Why You Don’t Finish What You Start

There’s a phase in the middle of every project that threatens to tank it. Ginny Graves helps you find your way through.

Maybe it’s the garage clean-out. Maybe it’s your side-hustle documentary. Maybe you’re . . . writing a piece for Men’s Health. Regardless of the project, the story arc is usually the same: You embark on the journey feeling exhilarated and capable. Fast-forward a few days, a week, maybe even a month. Now there are half-empty boxes all over the driveway, reference materials burying the dining-room table, tools in the hall. And what are you doing instead of finishing your project? (Is that Fortnite? Are those Cheetos?)

There’s a reason many of us have something like a half-painted kitchen weighing on our conscience, according to Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ph.D., author of Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End. In between the thrill of starting a project and the joy of completing it lies the interminable middle, where enthusiasm sputters and your effort takes on the grim patina of failure. “The middle is where the project gets hard and you have to face reality,” says Kanter. It’s taking longer, costing more, other people are saying WTF. Getting stuck in the middle is so cartoonishly predictable, Kanter says, that you can plan for it and possibly even prevent it. Your best moves:

Estimate the amount of time and effort it will take—then double it.

Why? Because when you’re in the throes of your initial enthusiasm, you’re overly optimistic, and as a result, you underestimate how hard the project is actually going to be. When Canadian researchers asked undergraduate psychology students how long they thought it would take to complete their theses if “everything went as poorly as it possibly could,” their average answer was 48.6 days. If things went smoothly, they predicted it would take roughly 27.4 days. Wrong, and superwrong. The average time it took was 55.5 days.

You can’t blame youth for the misjudgment. Building the Sydney Opera House took a decade longer and cost 14.5 times as much as the architects initially projected. It’s called the planning fallacy, says Jon Acuff, author of Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, and failing to account for it is one of the most common reasons people abandon projects midway through. If doubling the time you allot sounds daunting, Acuff suggests downsizing your projects instead. Aim to clean off half your workbench or write three blog posts a week rather than seven. “ ‘Shoot for the moon’ is a recipe for failure,” he says.

Be careful what you tell people upfront.

Conventional wisdom holds that you should state your intentions openly, the theory being that when other people know what you’re up to, you’ll be forced to finish—or be forced to publicly own up to the fact that you didn’t. But sharing has a serious downside, says Acuff. Say you tell your friends you’re going to landscape the backyard. What do they do? They slap you on the back and say, “Good for you!” They congratulate you. You get the high of finishing before you start, and that can undermine your enthusiasm once you’re immersed in the hard work.

Why eat your vegetables if you’ve already had dessert? If you do tell someone, ask them to be your ally and check in with you once a week and ask you what you’ve accomplished.

Break it down into serial steps.

Obvious, right? Well, yes and no. We often get bogged down in the middle because we’re overwhelmed by a project’s scope. So instead of thinking about everything you need to do, define the next small task and focus on that. Say you want to build a tree house for your kid. The first step could be as simple as calling a neighbor with a cool tree house and picking his brain, says Frank Buck, Ed.D., an organization and time-management coach near Birmingham, Alabama. Buck suggests writing down each step like this: Call Jim Smith xx Finished Tree House. “The ‘xx’ serves as a separator between your current action step and the goal line,” he says. “Seeing both together is a reminder that every small task is bringing you closer to your ultimate goal.”

Make your own rules.

Acuff once set out to read 100 books in a year—and began posting about it on social media. “People would say, ‘That book doesn’t count because it’s a graphic novel or it’s an audiobook.’ At first it made me question the whole project. Then I thought, Who gets to judge? And I realized I do. My project, my rules.”

Front-load as much work as you can.

In 2011, when he was 23, Scott Young, a writer in Vancouver, decided to try to complete an informal version of MIT’s computer-science curriculum in one year—33 classes, including physics, chemistry, and economics. (MIT puts some classes and exams online.) “It wasn’t the exact MIT curriculum, but it was a pretty good approximation,” he says. By then, he knew himself well enough to recognize that he would burn out as time went on. So he structured the MIT Challenge, as he called it, to account for project fatigue. “I finished the first ten classes in three months, which gave me momentum and made the last half easier than the first.” It worked. He didn’t get credit, but he completed all 33 classes in just under a year.

Understand the costs of not finishing.

“Unfinished projects don’t go away. They become ghosts that haunt you,” warns Acuff. If you repeatedly give up, the person you’re betraying is you. Finishing, on the other hand, shields you from the specter of projects past, helps you trust yourself, and gets the boxes out of the driveway.

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