Why So Many Projects Go Unfinished, and How to Finish Them

November 2, 2014

Most of us have at least a handful of unfinished projects: a half-written novel on our virtual shelf, a blog that never made it past the first three posts, a body that isn’t quite as healthy or fit as we want it to be.

Sometimes we make conscious decisions to put aside these projects when we realize they’re not worth the time or something else is more important. But more often, unfinishing isn’t so much a choice as a result of a lack of discipline.

Image: The End

The two words we’re all just dying to write.

Without discipline, you won’t finish anything that matters.

Discipline isn’t all that important when you start a project, because the excitement and adrenaline and potential is enough to drive you forward, to keep you making progress. This beginning stage is when each endeavor is typically the most fun: it’s new, it’s challenging, it’s enjoyable.

But the longer you work on a project — especially a creative one — the more difficult it becomes to stick with it. Once you pass through the initial stage of excitement, you will enter into a phase that’s far more challenging, one I like to call Doing The Work.

(While writing this post, I worried I was subconsciously stealing this term, so I Googled around to see who else is using it. Turns out Do the Work is a book by Steven Pressfield, and I believe I’ve seen Charlie Gilkey use it, too. Doesn’t mean I can’t use this language, too, but I’m not claiming it as my own.)

Blog posts and other short projects don’t include this phase; by the time you start Doing The Work for a short project, it’s complete. But if you’re creating anything with true depth and length, projects that require more than a few days of time and energy, it’s impossible to skip Doing The Work. You simply can’t finish anything meaningful without trudging through this phase.

What does Doing The Work entail?

This phase of Doing The Work is the absolute hardest part of creating. And most of us have no plan for when we hit it, partly because we don’t expect to enter into it at all. We think we’ll just keep chugging, keep pushing, and work our way to the other side, using the same tactics we leaned on at the beginning of the project.

But in reality, winging it usually doesn’t work. Trying to get through Doing The Work in the same way we made progress during the more exciting beginning phases often results in an incomplete project, one that will eventually be forgotten on your hard drive. And not finishing doesn’t make anyone feel good about themselves.

How do I know Doing The Work is such a killer phase? Because I’m Doing The Work right now, slogging through my next ebook for AlexisGrant.com. It’s about finances for freelancers, and while I want it to be done, I am not enjoying the process of finishing it. Yet I know I’ll never enter the other phase I enjoy — promoting and selling the ebook, then watching readers use it to get where they want to be — until I finish creating. There’s a big carrot waiting at this finish line, but it’s taking a whole lot of energy and focus to arrive there.

Here’s how I’m getting through this phase so I can actually finish the project: I created a system, and now I’m following it religiously. I use systems to get things done in other parts of my business, so why not apply that to my creative projects, too?

How systems can help you finish projects

My system for Doing The Work on this ebook is devoting one hour a day to the project. It’s listed daily in my Google tasks, along with links to my draft and time-tracking document, so I can jump right into the work without spending any time searching for it. When I’ve put in my hour, I track that in a Google Doc that’s shared with my accountability partner.

(By the way, if you want to be held accountable for writing daily, Jenny Blake and I are hosting an informal #NaNoBlogMo for the month of November, and it’s not too late to join. Simply add your name to this doc and track your word count with us!)

An hour a day might not sound like a lot, but finding that time to write is challenging when I have so many other wheels turning in my business. That relatively small investment adds up over time!

Why does creating a system work? Because you don’t have to think about it. You don’t spend precious energy figuring out when or how you’ll write, you just do it according to your system. You do it even when you don’t feel like it. You do it even when you have a lot of other things on your plate. You do it even when you hate the project. You do it even when you feel lost and don’t know your next step… because you planned it out and committed to it ahead of time.

When you set up your workflow this way, it’s almost like you’re not working on the project itself. Instead, you’re simply executing according to your system, which will help you get through the tough parts.

I use this tactic for other parts of my life, too. Like exercise. Each day I go to spin or yoga, and I block out that time on my calendar — no meetings or Skype calls or appointments can touch it. Then, when that exercise slot comes around, I put everything else down and go. There’s no thinking about what kind of exercise I feel like doing that day, or whether I have enough time in my work schedule to fit it in. I stick to that schedule even when I don’t feel like it, because I’ve committed.

So you need a schedule or a system or a process (or all three) — that’s the first step.

The second step is discipline.

The first piece makes it easier to accomplish your goal, and sets you up to succeed. But even once you have that system in place, you’ve got to dig deep for your discipline to make sure you follow through. All the systems in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t layer discipline on top.

I’m writing one hour a day until I finish this ebook. How are YOU finishing projects that matter?

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    14 Replies to “Why So Many Projects Go Unfinished, and How to Finish Them”

    • Corina says:

      Great read Alexis.
      I am 100% with you: when the joy and excitement for the novelty of the project decreases, discipline comes in (or it should).
      I wake up at 04:50 a.m every morning to work on my projects (my blog redesign and doing social media for my client).
      You just gave an idea on how to improve o writing every day and can´t wait to put in practice. Thanks.

    • My big project right now is wrapping up an e-guide I’d planned to release over the summer—until my daughter entered the world earlier than expected. Now she’s almost three months old, and it’s been much harder than I’d expected to get back into the swing of revisions. The end of the year is looming, and I just feel overwhelmed by it.

      I finally sat down last week and told myself, “This book is 97 pages in Word. If you revise ten pages a day, you’ll be done in less than two weeks.” So now that’s my goal. Ten pages a day. I haven’t hit my goal every single day (babies make life unpredictable like that), but it’s what I needed to start making progress.

      Thanks for the reminder that Doing the Work is unavoidable, so you may as well get through it!

    • Matt D. says:

      I understand this very well since I esperience it all the time. I currently have and rely on a schedule, go through the process until it’s done. Get some rest. And repeat.

    • Sune says:

      Haha, I can totally relate to Ashley and her comment. My little boy is also almost three months old now and I’ve also been struggling to get back into the swing of things. I’m actually trying to stick to a schedule now but it really is impossible while having such a small baby – basically my schedule looks good on paper, but in reality I can only follow the schedule when baby is sleeping (which is not often, he is much too curious to go to sleep).

    • Ani says:

      I totally agree. As everyone else I have my own unfinished projects too. Although there is one thing… If I am absolutely passionate about a project I get so obsessed by it that it becomes top priority and nothing else gets on its way until I finish it!

    • Mark says:

      Totally agree that a system is necessary. I’ve taken Michael Hyatt’s advice and blocked out all my time in his sample spreadsheet for planning the whole week out. That helps me, but phone notifications are also necessary to keep me on track.

      I’ll have to check out Do the Work by Pressfield. I really enjoyed The War of Art.

    • Ivana says:

      I found this super helpful, and a good reminder that I need to apply my other strategy: getting a project done by pretending that the time I set for it is all the time I get. As in: what if I only had one afternoon to create this web page? What if today was the absolute deadline to start my blog (write a chapter of the eBook…:)

      That way, I cannot procrastinate. Or, if I try, I remind myself of how I whipped out projects when I worked in a law firm when on a deadline: it simply had to happen. As I do this, I repeat my mantra about “imperfect actions” – what everyone thinks is the number one thing I need to perfect 🙂

    • So right about how necessary a system is! Over the summer, I worked hard to build up the habit of doing two things as soon as I sat down at my computer in the morning — one hour working on a long term project, followed by 1 blog post. After that, I would read the news and have breakfast and get to work on everything else on my to-do list. It was awesome.

      Fast forward past two family trips, and I am entirely out of the habit and extremely lacking in productivity. Time to get that system back…

    • jp choquette says:

      Great ideas…I have a similar process though not as large a time commitment as yours. Thx for the inspiration.

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