Hi, I’m Jeff and I don’t finish things. I go on 30-day experiments that turn into 9-day experiments. I sign up for online courses only to stop after three modules. I commit to new workout programs and stop 5 workouts in. I’m excellent at writing half-finished blog posts that vanish into the black hole of my computer. I read five chapters of a book only to lose focus and move onto another book. Perhaps, I should start taking drugs. Adderall? Illegal? Well, fuck, I guess I gotta figure this out on my own then.
After many unfinished projects, I became fed up. I can’t finish shit.
(FYI, the word “shit” will be used many times in this post. I don’t know why. )
I decided to do some research into how people “get shit done.” After hours of research, I discovered that “finishing your shit” is a skill that’s honed through conscious and deliberate practice.
HOW TO FINISH YOUR SHIT
While I was in Taiwan last year, I managed to set myself up on a date with a Taiwanese girl. She was around the same age as me and had been working at the hostel I was staying at. She barely spoke English while I barely spoke mandarin so communication consisted of a mixture of charades, my pocket dictionary and asking people to translate for us. The communication barrier actually made the interaction fun and hilarious. However, I had a lot of difficulty describing what “bros” and “fraternities” were to a non-american. This was frustrating. After I returned to the U.S, I vowed that I would overcome this frustration and learn how to speak mandarin. I rode this wave of motivation and bought a ton of books, courses and used my mom as a resource, where I diligently practiced speaking for a month. After a month of little progress, I became discouraged and decided there was no need to learn mandarin. I quit.
A lot of our projects fall into this recurring cycle:
Phase 1: Lots of Motivation: ” I am determined to learn how to speak mandarin!”
Phase 2: Lots of reading and learning: ” I need to read as much as I can about this!”
Phase 3: Actually doing it: ” Oh shit, this is actually pretty hard. Not sure if I can do this anymore.”
Phase 4: Giving up: ” Eh, I’m just not a language learning person. I think I’ll refresh facebook instead.”
Sound familiar? Finishers have a different approach. They put in the work up-front to ensure that when they do start, they’re confident that they can see their project through to completion. They set up systems that protect themselves from the lower version of themselves and they relentlessly persist in achieving their goals. So how do we become finishers?
1. A bad plan is better than no plan
I used to “play it by ear” and “improvise” a lot. Wanna go hiking this weekend? Eh, I’ll decide later. Wanna go clubbing tonight? Eh, I’m not sure, I’ll play it by ear. Thinking on our feet is a good skill to have but I soon realized that if I don’t make plans for my future, others will make plans for me. And any free time we have, especially working the 9-5, should be paid to ourselves first.
The better I can visualize the future and the steps required to get there, the more I could bend the future to my will. Deliberately planning how I spend my time is how I avoid becoming a slave to the demands of my environment while making progress toward my goals. However, when I decided that I needed to start “planning”, my fear was that a deliberate plan would suppress the flow of creative ideas. Nonsense. A plan is not meant to be rigidly followed, but rather, acts like an outline for an essay.
2. Make the game winnable
Using my mandarin example, my initial goal was:
“ I want to learn how to speak mandarin.”
Andddd I have already failed. There is absolutely no way I can win the game. An arbitrary goal like “learning mandarin” or “losing weight” can result in a never-ending sequence of futile effort. After seeing a lack of results, my brain decided that learning mandarin wasn’t useful. I’m playing boss level infinity. No matter how much progress I made, it would not have been satisfying because I never clarified a concrete, measurable goal. So what is the winnable game? Concrete, measurable, time-specific:
I’d like to be able to hold a 15 minute conversation with a fluent mandarin speaker by Christmas.
We can’t shoot a bulls-eye if we don’t know where to aim the arrow. We need to make success a possibility.
3. Don’t buy your bullshit.
A reason for my lack of progress in learning mandarin was that I didn’t lay out the concrete steps to becoming a fluent mandarin speaker. I assumed that I knew what it took to become fluent. So I dove right in. This is called the “goodness paradox.”
Goodness Paradox: Most people assume they know how to become great at something. When in reality, they are not great at anything.
This sounds harsh but it’s true. I wouldn’t consider myself great at anything, yet. The first step to changing that is to adopt the “I don’t know shit” mindset. Acceptance of this fact and continuous hard work is how we can change that.
Think “What’s the best way I can achieve my goal? I don’t know shit. So who can I talk to that knows?”
It’s easy to get excited about a project and dive in without looking. However, before diving in, put in the work up front to save time down the line. Talk to those who’ve succeeded and learn about the obstacles and sequencing of tasks to achieve the goal. If we fall victim to the goodness paradox, we can waste a ton of time focusing on useless things.
For example, I’m interested in blogging, online business and eventually becoming location independent. I e-mailed one of my favorite bloggers, Scott Young, and spoke with him about what it takes to build a quality blog. He told me:
1. Creating a consistent writing schedule
2. Learn to write well
3. Build a strong content base of 30-50 posts.
4. Traffic Generation
Initially, I focused too much on traffic generation, design and social media strategies when I really needed to work on the most important part: produce quality writing.
4. Early wins
A lot of times, we try something new. Suck ass. Lose confidence and then quit. A lot of my friends asked me how I learned to shuffle since they tried it but “couldn’t do it.” But when I first learned, I sucked as well. But I just kept practicing. The key is to avoid negatively labeling yourself when you suck. Happened to me for mandarin. I’m not immune. So how do we avoid this black hole? Make it ridiculously easy to win in the beginning. Create milestones/goals that are so simple that would be impossible not to achieve.
For example, rather than declaring ” I want to lose 5 pounds this week.” I’d start less ambitious by just “walking on the treadmill for 20 minutes.” Start super small, gradually accumulate wins and expand goals out. The key is to build the habit of finishing tasks rather than being as ambitious as possible. Our brain will start saying “I can do this. This ain’t that hard.”
Week 1: Go to the gym everyday this week but intentionally do not workout.
Week 2: Go to the gym everyday this week and just walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes
Week 3: Go to the gym everyday this week and run for 20 minutes
Week 4: Go to the gym everyday this week, and run for 20 minutes and do 5 sets on the bench press.
I’m impatient and this seems like an unnecessarily slow process. However, in this example, developing the habit of working out is more important than the intensity. Jumping straight into an intense workout will just make me hate the gym and stop going. However, gradually building up the habit means I’ll continue going to the gym in the long run. It’s like brushing my teeth, it’ll feel weird not doing it.
5. Experiment more, commit less
One of the downsides to creating a plan is that it can suffocate spontaneity and creativity. Rigid rules seem to suppress creativity. So what do we do? Make a clear distinction between experiments and commitments and then do lots of experiments. Experiments can be used to test potential commitments to determine its viability. Let’s say I have an idea for a project. Using the “I don’t know shit” mindset, “I don’t know” if my project is feasible with my current time commitments. So what happens? I become the scientist:
Topic: Writing blog posts
1. Hypothesis: Get up 2 hours early before work to write
2. Test: For one week, from Monday-Friday, I will wake up at 6 am to write.
3. Reflection: Takes me one hour to warm up to writing and I have trouble writing when I’m groggy in the morning.
4. Iterate: Write blog posts on the weekend in 5 hour bursts and compare productivity levels. Reduce total warm up time.
It’s 100% OK to not succeed because the purpose of experiments are to figure out what does and does not work. And what’s beautiful is when we settle onto an experiment that works, we have the confidence that the workload is feasible in accordance with our schedule. We can make a stronger commitment, with confidence that we will succeed.
(Note: I am halfway done with this post. May be able to finish.)
6. Contingency Planning
Let’s imagine being the first astronaut on a space shuttle. Probably scary as shit. There’s a good chance I might die. As a result, I need to go into paranoid mode and imagine every single thing that could possibly go wrong and figure out how to respond. Or boom. I’m dead. To finish projects, we need to take the mindset of the astronaut. We need to know every possible thing that could potentially get in the way of finishing and have a work around. I’ve found that a majority of my incomplete projects have been a result of running into un-accounted for obstacles and not knowing what to do.
For example: writing blog posts
Risk: Getting hammered on Fridays and Saturday nights results in being too hungover to write the next day
Work Around: Since it takes around 5-10 hours to write one post, if I am unable to produce content on the weekend, I will need to use my evenings after work, from 8-10pm to write instead.
Risk: Workload in the office significantly increases during deadline periods
Work Around: Delay project for 1-2 weeks
There’s no shame in delaying progress of a project. That is, the delay must be consciously decided beforehand as a result of proper planning. Delaying without a plan is called procrastination.
After going through this myself, creating a strong contingency plan is hard and requires brutal self-honesty about my past experiences, habits and physical limitations. If I just told myself that I’d quit drinking, I’m setting myself up to fail. Therefore, I intentionally plan for the hangover so I don’t beat myself up for getting drunk. In general, contingency plans and experiments go hand in hand. Experimentation helps us find out what risks/pitfalls we might be missing.
The first six steps talked about the content of planning but ensuring we actually execute is the kicker. How do we make sure we transition from the planning phase to execution and then finishing? Accountability. An accountability system is what will ensure that our lazy, procrastinating, “I’ll do this later” self stays dormant. Some things already have built in accountability like school and work. I don’t finish my shit, I fail my class. I don’t finish my shit, I lose a client. With personal projects, nothing happens if I stop. This is where accountability creates a system where we eliminate the comfort seeking habits of our lower self. There are a wide variety of strategies. Effectiveness dependent on the type of person:
The “stab in the heart” strategy: I need to ensure that the consequence of failing is like stabbing myself in the heart. For most people, losing a shit ton of money will feel like a “stab in the heart.” And no, giving a friend $20 is not a “stab in the heart.” As a rule of thumb, anything $1000 or more is considered a “stab in the heart.” It has to hurt. However, our friends lack the ” give me the money or else your done” skills of a drug lord. This is why we pay them first and we must earn our money back by finishing. If I’m not willing to put $1000+ on my victory, the project is considered too ambitious. Boom.
The “public humiliation” strategy: We humans have this fear of public humiliation. Nobody wants to be this idiot:
What a weird dude. But anyway, the public humiliation strategy is where we make our project as public as possible. We tell all our friends, family and post frequently to social media. Our friends will be like “ alright this dude needs to shut the hell up.” Good. The world will know if we don’t finish. Friends will ask “ hey how’s it going with blah blah blah?” Uhhhh, I didn’t finish it. Fuck.
8. “I don’t care if I die”
Search “Will Smith Inspiration” on youtube. He uses this thought experiment to describe his work ethic:
“If we get on the treadmill together. There are two things: either you’re getting off first or I am going to die.”
Adopt the mindset, “I don’t care if I die. I am going to finish.” I don’t care if I die, I am going to finish writing this blog post. I don’t care if I die, I am going to finish this 10 mile run. I don’t care if I die, I am going to smoke as many cigarettes as I can tonight. Well, there are exceptions. But the“ I don’t care if I die” strategy used for purposes of growth, taps into our extra reservoir of willpower and energy that was covered up by the ” I’m tired. I think I’ll just stop” voice. More often than not, we give up WAY before we hit our limit.
9. Finishing is everywhere
Finishing is not limited to our projects but they’re camouflaged underneath all the little things in our lives. Finishing means cleaning up the dishes after we use them. Finishing means picking up our clothes rather than throwing them on the floor. Finishing means doing what we say we’ll do. Finishing means exerting a little more effort when we want to quit.
(Fuck yes, I think I’m actually going to finish this post. Okay, how can I finish this post with an inspirational, succinct takeaway for the reader? I have no clue but fuck it:)
I’m not a finisher. I still give into my bullshit. I still give up too early. I fail to follow my plans a majority of the time. However, this isn’t a black and white affair. There’s no magic switch. It’s a work in progress. It’s a skill that needs to be refined and practiced. I think kids my age are impatient to see results. We want the immediate gratification of achievement. Patience comes with life experience but where we lack experience, we have one advantage: time. Put in the work each day and over time, we’ll get there. There’s no shortcut. Put in the work and trust the process.
What are some strategies YOU have to “finish your shit?
(Damn, I need a tissue. Tears flowing down. So inspirational. Autograph auctions starting at $100. )