Scott H Young

The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished


Focus

Today I have a treat for you. Cal Newport from Study Hacks is going to share some of his insights on productivity. Cal is also the author of How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Win at College. He is currently studying for a PhD at MIT.

Last August, I published an essay on my blog, Study Hacks, that was titled: Productivity is Overrated. The basic idea: productivity systems, like Getting Things Done, reduce stress and help you keep track of your obligations, they do not, however, make you accomplished. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the act of becoming accomplished is almost entirely unrelated to being productive.

Productivity is Overrated

That is, the two don’t need to go together. Indeed, as an author, I’ve spent the past five years researching and interviewing unusually accomplished young people, and I would estimate that the majority of them are terribly disorganized. The minority that did have good productivity habits were certainly less stressed. But it played little role in predicting their ultimate success.

What Accomplished People Do Differently

From my experience, the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it. If they’re organized, this might happen in scheduled chunks. If they’re not — like many — this might happen in all-nighters. But they get it done. Fast and consistently.

It’s this constant stream of finishing that begins, over time, to unlock more and more interesting opportunities and eventually leads to their big scores.

If you are productive without harboring this intense desire for completion, you will end up just being busy. We all know the feeling. You work all day off of your to-do list. Everything is organized. Everything is scheduled. Yet, still, months pass with no important projects getting accomplished.

In this post, I want to present a simple system, based on my observation of the highly accomplished, that will help you cultivate your own completion obsession.

Introducing Completion-Centric Planning

With traditional GTD-style methodology, during each day, you look at your current context and at your next action lists and choose what to do next. It’s easy, in this case, to fall into a infinite task loop where you are consistently accomplishing little actions from your next action lists but making little progress toward completing the big projects. This is what I call the Zeno’sParadox of Productivity. Give me any project, and I can fill days with easy, fun little tasks on the project without ever finishing it.

Here’s the reality: Real accomplishments require really hard pushes. GTD style, “one independent task at a time” productivity systems make it easy to avoid these pushes by instead doing a lot of little easy things.

Completion-centric planning rectifies this problem. It refocuses you on completion of projects — not tasks — as the central organizing principle for each day. It works as follows:

Setup: Construct a Project Page

Using a single-paged document in your favorite word processor, do the following:

  1. Make an Active Projects List
    List 6 – 12 of the most important projects in your life. Pull from all three relevant spheres: professional (e.g., school or work related); personal (e.g., home, family, fitness); and extra (e.g., big projects like blogging, writing a book, starting a club).
  2. Label Each Project With A Completion Criteria
    To quote David Allen, to finish a project you must “know what done looks like.” Next to each project type a concise description of what action must be completed for the project to be completed. (When you do this, you’ll notice how easy it was for you before to think about projects in a much more ambiguous, impossible to complete style).
  3. Label the Bottom Half of the Page as a “Holding Pen”
    This is where you can jot down new projects that enter your life while you’re working on the active projects. They can be stored here until you complete the current batch.

Example: My Current Project Page

Below is my current project page, just started, on October 12th. Excuse the wrinkles, I keep it in my pocket all day:

Sample Project Page

Using the System: The Daily Check-In

Each morning, look at your project page and ask: “What’s the most progress I can make toward completing this list today?” Your biggest goal should be to complete projects. If you see a way to do it (even if it requires a big push, perhaps working late) go for it. If you can’t finish one, think of the single thing you could do that would get you closest to this goal over the next few days. Harbor an obsession for killing this list!

At the same time, of course, you should still reference your existing productivity system. Outside of your projects you probably have other, more mundane tasks that need to get done. Your goal here is to make as much progress on your projects as possible despite the other responsibilities you have each day.

Finishing: Rest and Reload

Don’t start new projects until you’ve finished the projects on your current project page. If you dynamically repopulate this list your are liable to let the least fun projects lie fallow indefinitely. If you come up with new project ideas before you complete the current active projects, simply jot them down in your holding pen.

Work as hard as possible to finish your projects as fast as possible. Once done, take a break. For at least a week. Try to do a minimum of work during this time. Recharge. Then, once you’re ready, build a new project page and start over again.

Why This Works

The work flow rhythm required by completion-centric planning is as close as I can get to describing how really accomplished people tend to tackle their work. This approach doesn’t have the same effortless, autopilot appeal of a pure, GTD style work flow. But, unfortunately, accomplishment is not pretty. If you want to make your mark, you have to learn how to charge after things with a furious zeal. This system will help you develop that trait. The rest will follow.

Related Articles from Study Hacks

Note from Scott: I completely agree with Cal here, as a completion focus is something I strive for myself. I generally do assignments and projects that are 1-4 hours in one sitting, and aim for speedy completion of bigger projects. Don’t confuse this completion focus (which deals with the process of getting things done) and a process focus (which deals with the broader theme of craving and motivation) as the two function together, just on different levels.


Print Friendly
StumbleUpon It!

This website is supported, in part, by affiliate arrangements (usually Amazon). Affiliate relationships are always marked by bolded links.


102 Responses to “The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished”

  1. I think the biggest thing with tools like this is that you need to make sure what goes onto the list is something that actually needs to be done. There’s no point in talking about being efficient (i.e. doing things right) if you’re not being effective (i.e. doing the right things in the first place).

    It’s something I’ve been exploring a lot lately. Simply deciding that most of the things on my to-do list weren’t that important to begin with made me cut it in half quite quickly! The rest are what really matters.

  2. Stephen says:

    Crazy!

    I’ve recently been looking into ways of changing the roadblocks to success in my life. Primarily, I have the starting-new-projects down. I start new projects in a way that makes a sugar-hopped 5th grader with A.D.D. seem passive.

    Meanwhile, I’ve used a very simple yet effective to do list which maintains 3 top priority tasks to complete and 3-4 sub-tasks that are available if all 3 top priority tasks are completed; generally speaking each to-do-list is targeted on a 7-day cycle.

    Just as you noted in your article, it becomes an endless cycle of completing tasks yet not completing projects, and i have a seemly endless trail of semi-completed projects to prove it.

    Thanks for the writing and if your interested in seeing my most complete project head over to http://www.ponderplace.com.

    I’m definately going to give this system a shot in my pants. (I’ll keep it in my pocket too ;))

    -Stephen

  3. Jared says:

    Hey this is some pretty sweet advise. Thanks

  4. Interesting and clever approach. I like it.

  5. Yoav says:

    Hi Cal/Scott

    This is a great post. But how does quality/perfection relate to this process? Do you evaluate/throw out non perfect accomplishment. Or is a 80/20% approach more appropriate.

  6. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone,

    I’d like to note that a completion orientation (if I have license to interpret Cal’s post) wouldn’t deal with the subject of perfectionism.

    I’m a fan of marginal productivity with perfectionism. That means you stop when an increased unit of time on a project does not increase the benefits of working on it. (i.e. An extra hour spent researching might be worth a 15% grade jump on an assignment, but not a 2% grade jump.)

  7. Doug Kyle says:

    I love it. As a project manager, I really appreciate the concept behind this message and while I believe my profession has given me the tools to avoid the infinite task loop, this is the first I’ve seen it articulated so well. I tend to use a structured goal list where lower level goals are great, but cannot detract from the higher level goals and thereby, all tasks sliced to the GTD level have to be reviewed in light of all goals (detraction includes taking too much time individually or collectively away from the tasks that accomplish the high level goals).

    I’ll definitely be thinking some more on this to see how it can enhance my current flow!

  8. [...] But is productivity the same as accomplishment? Cal Newport says no. [...]

  9. [...] The Art of the Finish: How to Go from Busy to Accomplished | Scott Young A guest post I wrote for Scott’s blog. It introduces the idea of completion-centric planning — a technique for shifting your focus from tasks to projects. [...]

  10. Cal says:

    Yoav,

    An important thing to keep in mind is the size of the project. Notice the “completion criteria” from the sample project sheet included in the post. My projects are bigger than tasks, but, at the same time, not huge. That is, they are endeavors which I wouldn’t feel too bad about completing then reflecting I didn’t want to go forward. I worry if I evaluate too much in process I’ll think myself into procrastination. Having concrete, accomplishable goals becomes half the battle.

    I think if the goal gets too big (e.g., “write a screenplay”) then your concern because much more tricky. In that case, it sounds like Scott’s marginal productivity approach is a good bet.

    – Cal

  11. Amit C says:

    Outstanding article. I have observed, the doing a lot, going only a few steps on personal task front has been there for me. I am definitely going to try this.

    Amit

  12. lucien parenteau says:

    Albert Camus

    We value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavours are meaningless… a greater appreciation for life and happiness… the experience of the Absurd..

  13. Chris O'Donnell says:

    This is one of the more insightful articles I have read and so focused. Really need to focus on completion rather than racking up dozens of tasks that don’t lead to completion. Well done, Scott, I enjoy reading you blog and you seem very accomplished for someone of your age.

  14. [...] Tags: GTD, Produktivität, Selbstorganisation trackback Scott H. Young schreibt heute in seinem Blog, dass GTD (Get Things Done – ein Konzept von David Allen) häufig zu Tagen voller kleiner [...]

  15. I like the whole idea of Completion Oriented planning (and doing.)
    And GTF(Getting Things Finished) sounds SO cool.

    Great Article..Im inspired.

    I’ve alredy made a project page and started working on the list.

    Thanks Cal and Scott.

  16. [...] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished by Cal NewportWe may get busy without accomplishing anything. But “the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it.” This article gives you some tips on how to develop this trait. [...]

  17. Cal says:

    There are, of course, a variety of ways to help jump start a completion focus. I thought I would point toward a recent post on Study Hacks that describes one such strategy:

    Declare a Productivity-Free Day

    I would be interesting in what other hacks people have developed to energize them enough to push project to completion?

    – Cal

  18. AL says:

    This article gave me one of those aha moments I get once in a while when I read insightful articles that I resonate with very much. Thank you so much for this!

  19. [...] realized something a couple of days ago by reading an article that came as a sort of a wake-up call for me: being productive doesn’t necessarily make you [...]

  20. [...] Is productivity the key to accomplishment | Alaeddin’s Blog An insightful follow-up to my guest post about how to complete projects (not just tasks). Puts the ideas in the context of the [...]

  21. [...] a couple of days ago I came across an article that was like a revelation. It made me realize that now I’m at this point in my career life [...]

  22. [...] of accomplishment. How do you handle the big picture tasks? Let’s hear in the comments. The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished [Scott H. [...]

  23. Keith M says:

    I tried to implement GTD several times but it never worked for me. It just didn’t feel natural and I fell back into my natural productivity pattern which is very similar to what Cal has so brilliantly presented. Not that I’m an accomplished person, but I’ve learned to embrace my OCD-like desire to complete things in one or two big pushes rather than micro-steps.

    Cal’s beautiful Project Page was the missing piece. Brilliant stuff. Thanks for an insightful (and validating) article.

  24. noway says:

    This is exactly what i do …. ahah …

  25. Ben says:

    I’m curious how you deal with a job that’s reaction oriented, such as tech support?

    My job is a constantly increasing list of projects and though I can generally keep on top of them, I can’t always say “That project will have to wait.” Do you propose putting current projects off the list to complete the more important or urgent ones?

  26. [...] of accomplishment. How do you handle the big picture tasks? Let’s hear in the comments. The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished [Scott H. [...]

  27. Sean says:

    It sounds like an interesting idea, but it’s poorly explained. I understand how this works for small tasks (jobs that require a few hours to complete), but I don’t get how it applies to big projects. Say, for example, someone has two big projects: write a book and lose 30 pounds. Writing a book is a year-long project; losing 30 pounds is a 3-4 month project.

    Are you suggesting complete the book before beginning the diet? That sounds crazy to me, but it seems to be the point of completion-centric behavior.

  28. Cal says:

    Let me fold two responses into one comment:

    Ben:

    This is a really good question. In a reaction oriented job, you probably still need some sort of customized, GTD-styled system for keeping on top of the constant influx. Completion-centric planning, however, should help you make sure that *despite* this unavoidable work you still also finish the big, non-urgent things in your professional and personal life. For example, in IT, it might help you finish the revamp of the ticket system which would make you stand out more in long run.

    Sean:

    You have to break projects into the right-sized chunks. For me, what works best is thinking on the scale of roughly a month. That is, an active project page might capture what I want to get done in 3-4 weeks. Therefore, you wouldn’t make “write a book” a project. But you might put “finish draft of book proposal” as a project. The tuning of this time frame, however, is likely specific to your situation and the types of projects you tackle.

  29. Colin says:

    I suspect that this works better if you own your schedule. I don’t, which means I don’t have the luxury of choosing not to work for a stretch of time after completing a project… well, not officially anyway.

  30. [...] newport at mit posted [1] a good comparison of david allen’s getting things done versus his notes on high [...]

  31. [...] Scott H Young » The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished (tags: productivity gtd organization goals lifehack inspiration lifehacks tips **) [...]

  32. [...] Scott H Young » The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished [...]

  33. [...] Scott H Young » The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished [...]

  34. [...] then I urge you to read blogger Cal Newport’s guest post on Scott H. Young’s blog about completion-centric project planning. When I first read it, I thought “duh.” But then I looked at some of my lists and had [...]

  35. [...] H Young had some truly excellent articles last month. My favourites were The Art of The Finish and the process focused series that started with How to Not Want Things and Still Be [...]

  36. [...] was the idea proposed by Cal Newport in his guest entry here, The Art of the Finish. I always strive to maintain what Cal describes as being “completion-centric.” This is where [...]

  37. [...] Versus Accomplishment – Cal made the distinction clear in his article, The Art of the Finish. Being organized reduces stress and frees up thinking power. It does not, however, make you more [...]

  38. [...] Scott H Young » The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished What Accomplished People Do Differently [...]

  39. [...] small to-dos without making progress toward completion of the big things. This same idea has popped again and again (and again) around the blogging community recently. People, it seems, are increasingly [...]

  40. [...] on completion, because that’s what matters. At the end of the day, people who master the art of the finish will be recognized, no matter how relatively imperfect their jobs [...]

  41. Idetrorce says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  42. slothbear says:

    Somewhere between reading this post and one at ThinkHacks (ref below), I’ve come up with a nice summary of this approach: “The goal is to run out of things to do.” (then rest, reload, repeat)

    http://www.thinkhacks.net/blog/index.php/2007/10/gtf-getting-things-finished

  43. [...] Link: Cal Newport – The Art of the Finish [...]

  44. [...] I serialize my projects. I keep two project queues — one from my student projects and one for my writing projects. At any one moment I’m only working on the top project from each queue. When I finish, I move on to the next. This focus lets me churn out quality results without the wasted time of constantly dancing back and forth between multiple efforts. (As also discussed here and here.) [...]

  45. [...] The Art of the Finish Once you deem something important (and this, according to the Einstein principle, should be a high bar to leap) you have to become obsessed about finishing it. I try as hard as possible to build these obsessions. By forcing myself to finish a small number of active projects before beginning any that are new, I’m slow instilling this discipline. [...]

  46. [...] use Study Hacks parlance, Marty is a finisher. He doesn’t just tackle projects that pique his interest, but he also manages that rarest of [...]

  47. [...] Productivity is Overrated! is a great read and a welcome antidote to all the people who’s instant fallback in any such conversation is quoting Getting Things Done… “From my experience, the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it. If they’re organized, this might happen in scheduled chunks. If they’re not — like many — this might happen in all-nighters. But they get it done. Fast and consistently. It’s this constant stream of finishing that begins, over time, to unlock more and more interesting opportunities… Introducing Completion-Centric Planning…. Here’s the reality: Real accomplishments require really hard pushes. GTD style, “one independent task at a time” productivity systems make it easy to avoid these pushes by instead doing a lot of little easy things…..” [...]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

Leave a Reply