How to finally finish what you start (and the reason you normally don’t)

If you are like me, you also have a drawer filled with unfinished projects. Everybody knows this drawer, everybody has one of his own and everyone hates it: the drawer of dead ideas. And time after time again projects seem to follow the same path and eventually find their finally destination in there. I identified the reasons and guide you through a framework that will help you to finish whatever you start (given of course, you actually manage to read through this article).

What you are gonna learn:

  • how to structure and finish every project you start
  • identify smart goals
  • work goal-oriented but task-focused
  • take the stress out of deadlines

Reading time: 9 min

The sad truth about half-finished projects

Let me start with a question: What was the last thing you started but didn’t finish? Maybe you wanted to lose weight, land a new job or write a book? Well, for me it was to learn a new language: Spanish.

Regardless of what your latest failed project was, I am sure you think you have a good reason why you didn’t finish it. We always seem to have a perfectly reasonable explanation why it was sheer impossible to achieve what we where aiming for.

In most of the cases however those are nothing but excuses. Take my case for instance: I am surrounded by english speaking people all day, work in the same office for 12h and come home pretty tired. So of course I don’t have the time to actually learn a new language. Of course not. Everyone will agree with me on that.

Or am I just looking for excuses not to finish the project I was hooked on at the beginning? Let’s look at this from another perspective: I do live in Barcelona, have a Spanish business with thousands of Spanish speaking customers and to top that: I even have a Spanish girlfriend – for almost 2 years. How on earth am I not absolutely fluent in this language?

Lets play a little mind game. Does the following sound familiar to you?

  • Step 1: You are on fire for a new business idea or project. Maybe this idea was at the back of your head for quite some time already. But now something clicked and you start thinking about the idea.
  • Step 2: You constantly think about the idea – at work, at dinner, gosh even while you sleep. You are fascinated. How could you not be dealing with this before? You literally can see the finished outcome in front of you.
  • Step 3: You start working on it. You neglect your girlfriend and forget to walk the dog so he shits on the living room floor. You can literally feel the progress you are doing and you are brimming with motivation.
  • Step 4: Full stop. Nothing works anymore. It is as if you hit a wall. Your creativity and motivation is gone. You don’t seem to be able to get anything done.
  • Step 5: End of story. Just another unfinished project. Open the drawer, put the idea in, close it and never talk about it again.

How frustrating, no?

The truth is, I get enthusiastic for a new idea very quickly, start working on it and lose interest almost as fast as i got it in the first place. This paradox was bugging me so much that I decided to dig deeper. I realised I was far from being alone and spend a significant amount of time over the past 2 years to figure out the root of the problem.

Sit back and read how I learned to finish projects and keep the drawer closed.

Step One: Start with a clearer vision

In order to understand why so many of our projects fail, we have to step back a bit and look at our goals itself.

Most of our goals have one thing in common: they are too abstract. In fact, all of the examples I listed before are vaguely formulated: losing weight, finding a better job and writing a book. What does that even mean?

You have to understand your goal in order to reach it. We tend to formulate rough ideas, because they are easier to grasp, easier to visualise and to explain.

What does it even mean finding a better job? Better in terms of payment, work-life balance or having more responsibilities? I don’t know.

Most of the time we do not spend enough time thinking about our goals. If you don’t know how the outcome looks like, how can you ever reach it? Formulate your goals as tangible as possible, as detailed as possible – lay them out in front of you so you recognise them when you reached them.

keep the goal in mind
Keep your goals in front of you – but figure out how to actually go there. Source: Unsplash

Step Two: Unglorify goals

We treat our goals as rainbow unicorns. They are fantastic, big, colourful – and just in our head.

Whenever I started a new project I used to dive right into it. Where? Wherever it seemed fit. It was not unusual for me to switch tasks half way through.

Some time ago I had an idea about a new niche website. After I conducted some research I jumped right into buying domain name, setting up a server and looking for website templates. After some time I realised that instead of focusing on the content of the website I was spending significant time to find the ideal template. A task that has clearly low priority and I had anticipated to be finished in minutes took several hours. I was looking for that one, perfect template that would serve exactly how I imagined my visitors would use my website.

There I was doing it again: I was in the hot phase of the project. I had a million ideas and tried to work on all of them – simultaneously. Without plan and coordination. I was heading for disaster again.

Instead of getting the priorities right, define what exactly had to be done and work on direct actionable items I looked at the summit of the mountain. I was standing there at the farthest point away from my goal and I actually enjoyed the view through my binoculars.

Of course its fun to look at the big picture (and even necessary from time to time to remind yourself why you are doing something). But most of the time you should care much more about the next steps that ought to be taken.

One of the biggest traps is waiting right here: whenever you take down the binoculars and try to move forward, you realise how much hard work and resources are actually necessary to progress. Not moving as fast as you wish kills motivation and focus with incredible precision.

However, the pitfall is as obvious as easy to avoid: if you constantly look at the final outcome you are measuring your process with the wrong scale. You are underestimating the real workload and have the feeling that you are stagnating.

goals are no rainbow unicorns
Your goal will not magically solve all your problems. Quantify your target before working on it. Source: Pintrest

Step Three: Stop overanalysing and find a SMART way

Ok, diving right into random tasks, did not work out well. Lesson learned. So let’s step back to the whiteboard and plan this through.

But watch out. The next tripping hazard waits right there and could not be more counter-intuitive. It is the exact opposite of my original problem of starting without a plan: Not starting because of over-planning.

I was busy planning out every single step of the process so that I lost myself in an forrest of overanalysed hypothetical problems that might or might not occur somewhere on the way. I was so concerned to find solutions on the roadmap for any potential problem without knowing if that particular one actually would ever appear. I invented problems.

Instead of checking off the first bite-sized tasks I overwhelmed myself with hypothetical scenarios. Again my motivation was fading. In the past, I actually tend to end in this deadlock more often than I want to admit. That is why I gave it a name: analysis-paralysis.

You start with good intentions, trying to avoid having an over-glorified picture in your mind. You actually lay down the roadmap of the project and try to think about everything. This intention turns ugly the second you try to solve or avoid problems that may occur in the future.

Next lesson learned: instead of planning a hundred, actually take one step at a time. The truth lies, as so often, somewhere in the middle between my two extremes. Instead of caring about future problems focus on identifying actionable smart goals.

Introducing: SMART goals. Following the Wikipedia definition, a SMART goal is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-related. It has its roots in the traditional project management and is an easy-to-use tool that identifies direct actionable items.

I like to define SMART goals in 2-3 sentences while answering the following questions (inspired by a cheat sheet of the University of Virginia):

  • How and why will it be accomplished?
  • How will you measure whether or not the goal has been reached?
  • Do you have the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources to accomplish the goal?
  • What is the reason, purpose, or benefit of accomplishing the goal?
  • What is the established completion date and does that completion date create a practical sense of urgency?

So instead of saying I build a niche website to earn money online, a well-defined SMART goal might look something like this:

“Build a website that provides information about chicken recipes and includes a maximum of three affiliate links in order to generate passive income from visitors buying cooking books. I want to attract the first visitors within 2 weeks via paid advertisement and in the long-term attract new visitors via good SEO rankings.”

While both wordings might imply the same result, the later one make it much more tangible. It is specific enough to have a clearer idea of what I want to achieve, but is not overloaded with unnecessary information that would not provide any value at this stage.

Step Four: Identify Bite-sized Objectives

Now that we know how our goal looks like, its time to separate it into nicely manageable chunks. After all, most projects are no sprints, but marathons. So make sure you won’t run out of air half way through.

I aim for four to six milestones on the way to complete my project. This zooming-in allows me to evaluate the overall progress better and helps me to move forward quicker. I complete milestones faster and maintain the necessary focus to tackle the next tasks.

The example above might divide into the following units:

  • Buy website domain and setup server with WordPress
  • Identify the 3 books I want to advertise on my website
  • Do the market and keyword research and develop SEO strategy
  • Write briefing and outsource the text creation to an copywriter
  • Create Facebook campaign to channel traffic to the website

Naturally all of those milestones should be SMART goals in itself. Like that we treat every step as a separate task that, once assembled, combine into our initial goal to create a niche website that earns money online.

The underlying method is comparable to a mathematical (and political) principle called Divide and Conquer.

Divide and Conquer is the strategy to separate a goal (abstract) into smaller units (granular) and complete them in the occurring order. The idea is that it is easier to solve a larger quantity of smaller problems than a smaller number of big problems. The results of the solved smaller units are consequently put together to solve the bigger problem. Every granular milestone itself, can be divided into even smaller tasks.

Divide and Conquer your milestones
Bite-sized tasks are easier to tackle than big cookies. Source: Unsplash

Step Five: Direct Actionable Task

The final step in this framework is to define a list of directly executable tasks. As mentioned above, every milestone can be split into smaller tasks.

Let’s do exactly that. How long? Until we reach a level of granularity that allows us to directly pick a task and work on it right now – without further dependencies.

If we have a look at one of the milestones from the list above: Buy website domain and setup server with WordPress, you will realise that we can be more precise in the definition of what is included in that task.

We actually could end up with something like this:

  • Conduct domain name research
  • Check domain availability
  • Buy domain
  • Configure DNS entries
  • Buy server
  • Install operation system on server
  • Configure WordPress on server
  • Choose WordPress template
  • Adapt WordPress theme for individual use

At the end of this process we obtain a tree of goals, milestones, intermediate objectives and executable actions. After we worked through every executable task and therefore, ticked off every intermediate objective and milestone we reached the end of the project.

We successfully planed and worked through a very complex goal by breaking it into smaller, exactly defined tasks. We did it in an structured way, working focused towards the next milestone while keeping one eye on the big picture.

Even though this might seem like a whole lot of unnecessary work (before the actual work), I managed to finalise many professional and personal goals by following this framework.

In the end good project- and time management, and that is exactly what we are doing here, is the result of great planning and disciplined execution. Therefore, try not to treat it as an extra step but rather as an absolutely indispensable part of the project itself.

All that counts at the end of the day is, whether you finish your next project or if you put it in the drawer to the other ones – never to be spoken of again.

So: work goal-oriented but task-focused.

Hasta la próxima