How to Build the Habit of Finishing What You Start

What do you do when you start a personal project, but you start to lose interest? Should you quit or keep going, even though it’s no longer fun?

What if the project is to improve your health or career? What if your goals change and the project no longer feels relevant? Should you quit or push on, just for the sake of finishing?

Last night I had a chance to talk to someone who was working on a learning project. He had started the project as a side venture to improve his programming skills on the job. But his responsibilities at work have changed, and he no longer feels the project is as relevant as when he set it up. What should he do?

The Finisher’s Habit

I have a rather nuanced answer to this question, but first I’ll tell you what I advised this person. I told him to finish the project.

The project was only going to last another month or two of part-time work. While abandoning the project might save a little time in the short-run, it also wears down the habit of finishing what you start.

Finishing is hard for a lot of people. Particularly if there are no external penalties. I’ve seen tons of people start learning languages, only to drop off after a month of effort. I’ve had people enthusiastically tell me they were going to do the MIT Challenge for themselves, but didn’t even finish the first class.

I think a lot of people believe finishing is a gift some people have. There are just some people who can dedicate themselves to projects, and there are other people who flit from interest to interest, never really accomplishing anything.  If you’re the second type of person, there’s nothing much you can do about it.

I don’t believe this because I used to be one of those people who struggled to complete things I started, and through conscious effort I made myself into a finisher.

Becoming a Finisher

When I was younger, I used to flit between interests and rarely finished what I started. Starting as a kid with half-built tree forts, it later became half-finished business ideas and half-finished products. I was great at starting things, but never finishing them.

I got so frustrated at myself for this lack of finishing, that I decided to build a new habit: finishing everything I started. That meant finishing books I thought were boring. That meant finishing thirty-day trials, when I had already decided I wasn’t going to continue the habit. That meant finishing projects that were already obsolete.

And it worked. I probably complete 80-90% of the projects I set out with, including ones that are lengthy and challenging. It’s not because I’m consistently motivated to do them (there were plenty of moments I wanted to quit during the MIT Challenge or Year Without English) but because I have a habit of finishing what I start.

What’s Worth Finishing

The problem is, trying to finish everything is a recipe for stubbornness, not success. Applied too literally, a finisher would never quit his job or sell her business. A finisher would slog through dull, uninspired books, leaving countless better volumes untouched.

While it might seem like you can avoid these problems by reasoning on a case-by-case basis, that undermines the whole idea of a habit of finishing what you start. If you could reason case-by-case, then you’d have an excuse to give up on a project you had started just because you were no longer motivated to do it.

Instead, I believe the solution is to view all activities you undertake as being of two different types: experiments and commitments. Before you start any activity that will last more than a day, decide whether it should be mentally categorized as an experiment or commitment before going further.

Experiments are okay to quit. The goal of the experiment is to not be afraid to try something out, so you want to lower the barriers to getting started. If you later don’t feel like doing it, you can stop, no guilt or stress.

Commitments need to be carried out to the very end. The goal of a commitment is to not break your finisher’s habit. Unless it becomes impossible to finish your commitment, you continue going forward with it.

If you build these two mental categories, then you now have an easy way of forcing yourself to stick to a project until the end: decide whether it’s an experiment or commitment, in advance, and if you do decide it’s a commitment, start building the habit of finishing them without exception.

I recommend starting with only mentally labeling commitments of short time periods to start. Committing to year-long or multi-year processes has significant weaknesses because the amount of new information you’ll have will likely render the decision process that created the commitment out of date. Instead, a good commitment length is a couple weeks or a month where you’re not allowed to back out.

Sometimes a project will be an experiment on some time scales and a commitment on others. When I wanted to learn Chinese, I didn’t commit to fluency–just to three months. That was part of a larger experiment to see whether I wanted to put in the years of work to get to an advanced level. Similarly, you can construe projects of consisting of short-term commitments which must be reached, followed by points where you can step back and evaluate whether the project is worth continuing.

Creating this split does two things:

  1. It gives you the power to finish things that matter to you, regardless of whether you’re always motivated to work on them.
  2. It makes you much more cautious about entering into commitments. Because you take them seriously, you don’t start big projects without due diligence. That means you often do smaller experiments beforehand to scope out the commitment before taking it on. This makes your eventual commitments more successful, in the long run.

Recategorizing Your Projects

Because I have these two well-defined categories, built up from years of finishing almost all of the commitments I undertake, I can also experiment with shifting different projects into different categories to see the results.

I recently wrote about doing this with book reading. Previously, reading a book for me was a commitment that I needed to finish before moving on. Recategorizing books as an experiment means I finish hard books less often, but I end up reading more.

On the other hand, I’ve always been experimenting with trying to improve my writing. But more recently, I made a commitment to invest in improving my research skills. It was frustrating and challenging to push my abilities, but I left with better research skills after a few weeks than years of nagging myself to do it.

This only works if you build the mental split as a habit. If you give up on your commitments with equal frequency as your experiments, the words carry no weight. What matters isn’t that you call something an experiment or commitment, but that your actions show that distinction matters to you. That’s a distinction that takes time, perhaps even years, to fully establish. But it’s an investment worth making, since it underpins everything else you want to accomplish.

Why is it So Hard to Create Permanent Habits?

Motivation works well in the short-term. If you set a new goal, you can probably summon up the motivation to pursue it earnestly for a week or two. If the goal is tremendously important, that motivation may even carry you uninterrupted for a month.

But motivation wanes. If your goal takes more than a month or two, you’re going to need more than just motivation. You’re going to need habits.

Habit-building methods are great because they translate that short-term motivation into something more durable. If you invest in consistent routines, with triggers, rewards and punishments, you can stabilize that motivation into systematic output.

The Gospel of Changing Habits

This transition from motivated bursts to stable habits is often so powerful that people who’ve never tried it before become proselytizing converts.

My friend recently got into setting habits. He went from struggling to go to the gym regularly to managing dozens of habits with intricately engineered systems.

I know many bloggers that built their initial audiences on habit forming. Part of that is because habits are a popular topic. But I suspect the real reason is that the methods are so powerful that people feel compelled to start a blog about them.

I know this because I was one of them. I went from struggling to follow through on simple plans to coordinating habits with eating, exercising, reading, sleeping, productivity and more. Outsiders must have thought I was crazy, but the truth was it was simply the first time in my life I had the ability to do it.

Habits Work Well in the Medium-Term

I’ve been using habit-changing tools for well over a decade now. If you follow the basic assumption of habits, that it takes a few months of running a habit to make it permanent, I should have had time to permanently stabilize dozens, perhaps hundreds, of habits.

But that hasn’t happened.

Instead, if I review the last ten years of my time spent working with habits, I’m far more often restarting habits than creating new ones.

In all, I can only think of two that have been more or less permanent: vegetarianism (currently pescetarianism) and weekly/daily goals. Some have had long lifespans: my gym-going habit lasted for several years unchanging before I had to restart it. Many others, like morning rituals, I end up needing to restart every few months.

What gives? After all, the promise of habits is that an initial investment in effort could create a permanently stable system. Why do some habits require perpetual maintenance to sustain?

Action Requires Two Kinds of Effort

My explanation is that any action requires two kinds of effort in order to get done. An intrinsic effort that depends on the action and an effort to decide whether or not to execute the action. Habits can modify the first, but the main reason they work is that they eliminate the second type of effort.

To understand this, let’s say that you have the goal of reading a book per week, so you decide to make it a habit. In this case, you decide you need to read at least fifty pages a day in order to meet your goal.

Every time you read the book, you’re investing these two kinds of effort. First there’s the effort of reading. Depending on the difficulty of the book, this might require a lot of effort or zero effort. Imagine the difference between a quantum physics textbook and a Harry Potter book and you’ll see why.

However, if the book you plan to read will require effort, it also requires a secondary cost of effort. This is the effort required to overcome the urge to procrastinate and start reading the book. If you’ve ever felt tired after a day of doing nothing, you probably understand this effort cost.

Habits, from my experience, appear to reduce these two costs in different ways:

  1. Habits can reduce the intrinsic cost by making you better at the task. As you read more difficult books, you get better at reading, so it doesn’t require as much energy.
  2. Habits reduce the decision cost by eliminating the ambiguity of when and how to perform the behavior. If you read your fifty pages at lunch, every day, for three months, the next lunch break you’ll automatically start reading without having to decide whether to do it.

For a lot of tasks, the second cost reduction is far greater than the first. Flossing, for instance, hasn’t gotten any easier the hundredth time I’ve done it, but I have stopped thinking about whether I should do it.

Habits are Metastable

This idea that there are two types of effort invested in behaviors explains a lot of my own experience with habits. Namely:

  • Not all habits are equally easy to build. This makes sense because some have higher intrinsic effort required, which results in not only higher intrinsic cost but also higher decision costs.
  • You can’t establish an unlimited number of habits. This makes sense because even if you eliminate the decision effort, you still have to pay the intrinsic effort. That means you could set up many intrinisically easy habits (like flossing), but probably not a large amount of intrinsically difficult habits (like reading boring books).
  • Most habits are only metastable. Metastability is a concept in physics where a certain state of affairs is stable, but small perturbations can break that stability. A pendulum, for instance, has two stable points: one where the weight is at the bottom and one where the weight is perfectly balanced at the top. Except the one at the bottom will return to the bottom if it is pushed slightly, whereas the one perfectly balanced at the top will never go back after a slight push.

This idea of metastability conforms to my experience as the reason why I’ve found few habits have had permanent lifespans. Inevitably, the habit breaks down because of a temporary lifestyle change: a vacation, an illness, needing to move or work overtime. These create shocks which are often enough to break the behavior, increase the decision cost, making it no longer automatic when you return to the habit.

How to Deal With Medium-Term Habits

This metastability suggests that the most important positions to look at when setting a habit are during possible disruptions. If you temporarily have to break a habit, then re-establishing it as soon as the interruption is gone should be your top priority.

Even better if you can avoid breaking the habit at all, creating a placeholder habit in its absence. That might mean reading five pages instead of fifty when you’re busy, or doing a home workout when you’re traveling instead of going to the gym.

Which habits do you have to frequently restart? What causes you to break the habit? Which habits have you maintained without interruption for years? What prevents them from degrading? Share your thoughts in the comments.