How to finish what you start

“My solar plexus was tight with fear as I ploughed on. Halfway up I stopped, exhausted. I could look down 10,000 feet between my legs, and I have never felt more insecure.”

Shortly after this critical moment, 33-year old beekeeper Edmund Hillary, alongside Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay, summited Mount Everest for the first time in human history.

On May 29, 1953, after months of trekking, braving fierce winds, and weathering extreme cold, the pair reached the 29,028-foot summit.

The climb was a testament to the duo’s strength and sheer willpower.

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves,” Hillary once said.

I’ve been thinking about that climb lately, and whether there’s a secret to finishing what we start.

As people and entrepreneurs, we often set out on ambitious projects, only to see our motivation fizzle far before we reach the peak.

But perhaps there are techniques to help us complete what we start — ways to save ourselves time and effort on abandoned projects, and to stop feeling guilty about all those half-scaled mountains.

Addicted to new beginnings

Most people love starting new projects. We easily get excited by the start of something new. In fact, our brain’s “reward center” motivates us to seek out novel stimulus.

“Animal studies around the brain’s reaction to novelty have suggested increased dopamine levels in the context of novelty,” writes Belle Beth Cooper for Lifehacker. “So the brain reacts to novelty by releasing dopamine which makes us want to go exploring in search of a reward.”

We’re wired to seek novelty, because we crave the associated good feelings. Once the novelty fades, however, we tend to lose interest. 

Indeed, the study I quoted above found that only completely new things activated the brain’s reward system — the merely less familiar had no such effect.

People also tend to underestimate how much time they’ll need to complete something. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, says that this planning fallacy “leads us to overcommit to opportunities at the expense of actually completing them.”

So, we’ve got all these balls in the air — then what happens? Focusing on what we’ve already accomplished (“to-date thinking”), rather than what’s left to complete, can also stall our progress.

University of Chicago researchers found that too much to-date thinking can lead people to feel a premature sense of accomplishment — and then slack off. For instance, college students preparing for an exam were significantly more motivated to study after hearing they still had to cover 52% of the material, compared to hearing they had already completed 48%.

Then there’s the familiar demon of perfectionism: the desire to execute a project flawlessly because we fear being judged for falling short. 

It’s the voice of doubt that says our article won’t be as insightful as someone else’s; our update won’t be as stylish as our competitors’ version. So we avoid a sub-par result — and we quit before anyone can judge us.

How to finish what you start

There are two sides to finishing what you start. 

First, we need to be more selective about the projects we begin. When we’re intrinsically motivated — inspired by passion and excitement rather than money or external gratification — there’s a higher chance that we’ll follow through.

Second, we need to apply the right techniques to support our success. Here are five tools that can help you bring your next project to the finish line:

  1. Write down your goals. Before you embark on a new project, commit your goals to paper. This approach increases our chances of following through with plans. In one study of a Harvard MBA graduating class, students who wrote down both goals and a plan to attain them were earning, on average, 10 times more than their fellow alumni 10 years after graduation.
  2. Time it right. Before you calculate how much time you’ll need, do some due diligence. What have others experienced when trying to achieve the same goal? A little research can help you to anticipate obstacles, and get insights on how to overcome them. Back when I started JotForm, in 2006, I knew the product wouldn’t take off overnight. That’s partly why I kept my day job, while honing my side business before and after work. I also did my research. I slowly figured out how to bootstrap the company, and I tried to estimate how long it would take to turn this side product into a full-time job. And I stuck to it. Now that we have 4.2 million users and over 130 employees, I’m grateful that I did. We all tend to underestimate how much time a task will require. That’s why Greg McKeown recommends multiplying your estimate by three — and approach he’s found to be “absolutely” accurate when making estimates.
  3. Stop being a perfectionist. If you find yourself abandoning projects or tasks because you think the result won’t measure up, try lowering your sky-high expectations. For example, say you’re delaying an article because you’re doubting your ideas: is my conclusion compelling enough? Give yourself permission to turn out a draft, even if it’s not perfect. Whenever I hit writer’s’ block, I commit to completing a draft — even if it’s not nearly ready for publication. It feels good to get something down, and the simple act of writing often motivates me to keep going.
  4. Track your progress. Create a project sheet to map your deliverables and track their status. First, this helps to break a big project down into smaller, more manageable tasks. And second, it helps to avoid “to-date” thinking (a motivation saboteur) and stay on top of the remaining work.
  5. Mix it up. Have fun before you finish. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Though all work and no play had dire consequences in The Shining, it can also leave us feeling burned out and dissatisfied. Interchanging work with enjoyable activities, rather than putting off fun until we’re done, can help us stick to longer-term goals. And research has shown that leisure activities are no less enjoyable if we do them before we finish. If you still feel married to the “work now, play later” mentality, try these three steps to add some leisure to your work time.

Go for it — thoughtfully

I would never discourage someone from starting a new project. The urge to innovate and experiment is the force behind real progress. But it’s important to draw from intrinsic (internal) motivation, at least if we want to boost our chances of following through.

Don’t let fear of failure stop you in your tracks. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, Fashion designer Vera Wang, entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, and Tim Ferris, author of the 4-Hour Workweek, all faced failure before making it big.

Even if you fail, you can learn how to channel your setbacks into motivation for the next project. Plus, you’ll be in very good company.

Enjoy the climb — and keep looking forward.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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