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Motivation

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)
  • 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.

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