I don’t know about you, but I love starting new projects. There’s so much joy and excitement in having a new idea and working to turn it into something real. The potential, when you’re beginning, is unlimited.
With time, however, that initial enthusiasm fades. What was once a fun, new project turns into a chore. And before you know it, you find yourself moving on to something else, your previous project abandoned in the graveyard of unfinished work.
Or, worse, your project languishes on your to-do list for months, becoming something you’ll “get back to when you have time.” But that time never seems to come, does it?
How do you break this cycle of getting an idea, starting a project, and then never finishing it?
In this article, I’ll help you out. First, we’ll take a look at the science behind why it’s so hard to finish projects. From there, we’ll move to some techniques you can use to finish more of what you start. By the end, you’ll be equipped to complete projects instead of abandoning them.
Why are projects so hard to finish?
In theory, it should be a matter of finding something you want to create and working on it until it’s done.
In practice, it’s trickier. One of the main reasons for this is a phenomenon called choice overload.
In a 2000 paper, researchers from Columbia and Stanford describe a series of experiments on whether more choice is better.
Their findings suggest that a greater number of choices can actually make it harder to decide on something. And, furthermore, they found that selecting from a larger number of choices tends to make people less satisfied with their final decision.
In our experience, this applies to finishing projects as well. When you’re working on a project, you have unlimited choices about the tools to use, the direction to take the project, and how long you spend on it. While this can seem freeing and empowering, the overabundance of options can actually make it more difficult to bring projects to completion.
This is especially true when you’re working on a personal project. You don’t have company-imposed deadlines or a boss holding you accountable, making it much harder finish what you start.
However, all isn’t lost. With the right techniques, you can overcome the paralysis that comes from too many choices. Let’s take a look at how.
Now that you understand why it’s difficult to finish projects, we can examine some techniques to overcome that challenge. Here are some of the best ways we’ve found to take projects from half-completed to done.
Employ Time Limits and Deadlines
When looking at ways to finish projects, it’s helpful to remember Parkinson’s law: “Work expands to fill the time allotted.” Giving yourself unlimited time for a project can thus be detrimental; there’s always more work to do if you have more time.
To overcome this trap, you should impose time limits and deadlines. Even though they may not be as pressing as work deadlines (you won’t lose your job if you don’t finish in time), self-imposed deadlines can still be very powerful.
As a prime example, look at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). During NaNoWriMo, authors challenge themselves to write 50,000 words of a novel over the 30 days of November.
Novels, in particular, can be daunting projects to finish, languishing in the half-written draft stage for years. NaNoWriMo helps writers overcome this procrastination problem with a hard deadline (and a healthy dose of accountability, which we’ll discuss later).
Even if you aren’t a writer, you can still employ the same techniques for whatever project you’re trying to finish:
- Give yourself 30 days (or another arbitrary amount of time) to complete your work.
- Put the deadline on your calendar and treat it as seriously as you would a work deadline.
- To make your progress easier to visualize, try the Seinfeld strategy. Get a paper wall calendar and cross off each day that you work on your project. You’ll be surprised how motivating it is to see your days of progress stack up.
Limit Your Project’s Scope
If you’re motivated enough to work on projects outside of your job, then you’re likely an ambitious person. You want to create grand, epic projects that will stand at the level of the masters and awe your colleagues.
While we won’t discourage you from making epic things, sometimes it’s better to work on smaller projects.
Particularly if you’re trying to perfect new skills or learn to use new tools, smaller projects can serve as a training ground. And once you’ve developed the right skills and tools, you’ll be better able to tackle larger, more ambitious projects.
Here are a few examples of how you can limit a project’s scope:
- If you want to write a novel, try writing some short stories first.
- If you want to record an album, start with writing one song.
- If you want to develop a web app, start with a couple of smaller programs.
You get the idea. Limiting your project’s scope will help you avoid the overwhelm (and project abandonment) that comes from biting off more than you can chew.
Limit Your Tools
While tackling too large of a project can make it difficult to finish, other times the issue is with your tools.
In the age of online shopping and app stores, we have a paralyzing number of tools available to us.
While it can seem freeing to have unlimited tools, it in fact harms your ability to get work done. It’s easy to spend so much time searching for the “perfect” tool that you never get around to making the actual work. But in reality, there’s no such thing as the “perfect” tool. Tools are overrated; execution is what counts.
So if you’re having trouble completing a project, try limiting your tools. For a great example, take a look at this rap song by Andrew Huang that doesn’t use the letter “E”. It’s an extreme example, sure, but it demonstrates the power of imposing creative limitations.
Whatever type of work you do, there are ways to limit the tools you use. Not only will this help you avoid the choice overload of unlimited tools, but it will also breed new levels of creativity.
Looking for other ways to increase your creativity? Check this out.
Limit Your Ability to Undo
“A work of art is never finished, but merely abandoned” – Paul Valéry
Digital tools allow a level of “undoing” that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. Whether it’s Photoshop, Google Docs, or Final Cut Pro, you can undo any mistake or uncertain decision with a quick “Ctrl-Z” (or “Cmd-Z,” if you’re on a Mac).
In some ways, this ability to undo is a great benefit, helping you get rid of careless mistakes or errant movements of the mouse. But unlimited undos can also allow perfectionism to take over.
If you’re always undoing, you’ll never make progress on a project (or, at least, make much slower progress). Furthermore, unfettered undoing makes you less likely to take risks.
This is in contrast to the pre-digital era, in which your mistakes were more or less permanent:
- Musicians recorded on tape, which was expensive and difficult to edit.
- Authors wrote on typewriters, and if they wanted to change things they either had to retype a page or use whiteout.
- And if a painter made an unintended brushstroke, they had to wipe it away, paint over it, or incorporate it into the finished work à la Bob Ross.
While this permanence of mistakes did lead to frustration or even ruined work, it also made it necessary for people to commit to their projects. Each action had to be more deliberate, and it was impossible to waste time hitting “Undo.”
If you can learn to do the same with your projects, then you’ll spend less time undoing and more time creating. But how are you supposed to remove the ability to undo in your work?
One option is to work with analog tools that don’t allow you to undo. For instance, you could try writing in a paper notebook instead of a word processor. Or try painting on canvas instead of on a digital tablet.
And if you’re doing work that does require a computer, you can change the key binding of Ctrl-Z/Cmd-Z to something besides “Undo” (here are instructions for Windows and for Mac). This way, you can continue to harness the power of digital tools without the Undo button hampering your workflow.
Put Money on the Line
Deadlines can be a powerful motivator for finishing projects. But sometimes, they may not be enough. If you want to raise the stakes, then put some money on the line.
The simplest way is to agree to pay a friend money if you don’t finish your project by a certain date. This could be a literal amount of money (“I’ll pay you $25”), or an offer to buy a nice meal.
We’ve found that adding financial stakes is more effective than simply asking your friend to hold you accountable. If you just say, “Hold me accountable to finish this project,” your friend (who likes you) may be too easy on you if you don’t finish.
And if you’d prefer a technological solution that you can set up right now, try Beeminder. Beeminder lets you track any type of quantifiable goal. If you fail to make progress on the goal, then the app charges you money.
You’ll have to experiment with how to quantify your project’s progress (and completion) in Beeminder. The simplest way is to use input from a task management app such as Todoist or Trello. As you check off tasks related to your project, Beeminder will automatically keep track of your overall progress.
But there are many other possibilities; check out this article for advice on how to “Beemind” different types of goals and projects.
Get an Accountability Group
Sometimes, we struggle to finish projects because we’re working in isolation. While working alone is necessary for many personal projects, having a group to hold you accountable for your progress can be a powerful motivator.
Regularly meeting with the same group of people to discuss your projects will keep you on track, as well as help you get feedback on your work. This is why artists have salons, writers have workshops, and mastermind groups are so popular in general.
If you’re looking to start an accountability group, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Find people who can commit to meeting regularly. If members are flakey, your accountability group will quickly fall apart.
- Use the power of the internet. Some of my best mastermind groups were virtual, meeting once a month or so to discuss our goals over video chat.
- Expect to spend some time finding a group of people that works well together. The first group you assemble may not work out, and that’s fine.
Enter a Competition, Show, or Conference
Want some serious motivation to finish your project? Enter it into a competition/show or sign up to present it at a conference. This way, you have a very real deadline by which you must finish your project. It’s a surefire way to keep projects from dragging on indefinitely.
If presenting your work publicly is intimidating, remember that you can start small. Find a low-stakes, local venue like a Meetup group or your local library. And don’t forget about online events. The key is to find something that gives you a definite, externally imposed deadline.
If you’re going to present your project in public, it’s a good idea to brush up on your public speaking skills. Here’s how to become a great public speaker.
Now that you’ve learned some techniques for finally finishing that project you started, what are you waiting for? Don’t procrastinate a moment longer. Stop reading this article, and go finish your project!
Want to create your own side project but aren’t sure where to start? Read this next.
Image Credits: drafting compass on workbench