How to Start Projects You’ll Actually Finish


How often do you get that next “great idea”? How often do those “great ideas” result in something you can hold in your hands? It’s easy to have that work-in-progress sit in your basement or hard drive for months without ever being “quite ready”. It’s even easier to start projects that get pushed aside after two weeks.

Feature creep is dangerous in projects because your initial three-month endeavor quickly becomes a multi-year odyssey. Projectitis, or recklessly jumping from project to project without completing everything, is also a common disease. The best way to control these two problems is simple: know what you’re buying into before you pay for it.

Do You Know What You’re Buying Into?

A project, whether it’s writing a book, taking a course or setting up a business represents a commitment. Although most people don’t view it this way, a similar form of commitment is a mortgage. You need to make regular payments each month and if you can’t pay the debts you’ve signed onto you lose everything.

Knowing what you’re buying means that you are completely aware of the up-front commitment and you decide how much you are willing to spend ahead of time. If you don’t budget yourself, it’s easy to sign onto deals that potentially put you in a time-debt for the rest of your life. Worse, if you don’t understand your commitments, it’s easy to rack up debts without the resources to pay off any of them.

Time-Budget with Deadlines

A deadline is a budget for your time. Keeping firm project deadlines and aiming for finish as quickly as possible keep you from racking up a huge time-debt. When I take on any new projects, whether it’s another product, a website or program, the first decision is how much time I’m willing to invest.

Is your project going to take a month? 3 months? A year? Setting an unmovable deadlines forces you to stick within your commitment. Otherwise feature creep and procrastination will expand your time-debts to the point you can never pay them back.

Reach Beta As Soon As Possible

Whenever you invest in a project, your first goal is to reach a point of accomplishment. Have a working prototype, beta version, unedited novel or anything that you can hold onto. Once you’re done this, any leftover time can be used for perfectionism. When you build the habit of finishing first, perfecting later, projects actually get finished.

Keeping projects deliberately small has an added advantage. If you only work on year-long projects, then your learning cycle takes a full year. It takes at least one year for you to see the whole picture of how your efforts translate into measurable results. Whereas if you focus on month long projects you can keep the learning cycle short and adapt quickly.

With this blog my learning cycles are incredibly short, it can take as little as a week for me to get information about how my posts have done. I finished my first free e-book on this website in two weeks and the second in a month. By keeping the cycles short I reduced the unknowns when setting up new projects.

Enthusiasm Doesn’t Finish Projects

It’s easy to get enthusiastic about your “great idea”–for a moment. But when you look at a 3, 6 or 9 month scale, those emotional surges are only tiny blips. Instead of relying on the emotional ups and downs to pull you towards the finish line, establish the clear, logical reasons why pursuing the project makes sense.

Write out your reasons on a piece of paper and store them in case you forget. By having clear reasons for why this project is worth the costs of time, money and effort, you are more likely to see the project through until the end. Reading through this list of reasons should make the benefits of finishing your project obvious.

The other benefit of having a list of reasons written down is that it gives you the basis for deciding whether to quit a project. If the assumptions your reasons were based on change, you may need to kill the project.

A lot of people I know don’t bother starting projects because they know they won’t finish. What’s the point of writing a book, mastering a new skill or setting up an online business if you won’t see the end result. But there are few things more satisfying than holding a finished product in your hands after months of effort. Setting deadlines, aiming for short cycles and writing out your reasons are the best ways to reach that.

  • Jean Browman–Cheerful Monk

    Amen to the part about keeping projects deliberately small. I have two blogs and I publish only once a week on each of them. Sometimes even that is a bit of a stretch, but I figure I’ll get more adept at this writing business as time goes on. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment to see my list of posts grow steadily and surely. It’s also fun looking at old posts to see if they still resonate…mostly they do. It’s a great way to stir up new ideas and to motivate myself to keep going.