely the culprit for me – sometimes losing interest before the project is complete. I like the idea of having that influence of driven people around you. When I was having trouble seperating myself from my consulting work to work on my illustration, I rented an art studio a few blocks away. Seems excessive at first, but what I learned was having that seperate space, and thus seperate time and energy to create, is invaluable to my productiveness. Great read!

  • Raymond Manookian

    Really enjoyed reading this and the feedback.

    I really struggle with #4. I’m an in-house consultant at a large firm in the city. My two main problems is constantly having to engage with people that do not understand the design process, which in itself is not a bad thing, I really love my job and am happy to educate and demystify. The problem is when dealing with those that see no value add in what I do . . . I just colour in and pick pictures etc.

    The second is dealing with clients that dont understand the briefing process and how important it is as a designer to have a constant conversation to ensur we are clear of the objective/goals etc. This causes a great deal of issues particularly when it comes to getting feedback. I feel that most of the time I am constantly having to justify my role or expertise. It generally leaves me feeling pretty worn out and stressed about having to confront certain situations.

    The tips you have suggested will be of great use and I was wondering if you had any further tips?

    Thanks a miliion

  • SkyL

    I had finished like 20% of what I started and most of the completed tasks were given to me from school or the university. In my personal life nothing ever came to completion and I hated myself for that. Now when I’ve read this and realized that I couldn’t push the dreamed 100% because I fall in each and every single of the four types you mentioned. But now I will try to follow the path you wrote about and hopefully I will finish more things! :) Thanks a lot!

  • Ardi Kule

    The way i fight procrastination is with more procrastination. I will waste my time with all kinds of stuff to the point, that the process itself becomes so boring, that getting creative remains the only option. Finishing work becomes an essential tool to fight boredom.

  • ZenMonster

    The exact same thing I was going to write.

  • AmeryMueller

    I also really appreciate this. It determined exactly what Ive been doing incorrect & even created me understand that I’m harming myself more than anything.
    thank You

  • Erectz Male enhancement Pills

    Nothing like that

  • tyrone gibson

    Great reminders. With age, I am learning better what battles are worth fighting and worth sacrificing health, confidence, and sanity :)

  • Jello_Bob

    lol I like how she ‘finished’ at 4 and not 5 tips……hehehehe

  • Casandrita

    Hello Elizabeth,

    Thank you for posting this awesome article. It has allowed many of us to not feel that we are the only ones in the battle while highlighting some of the primary barriers and the strategies through which to overcome them.

    I’ve tried to digest all four barriers/strategies in a broader construct, seeking answers to my dilemma, while, in the end seemingly seeking barrier # 5 and its associated strategies :(

    I definitely grapple with #1, but also suffer from big-picture thinking. As a simple example I present the following residential refurbishment project: Insulating the header cavities at the top of unfinished basement walls.

    The obstacle to getting this project completed is that it would be prudent to replace all of the ‘original’ ‘old-style’ ‘knob & tube’ electrical circuits, prior to insulating the cavities through which such wiring would be run. With that in mind, I now also delay the installation of baseboards and wainscoting in the kitchen & bathroom, knowing that I will need to access the wall cavities on the 1st & 2nd floor to complete the wiring project.

    This is known as ‘scope creep’, but I really believe that doing it any other way will only require more work in the future and/or yield poor results. But now I have a huge project on my hands and 4-5 projects unfinished while I grapple with the wiring project.

    Can my example be generalized to fit the intent behind the definitions of barriers #1 through #4? Does a 5th barrier need to be defined to encapsulate my challenge? Final analysis suggests that my barrier to completion is due to the fact that the project (including scope creep) now exceeds my technical capabilities while my financial circumstances do not allow for outsourcing :(

    Hope that I’ve not monopolized the discussion and that others with perfectionistic big picture scope creep challenges will benefit from your response.

    Warmest regards,
    Ruth

  • Brenden Sanborn

    This post couldn’t have come to me at a better time. As an artist, I am always starting great projects but just as soon as I get close to finishing, I lose interest and have to rush to the next painting. I know it’s because I am fearful that the painting will be judged once it’s complete. Thanks for the little mantra.. I am going to print it and post it above my easel!

  • Sarah

    Most of my own issue is more, I have a firm dislike for sticking to strictly to genre of fiction. Usually I abandon a project, because I’m a bit of somehow it seemingling like I’m request brainstorming or non-constructive critique.

    Uninvited brainstorming is the worst bit.

  • Ejaz Karim

    Thank you so much for the article.I had problem with perfectionism and satisfaction. I can’t submit my project until I satisfy and I become satisfy when it looks perfect to me. But it incredibly decreases my energy and enthusiasm :P thanks again for opening my eyes into new angles and telling me what should I do. :)

  • Diddelbop

    From reading this post, it sounds like there could be more to your issue than the points listed in the article. Maybe you could talk to your doctor and see about being tested for ADHD or BiPolar. It would be better to rule these things out rather than continuing to struggle through life not knowing why you have these problems.

  • Desta

    I think I still have a “daddy, look at me” mentality borne of a need to be supported and admired for what I’m doing. Achievements all have that underlying theme. If I don’t think it’s worthy, then I criticize and abandon it because it becomes futile to me. If no one comes on board with me, I feel they quietly think it’s not good enough which is mentally translated into they don’t think I’m good enough. I’m also an overthinker (if you haven’t guessed that yet), so I may abandon it while I’m considering a new or next move. The down time may look like idleness or abandonment to others.

    • yes

      I’m in shock over how accurately this describes my situation. I wish I knew how to complete projects without thinking they are worthless because nobody is on board with me. It actually embarrasses me and makes me feel silly to keep starting projects that never get approval and then make me feel I’m in a vacuum or that I was crazy enough to think it was worth starting. Letting go of external approval is obviously key but somehow there’s a feeling of alienation and loneliness attached to the whole pattern… Personal and creative projects are representative of who we are and if they are not not with approval, we in turn feel unimportant…? That’s when I lose motivation to keep continuing projects, perhaps because it extends the feeling of not being valued, or even of just feeling alone.

  • Cierra

    This is where I am at right now! I have a book I’ve been sitting on for over a year that literally was written in a matter of months. All I need to do is some final edits and its ready to be edited professionally and e-published on smash words for FREE! I know it is just my fear of rejection, judgment, low sales and criticism. But I need to remind myself as you listed in step four. I am still a good writer.

    http://www.cierrarobinson.com

  • sexygourmetchef

    Meditation and calm your mind using relaxation technics, breathing, and even yoga practicing as been a life saver for me as I have experiencing the same pattern than yours :) Changes will still happen gradually but in the long term it will really make a difference. Good Luck!

    • Meg Clare

      UNSUBSCRIBE ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

      Meg

  • http://chandraachberger.com/ 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 :D when readed because i say “fuck you” a couple of times to my annoying friend…

  • http://becomingsuperfluid.com 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!

  • 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.

  • 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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