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.


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

  1. […] is the Key to Productivity – This is an article I wrote before Cal’s great entry, The Art of the Finish. Both aim to break away from the myth that being super-organized, carrying lists and writing to-do […]

  2. […] just measure tasks (which can be a trap in itself), measure projects. Look at the progress every day is making towards projects and use that as a […]

  3. […] is that it provides the time needed to make big progress on big projects. I’ve written many times before on how to keep your attention focused on a small number of projects to ensure consistent […]

  4. Rohan says:

    Thanks to Scott and Cal for posting this, I’ve been frustrated at not finishing things for a while and this looks like the ideal solution. Thanks!

  5. […] Note from Scott:  Cal Newport, MIT graduate student, author of two books and blogger at Study Hacks has offered to help me out during the recovery from my illness by writing a guest post.  You can check out his fantastic blog at: http://www.calnewport.com/blog/ or read his other popular guest post on this website, The Art of the Finish. […]

  6. […] of ongoing projects drag on and on, I have been trying to implement Cal Newport’s idea of a completion-centric productivity. In a […]

  7. […] The Art of the Finish – Cal Newport’s fantastic guest article on this website.  The main idea: productivity isn’t doing tasks, it’s getting projects finished.  Unless your productivity system is geared with completion in mind, you’ll end up spinning your wheels. […]

  8. GG says:

    I’m a mom of 3 young kids who have all just started school which leaves me completely free in the mornings. I had so many ideas and things I wanted to catch up on since I stopped working and find myself in a complete state with tons of unfinished art / sewing / excercise projects and it’s driving me crazy! Can you imagine my joy when in a fit of frustration I googled ‘getting things finished’ and up came the answer I’ve been looking for! In a word ‘COMPLETION’. WOW, why didn’t I think of that!!!? It’s like a light has just gone on in this fuzzy brain of mine! ha ha. I’ve started a project page and am so excited to start and accomplish. Thanks Scott.

  9. andres jg says:

    Scott,

    It seems to me, that in essence, to complete the work
    one has to go for “low hanging fruit”
    however….
    inevitable one has to go for higher and higher fruit
    every time with out burning out mentally and emotionally.
    (outside comfort zone)

    Cal Newport, thx for commenting this post.

  10. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished: Follow the advice in this post to complete more of your goals. […]

  11. […] Accomplished Project Management – Scott Young […]

  12. […] matter whether you sort your lists with ranked A, B and C priority items, or by context in GTD, or keep a list of projects in your pocket like Cal Newport, or go through your list in a clever way like in Mark Forster’s Autofocus […]

  13. […] The details of how I accomplish the last two steps are covered deeply in my guide. But I also have a ton of free articles you can read here, here and here. […]

  14. Jerry Grimes says:

    Love it! You guys are really on to something here. GTD style systems have always kept me busy and organized, but it was only when I went “off grid” that I got anything done: Starting a company, developing a non-profit, casting a vision for something new.

  15. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished […]

  16. Cheryl says:

    I love the idea of keeping the project page in your pocket. I usually have such a page, but it is never where I want it, when I want it. If it’s in my pocket, I always have it. So, thanks for the idea! Mine is now in my pocket, and strangely, I feel much more committed to it now.

  17. […] was reading Scott Young’s The Art of the Finish a few night ago. To quote Scott: “From my experience, the most common trait you will […]

  18. Selina says:

    I feel extremely motivated by this post and will be trying out this method right now. Thanks for the tips!

  19. […] – The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished – This post was written about three years ago on Scott H Young’s blog. It was written […]

  20. […] – The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished – This post was written about three years ago on Scott H Young’s blog. It was written by Cal […]

  21. To me it is always ‘one … at a time’ whether that be one lift at a time, one set at a time, one workout at a time.

  22. This is an interesting concept of “completing” a project versus being organized and doing chunks of many things. It does make sense to complete big overall ideas rather than half-doing small projects.

  23. Brian says:

    Success is a commitment to completion. It is not a good idea to keep starting projects and leaving it. You presented some interesting concepts here that I have never heard told in this way and it make sense. I like your idea.

  24. […] reading this article in Wired. One of the few posts I have bookmarked since then was this article: The Art of Finish. On its original reading it had been interesting as I’m great at starting project but […]

  25. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished – 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 … […]

  26. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished – 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 … […]

  27. Ret says:

    This is true since, productivity and the extensive process in organization may create some waste of time and energy. We may instead concentrate our time and energy on accomplishing a task rather on organizing. However, the benefit of productivity and organization can be advantageous when it comes to routine accomplishments.

  28. […] excellent blog, Study Hacks, I cam across an article that seemed to address this dilemma. The Art of the Finish was actually an interview Newport did on another blog, maintained by one Scott Young, but definitely […]

  29. Francesca says:

    Absolutely FANTASTIC! Thank you.

  30. Nenad Ristic says:

    I love it! Although instead of keeping it on a piece of paper, I will keep it as a file on my phone…

    Perhaps the first project for the system will be “Write Project app…”

  31. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished « Scott H Young […]

  32. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished « Scott … – 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. … […]

  33. Mario says:

    Interesting post! The process probably works for a student or for someone that can decide about his projects without important of frequent interferences from someone else. Consider this example (from my direct experience). I create my project list A, B, C, D. I start to work hard on it. My boss call me….or a client email me…they have something urgent…they need a feedback within tomorrow or even today (this is just routine and not exception in many work settings)…Now I have a new project E to cope with…I cannot tell my boss or my client to wait until I have finished A, B, C, D…I need to add E to the list and put another item in standby. If you transfer this in real life you will see that very easily you will be have to have very flexible priorities, constantly being updated and you will probably have to reconsider your commitments and some of your projects will be probably be left back against your wishes… What do you think?

  34. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished Scott .Oct 18, 2007 The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished. Focus. Today I have a treat for you. Filed Under: prints […]

  35. […] This year, I have decided to learn some new working skills. I am learning to walk on the treadmill while typing and without making too many typos. I am learning to work only 40 hours a week (radical!). I am experimenting with Fixed Schedule Productivity and Completion Centric Planning. […]

  36. […] she’d talk to me about her journey. And she did– listen here. I began seriously practicing Completion Centric Planning and implemented my 40-hours -a-week-and-that’s-it right after the New […]

  37. Leon says:

    One of the best pieces of time management advice I have ever found on the web – and also very concisely written. (The other being the ‘Not Insane To Do List’).

    Are you still using this approach?

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

  39. Caro says:

    This is a great approach! Giant ‘to-do’ lists haven’t been working for me, and I end up procrastinating on the tough projects and they don’t get done. I’m going to adapt this a bit though as I have a day job, and I can’t just decide not to go into work one day in order to clean out my freezer or complete other personal projects, so I’ll do one list for work and one for personal projects.

  40. […] – The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished – This post was written about three years ago on Scott H Young’s blog. It was written by Cal […]

  41. Angela Ursery says:

    This is a very, very valuable tool. I’m so glad Cal wrote it, and thank you, Scott, for posting it.

    This sentence is electrifying, and should be on a motivation poster: “If you want to make your mark, you have to learn how to charge after things with a furious zeal.” Wonderful!

    Thanks again.

  42. […] Centric Planning by Cal Newport: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2007/10/18/the-art-of-the-finish-how-to-go-from-busy-to-accomplished…Tara’s blog post about burnout and putting together her new system: […]

  43. […] Focus on accomplishment Accomplishment is more than staying organized. It is about taking a lot of action, doing work and being ruthless in your pursuit of the end result. [See Cal Newport's The art of finish] […]

  44. […] The Art Of The Finish: How To Go From Busy To Accomplished […]

  45. […] The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished […]

  46. […] is a pretty interesting article by Scott H Young. It’s primary detailing his method for insuring that projects (personal or […]

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