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How to Finish a Project Once You've Started It

There are countless reasons why people start projects but never finish them, and, contrary to popular belief, many of them have nothing to do with laziness, a lack of dedication, or an inability to follow through on something.

Of course, there are situations where that’s the case—as well as others where a project is left incomplete for logistical or timing reasons—though a lot of us probably fall into another category: those who struggle with the middle parts of a task. Here’s why that can be such a struggle, and a few strategies for finishing every project you start.

The beginning isn’t usually the hardest part

Anytime someone needs or wants to make a big change in their life—whether it’s quitting smoking, training for a marathon, or moving to a new home—inevitably, they will be told that “getting started is the hardest part” (or some version of that).

And while that makes sense from a motivational standpoint, that’s not how it actually works. (Though encouraging someone to make a change would be a much harder sell if we went with “the beginning is the hardest part—until the middle, which is actually much more difficult and probably when you’ll either quit, or seriously consider it.”)

Here’s how Jon Acuff, the bestselling author of six books, including Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done explains it:

Our culture glamorizes the start and ignores the finish. We have popular phrases like, “Well begun is half-done,” or “The hardest part of any journey is the first step,” but that’s not even a little true. The first part is never the hardest part—the middle is way harder than the beginning.

So instead of treating our “inability” to finish projects as a character flaw, and feeling guilty every time we see that guitar we only used once leaning against the wall, Acuff recommends that we reconsider our goals before even embarking on something new.

Stop thinking of goals as all-or-nothing

In an interview with Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, Acuff makes the case for setting goals based on what we, as individuals, need or want to do, and not societal perceptions of what a certain task entails:

A lot of people set goals that are too big. Part of my own goal with this book was to pick apart our urban legends around goals—among them, the ideas of “Go big or go home” or “Aim for the moon and even if you fail, you’ll land amongst the stars.” I just didn’t think that was true. My theory was, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds and you lost eight, you would’ve failed by two and you’d quit. Most people judge their goals as an all-or-nothing process. I knew if I got you to cut your goal to five and you lost the same eight, you would’ve won by three, and continued to try.

If you’re struggling with the idea of aiming for anything closer than the moon, Acuff has two suggestions. The first is to simply cut your goal in half. This is a strategy he tested in his own research and found that of the participants who cut their goals in half, 63% of them ended up being more successful with them overall.

The second is to start by setting a realistic goal that’s within your reach. If/when you achieve that one, nothing’s stopping you from taking whatever it is to the next level—plus you’ll have the confidence boost that comes with completing something.

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, CNN & Playboy.

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