Unfinishing Habit

(Un)Finishing Habit – The Hidden Truth



“You will know real man not by the way he begins, but the way he finishes”, somebody once said. In truth, how easy is it to start a marathon? You just need to turn up and make a step and you can proclaim: “yes, I started a marathon.” Of course, it sounds ridiculous to turn up at the marathon start line, wait for the starter gun to go off, and go home. Unless, of course, the goal was to finally leave the house. We mostly start something with the intention to finish it. Do we? How many times our intention is vaguely to do something. To work on something. So we do “something” by the end of which we are not necessarily in a different place that we have started at. In all fairness we could have started with the intention to run a marathon and that doesn’t imply finishing it.

We need to ask questions to understand why we don’t finish the things we start:

Am I choosing the right thing?
Am I listening to my inner voice? We often feel (hear the inner voice) telling us the thing we ought to be doing. We’re not standing a good chance to finish it, if we don’t love the work it takes to do it. Learning to trust intuition plays a big part in choosing the things we do genuinely want and will be able to follow through with.

Am I underestimating the effort it takes to finish the thing?
“Art is never finished, only abandoned” is a quote attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci. It seems absurd to argue, when we consider that this man accomplished so much, in such an array of domains.

How do we decide that we reached completion? I feel there’s a critical point of diminishing returns. Old, good Pareto principle tells us that 80% of our results is achieved with 20% of the effort. The last 20% of the results is the finishing. The stage that differs not only in the result (complete vs unfinished), but in amount of effort required to get there. This is especially important when deciding what will we put our effort in too. Focusing at the wrong process (giving us the least amount of completion) is to shoot ourselves in the leg. For better understanding of that principle visit here.  The question is – should we be spending 80% of our effort on 20% of the work? The last 20% may as well kill us. There’s another insight into this realisation. If we look at what is it, that we mostly do to complete the last 20% of the work, we can focus on improving those processes, therefore streamlining the process of finishing.

Am I prepared to finish this project?
Have I prepared my tools and elements that need to go into my work, such that I can execute it in a clean sweep? When inspiration hits we should not be walking away from it because of our workflow’s flaw, or our unpreparedness. We don’t want to be going shopping for shoes in the middle of a marathon. Preparation is a process done before the execution, not in the midst of it.

Am I working on too many projects at the same time?
It’s all very common to have too many irons in the fire. It feels great to start projects, but every time we add another thing to our basket our attention gets divided again. Each of our projects requires undivided attention and it takes time to get into flow and full focus when juggling unrelated projects. Putting too much on the plate increases the risk of unfinishing one or more other projects.  Less is more. You can read about the benefits of sustained focus in Spinning Ball Concentration post.
“First we form habits, then they form us. Conquer your bad habits or they will conquer you.” Rob Gilbert
Finishing is a habit. And a habit is a muscle that grows every time we use it. Every time we finish what we set out to do our finishing muscle grows. It also feeds the sense of empowerment, giving us the experience of what full commitment and following through feel like. On the other hand each started and unfinished project grows a negative background that slowly undermines our self-esteem and belief in our ability to finish things. It builds up as negative weight pressing down on our finishing muscle and weakening it. Muscles grow fast, but also atrophy fast.

How can we grow the finishing muscle?

Start Well

Begin with the End in Mind is the second habit in Stephen Covey’s seminal book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. What’s the purpose of the project I’m undertaking? What should it be, look like, feel like when it’s finished? The vision of our final goal is our guide informing the sense of completion. Vision, unlike planning, takes an element of trust in the unknown. Plans are made to cater for all possibilities, which is impossible. No amount of planning and thinking can foresee all difficulties, twists and turns, as many are outside our control. Vision points us into the direction, rather than giving us each step of the way, allowing flexibility in reaching it.

One Step at a Time 

Setting small achievable goals keeps us sane. The journey of ten thousand miles starts with one small step. It is bringing our concentration to the next physical action we need to take, to bring us closer to the final goal. It’s important to start small enough not to be overburdened by the goal first time. Sense of completion feeds motivation, that then illuminates inspiration to push harder. To push harder there must be a reason. The more specific and descriptive the reason the better. It’s the aim. It’s the address of where are we going exactly. If there’s nowhere to go, what’s the reason to putting on walking shoes?

Set Time Constraints

Giving our small goals time constraints gives us the sense of urgency that pushes us towards completion. We all experienced doing something last minute. The time constraint gave us concentration and speed needed to accomplish the goal in a fraction of time we had had to do it. Less time we allocate for accomplishing something, less time we have to slack.

Joe Simpson’s book “Touching the Void” illustrates the monumental power of the combination of the last two points. Joe, a mountain climber has got a leg injury on an impossibly difficult descend in Peruvian Andes. He’s been unable to walk and abandoned, thought to be dead, after a fall into an icy crevice. Over next three days he’s crawled himself out of his peril by setting goals of crawling to a next point of his choosing within 20 minutes. He considered himself dead, yet, he’s managed to save himself in an impossible feat of endurance while concentrating only on the next physical action. In the movie, based on his book, Joe says:  “making bad decisions is better than making no decisions at all.” Having done gives us experience and having not done gives us nothing.
Giving up does not belong to the habit of finishing.

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