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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 http://www.RealLifeE.com.

Comments (91)
  • Jonathan Hii

    What if you loose momentum and constant reminders to complete the task make it become more of a punishment…

  • Nur Nachman - Eytan

    Thank you for the article and great tips!! I will sure use them.

    As a Commando Software Developer, one of my key principles of work is finishing what you started.
    This principle is consisted of these questions:
    1. Should I start this project at all? ‘cuase i gotta finish it!
    2. Are the tasks well-defined enough to be executed rapidly? ’cause each task should be machine-like-command

    I wrote a post about it on my site http://www.nurne.com/2011/02/t

  • Nur Nachman - Eytan

    Great question! You need to eat the frog. I believe that well-defining your tasks will make them edible enough to just go ahead and eat ’em

  • Andkiyombo

    thanks for sharing.

  • Amanda

    Thank you.  I fear I’m a victim of all of these pitfalls and these tools are just what I needed to rescue myself.  Best advice I’ve read in ages.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Very valid question Jonathan. When constant reminders seem like punishment instead of motivation, you need to step back and evaluate why you’re doing the activity in the first place.

    As it talks about in the book Switch, you need to direct the rider (the intellectual/planning side) but motivate the elephant (the emotional/doing side).

    Instead of trying to push around the elephant, use your emotional resistance as a sign it’s time to step back and answer these questions:

    -Why am I taking this action?
    -Do I really want the end goal?
    -Am I confident that this is the path to take me to this goal?
    -Is there a fear related to moving forward that I need to address?

    I hope that helps expand on my article and shows you that when you start feeling like a victim, it’s time to stop doing for a bit and deal with the emotions not push yourself harder.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    You are absolutely right Nur that not starting what we can’t finish is a critical part of the process.

    Starting less is a big part of finishing more!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    I am so glad that you found my advice useful Amanda. Since I walk alongside “real” procrastinators on their path to lasting change, I have a intimate look at what’s going on inside their minds.

    My goal is to take away the shame, give people hope and then build their skills to be different.

    You’re not alone & you don’t need to be a victim any more!

    Kind regards,
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Er

    What if the challenge isn’t finishing, but actually getting started?
    The thought of starting a task can often be as scary as finishing it.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Exactly.

    I recommend applying the above principles but to the beginning (not the end) of the project. For instance:

    1. Tell yourself that everything is a draft and remind yourself how if you wait to get started your ability to get even close to perfect will be compromised.

    2. Write a pre-game plan where you list out all of the action steps that you need to complete before you even start the project. Then also start to list out the steps for doing the project. Then switch from the planning to the doing mode and begin to cross things off the list.

    3. Have someone check in on you about when you have really started an activity and what you’ll do next and when.

    4. Repeat the mantra at the beginning: 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.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Ab

    I use a technique called FTAD, Finish Then Add Details, search on google

  • DesignInPublic (Paula)

    I actually have a fear of finishing projects I really enjoyed. They come along so rarely and I enjoy them so much, that I fear their end because it’s usually something tedious and not as interesting.

  • Naji Naeem

    Woah! I thought I was alone.

  • Elen

    Me too 🙂

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Yep! FTAD goes right along with point #1.

    It’s optimal to get everything to good enough and then unleash your perfectionist tendencies on final details.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Thanks for sharing Paula!

    In the scenario you described, apply strategy number 2:

    Think about how finishing a project you really enjoy could OPEN up options. Here are some questions to get you going:

    -What is it specifically about this project that I really enjoy?
    -If it’s the client: How could I find more ways to work with this client or similar ones?
    -If it’s the type of work: How could I ask for more of this type of work or take on special projects where I would be able to engage in similar activities?
    -If this can’t regularly fall within the scope of my normal work, could I take on some freelance where I could focus on projects I enjoy?
    -Could I incorporate this type of activity into my personal time–such as volunteering to do a creative piece for a non-profit–so I can regularly do what I really enjoy?

    Hope that helps!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com
     

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Nope. Naji, Ellen & all others reading this post–please know that you’re not alone.

    There’s a whole world of people that feel guilty and embarrassed about how they’re not finishing…

    The good news is that there’s hope when we bring the truth to light, address what’s really going on and have a supportive, encouraging environment for change.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Emily Jane

    Really great article – this hit home hard!

  • Kar

    I used to and still have this fear of finishing.  But I’ve learned to just go ahead with things and try my best to finish a task!  A quote that really helped me get by things:

    90% perfect and published always changes more lives than 100% perfect and stuck in your head.

    The things you create and actually share will always out perform the things that stay stuck in your head or your desk or your laptop. You might love the ideas you have inside you. You might be blown away by how awesome they are, but if you don’t share them, it doesn’t matter.

    – Jon Acuff

  • Lynne Park

    Wow this article has really helped. I’ve been feeling miserable about a project I couldn’t see through to the end – I had great ideas but I got stuck in a loop. I’m so happy to find out I’m not the only one faced with this issue.

    My issue relates to lack of confidence, even though I had a great concept behind what I was doing I became unenthusiastic and unmotivated. The super tight deadline and colleague competition didn’t help. Thing is, it’s taken me a number of days to get over this – lesson learned… hopefully!!!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Thanks so much for sharing that quote Jon. It’s a great one!

    I was actually just talking with a coaching client about that situation recently. It can be tempting to only “externalize” our creative work once it’s perfectly constructed in our heads.

    However in reality we’re much more efficient and get closer to making an impact by “letting out” the sketches and then refining the concept within reality.

    I’ve noticed this is especially a struggle for introverts.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    I’m so glad my article helped you Lynne!

    I highly recommend that you apply concept number 4 in this situation because your lack of motivation seems to be due to a fear of judgment not only of your work–but of yourself.

    Tell yourself that you are great at what you do no matter what kind of reaction you get to your first draft of the project. Then focus on the work, not on the deadline or the colleagues.

    If something doesn’t go perfectly the first time, take a deep breath, encourage yourself once again and revise.

    You can do it!
    I believe in you!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Christy

    Good stuff.  I run 99% articles on my site http://www.bizlifebalance.com and it contributes greatly to the greater good of helping people learn from each other and grow to be more balanced in life.  Thanks.

  • Marc Van Der Linden

    Great and detailed list!

    I struggle the most with finishing projects because I temporary lose my excitement. The thing I do to avoid this problem, is working with a life coach and it works just fine. The only problem I have with this approach is, that it tends to work so good that there is not so much to discuss anymore with the coach every month 🙂 And then I’m wonderling: why is this needed? But if don’t do it, I lose focus. So I keep doing it.

    Thanks for sharing your valuable insights!

  • Pablo

    For me, it’s #1; and the advice offered here isn’t bad, it’s obvious.  A finite timeframe might dilute the product, but the product will be done ‘enough’ to move on.  Cult of Done.  But as a professional media man, larger perceptions of my professional self ultimately hinge entirely on the product(s).  When perfect, I shine.  Otherwise, my affiliation to my own work remains bashful.

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