Tips for finishing things

When author Anne Lamott’s father told her to “make a commitment to finishing things” if she wanted be successful as a writer, he gave her a great piece of advice. It really is the unfinished things in life that drive you crazy.

And if you’re like me, you always finish things when they’re for clients. In 15 years of freelancing, I’ve missed exactly one client’s deadline, because I was in the hospital on IV antibiotics for pneumonia. For most of us, it’s the “I keep meaning to…” projects (incorporate my freelance business, update my website, take that online course, finish writing that book, start a blog, ask my good clients for testimonials, research client-side events to attend) that never get finished.

Here’s what I mean. In approximately 2008, I decided that I needed to write a second edition of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator. The project languished on my hard drive until January 1, 2009, when I vowed that if I finished one “I keep meaning to…” project that year, it would be the second edition of that darned book. Flash forward to January 1, 2010, when I shook my fist at the sky, repeating the previous year’s vow even more emphatically. When the second edition finally came out in the summer of 2011, it was a full two years behind schedule. But all the same, I did finish it (and the third edition was much less painful), so I’m here to share some tips on finishing those pesky self-imposed deadlines that always get pushed to the back burner.

Tip 1: Ask whether you’re avoiding this thing because you don’t really want to do it. For a long time, I kept meaning to start a podcast associated with this blog. I even went so far as to get a voiceover guy to record the intro and outro for it. But then I just “never had time” to create the actual podcast. In many cases, “I don’t have time” simply means, “it’s not a priority.” The real reason I never started the podcast was that I didn’t want to. I like the idea, but I already feel spread too thin on some days; it’s just another thing to keep going. And if I can’t muster the energy to launch the podcast (the exciting part), I surely don’t have the energy to keep it going (more of a slog). So, first, ask yourself, do I even want to do this?

Tip 2: Swallow the frog. Mark Twain’s often-repeated adage, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day” is so true. It’s only natural to avoid tasks that you dread. For me, that’s anything to do with accounting. The solution: just get it done as soon as you sit down at your desk. If possible, don’t even turn on the computer before you do it, or at least don’t look at your e-mail, unless the dreaded task involves an e-mail. There’s something to be said for just getting it over with.

Tip 3: Resolve to work toward the goal every single day, if only in very small increments. That’s how I finished the second edition of my book. On January 1, 2011, I resolved to work on it every single day, seven days a week when possible, even if I only wrote one sentence. Some days, it was 11 PM before I got to it, and I really only wrote one sentence. But some days, I found a bigger chunk of time and plugged away at it for longer. And really, in less time than I had anticipated, the whole project was done.

Tip 4: Admit defeat and solve the problem with money. If it’s in your budget and the task can be outsourced, consider the option. In a sense, that’s how I solved my dissatisfaction with working from home. I simply moved my office to a co-working space, and I no longer even have an office in my house. Problem solved, and I see it as money well spent.

Tip 5: Be more selective about what you start in the first place. As someone who loves to get on board with a new idea, this is a lesson I’ve slowly and painfully learned. Now, I (try to) a) let a new idea sit for a while before I take action on it, in order to determine if it’s a case of shiny object syndrome, and b) mercilessly ask myself whether I have time for this project, whether I have money for it, whether it’s something that moves toward the end goals of my business, what I’m willing to drop from my schedule in order to make time for it, and so on.

Tip 6: Use a commitment device. If you struggle with self-discipline in general, set up some constraints that force you to finish what you’ve started. Install net nanny software that blocks time-sucking websites; post your goal publicly for other people to see (and be honest if you’re failing); force yourself to donate money to a cause you hate if you don’t reach your goal, hire someone (like a book cover designer) to come in to the project on a certain date so that it has to be done, etc.. Personally I’d rather rely on my own self-discipline than on a commitment device, but I think they can work well for some people.

Tip 7: Stop waiting for the big block of time that’s never coming. This is a huge one. How many times have you thought, “I don’t need to work on X right now, because I’m going to block out ALL DAY on Friday for it,” or “No need to do my taxes today, because I’m going to take off A WHOLE WEEK in March and do them in one fell swoop.” The reality for most of us is that the big block of time is nonexistent. The time we’ve blocked out in our heads nearly always ends up being absorbed by a can’t-say-no project from a good client, family obligations, or something else. I’ve become a big believer in the opposite strategy: using the little blocks of time that pop up during the day. My daughter takes guitar lessons for half an hour; it’s not worth it for me to leave and do something else. But it’s amazing how much I can get done in 30 minutes if I just plug away at it with no distractions.

If you have a big, non-deadline-driven project hanging over your head, what strategies do you use to get it done? Any of the tips above that have worked for you?

11 Responses to “Tips for finishing things”
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