Just Finish It

A common staple of self-help wisdom is the advice to take action, immediately. You miss all the shots you don’t take, do it now and Nike’s famous slogan are just a few hints of this overwhelming suggestion to get started right away.

There’s nothing wrong with this advice. Plenty of people waste years hesitating on taking the actions they know they need to take. Maybe you’re one of those people.

But the problem with generic advice is that it tries to lump everyone’s problem into a single generalization. Although many need a kickstart, there’s also a lot of people who need to stop trying to do so many things.

Starting isn’t Useful Without Finishing

Starting interesting things is a worthwhile trait, but perhaps a more important one is finishing those things. The world is full of half-finished projects which could have been great if the fire-starter hadn’t burnt out a month or two in.

The courage to start things needs to be matched with the discipline to see them through. They’re both critical, and my guess is that you can probably assess which one you need to work on.

I suggest an alternate mantra—just finish it.

How I Went from Typically Incomplete to Persistent Finisher

When I was just getting started with plans to start my own business, ambition was never my problem. I had tons of ideas and I loved the feeling of potential for starting a new project. No, my problem was getting any of them done.

My old notebooks are filled of half-started ideas, vague projects and uncompleted dreams. It took me awhile to realize that this enthusiasm was great, but unless I was able to direct and focus it, my ideas would forever remain inside my head.

What changed was that I realized being a quick starter and rare finisher is just another form of debilitating perfectionism. Instead of sticking through the practical realities of my goals, I wanted to start again, where every idea was perfect in conception.

Once I realized that finishing, not starting, was the key, I started putting emphasis on it. I’d finish projects that had flaws, just because I had committed to finishing them. I’d try to make my existing path work instead of finding a new one. I’d start less, because I took my commitments to start more seriously.

Commit Less, Commit Stronger

One of the major shifts that helped me accomplish this was to clearly separate my experiments from my commitments. I love trying new things, and I never want to give up the sense of adventure that comes with that.

But I also don’t expect to accomplish big things on a whim alone. That takes dedication and commitment, and because I take my drive to finish what I start seriously, I don’t make those commitments lightly.

I didn’t announce the MIT Challenge publicly on my blog until a few weeks before I started it. Fewer people know that I was preparing to undertake the challenge for over a year before it began. I can remember getting feedback on the idea from Cal Newport (himself an MIT graduate in computer science) in early 2011.

I went through several rounds of experiments, including a pilot course in June and nearly a month exhaustively assembling the materials I’d need, all before making a final commitment to start the project.

My current challenge is a difficult one, and finishing isn’t always possible. But I do know that if I’m eventually defeated, there’s going to be a hell of a fight before I give in.

This doesn’t mean everything revolves around a fixed plan, or that you can prepare for everything perfectly. I had a similar commitment level to starting an online business which took over seven years of non-stop effort before it was realized. But I was also flexible. I experimented on everything from industry to business model, from headline to subscribe button. Commitment needn’t imply rigidity.

Commit Less, Experiment More

Taking commitments seriously doesn’t mean you can never try new things. I simply put them into a different mental category from my experiments. At various points in my life I’ve started karate, salsa dancing, handstand pushups, Spanish, and cooking Indian cuisine. I’m not suggesting you stop doing spontaneous, fun things.

Instead I’m suggesting that you differentiate your commitments from your experiments, and treat them accordingly. The more you separate the two concepts, the easier it is to be fun and flexible with some pursuits and be an unstoppable juggernaut in others.

Just do it is a great slogan. But if you find yourself like I did, with a notebook full of half-finished dreams, maybe telling yourself to just finish it is a better one.

  • Paulo

    Good Article.

    As Steve Jobs said: “Real artists ship”.

  • Jesse

    Good point. I’m looking at some of the notes and ideas I’ve had over the past two years. Nothing got finished…

  • Sudan

    Hey Scott!
    This post couldn’t have come at a better time than this. I have been into the same habit of starting so many things but not being able to carry them for a prolong time. Like yours i do have many “started but unfinished projects”. Every time i read something good i try to implement it but after a week i am back to old habits or will be searching for something new. Seems like the world is suffering from this disorder-looking for something new.
    How do you handle this problem? I along with many readers might be having the problem of buying several books, reading few pages and then never looking back. Do you have/had this problem? If yes how did you solve it? What worked and what didn’t? Would love to hear from you on this.

  • Bornagainscholar

    I do not see the link between a “notebook with half finished dreams” and starting a project and not finishing it. Notebooks are typically places people like to dream and brainstorm in. It is a safe place to be creative and maybe even come up with an idea to put action behind. I believe a notebook that doesn’t half a ton of dreams never realized is a wasted notebook.

    I am not arguing the wisdom you are sharing. I agree that there are to many unfinished projects (in my life) floating around out there. This is obvious in buildings that are built and go vacant becasue the developers don’t have the funds to finish, or websites that are half ass and never get better becasue the developer starts a new project. But I lost the connection in your post between notebooks and actual projects.

  • Peter

    Great article! Written with excellent clarity. I love how you construct your point/s, including how you linked back to the main point at the end. For me, to overcome my penchant for perfectionism, I need to stamp both Just do it and Just finish it on my brain!

    I put the line “Commitment needn’t imply rigidity,” in my “Favourite Quotes” document, “20Feb12, Scott H Young”.(haha) The conciseness and depth of that line stuck out to me.

    In my notebooks(physical and digital) I write about pursuits I wish to do/dreams, general unspecific ideas, and also I record experiences and results of actual projects/tasks I’m working on, and my analysis of them. I have lots of “notebooks”(really text docs most times) on projects that I’ve never completed. That’s what I understood what Scott said as.

    MIT Challenge:

    Btw, keep strong with the MIT challenge.(not that you need my encouragement given your track record!) What you are doing there, I believe, is really groundbreaking; especially in regards to how thorough and calculated you are going about it. What you are doing there has been Incredibly inspiring to me, and I can imagine to many other people out there.(and since it’s up online, countless people in the future also!)

    I’m doing a pretty basic IT degree, and I planned to learn the advanced comp. sci and maths on my own, but seeing someone ACTUALLY so, and with such efficiency, is INCREDIBLY motivating/empowering and helpful!

    MIT Challenge haters:

    Also, it’s pretty funny seeing the responses of pissed off MIT (& other) Comp Sci students on the video(the ‘haters’, if you may). They try to justify their nit-picking, bashing and generally nastiness towards you using all sorts of half-baked excuses(there’s some cool people on there also though); to avoid just honestly admitting that they feel a bit upset about the idea that someone can learn the majority of their degree’s material- that they’ve primarily paid probably upwards of $100k for- in about a quarter of the time!

    It’s not like it was a secret that one can self-learn just about any subject, especially in the field of computers; thought I think it’s how methodical you’re going about this- and the fact that it seems like it can almost be something of a watershed moment(no pressure) for self-learning, that makes them feel “threatened.”

    I think the idea of feeling “threatened” is ridiculous though, and reflects poorly on their mentality. If we’re meant to learn throughout life, it extends that even if we spend 8 years at university studying for a Phd- and taking into account the higher rate and volume of learning during that period- barring an untimely demise, most of our learning in life will done be outside of school- or self-taught. So why be against someone who is trying to test the limits of this, to learn more about it and refine it?)

    Wow, that turned out much longer than the 4 lines I originally intended!

    Take care and God bless,

  • Sally

    Scott, as you go through a project, it loses all it’s luster & appeal, or it’s not going as smoothly as you had in mind, and before you know it, you’re magnetised to the ‘shiny new thing’ just around the corner. So how do you keep your focus on your projects till the end, even after it’s lost its initial ‘hotness’? Eg: After working on the MIT challenge for several months now, do you feel excited about it as you did in the first place, do you wonder what the hell are you doing with this very long project???

  • noor

    hi scott,
    i have reading your blog starting 2 weeks ago , i read most of your archieve -iam no writer or anything- but i have and still amazed by your articulation , thinking, your determination and well organized mind , i definitly benefit from it ,i wish u all the best .
    p.s/ since i read your whole archieve in such short period ,i have been uger to read more , keep up the good work

  • Kyle Panda

    Dedicating to commitment while still keeping experimentation, haha, the usual life-paradox

    Here’s a related story from Paulo Coelho: http://paulocoelhoblog.com/201

  • Anne-Sophie

    I used to be neither a great starter nor a great finisher. I think it all has to do with self-discipline. I find that setting myself a deadline helps tremendously when I start a new project. It not only makes me work faster, but also much more focused.

  • Alex

    As usual a very helpful and practical article. This has prompted me to look at my own projects and triage what’s no longer worth my time. I have so many projects floating around in the air that I’m spending my precious time wisely. Thanks for the kick in the butt!

    Off to work on my triage…

  • Megara


    I like the idea of differentiating commitments and experiments, because I think I use to put both of them in the same bag. I am experimenting with different things right now, and depending on the results I may adopt some of them as part of my commitment of improving my lifestyle and be really happy.

    Right now I am trying to become more organized. I am experimenting with the method “Getting Things Done” from David Allen and if it works well, I plan to adopt it as a part of my lifestyle. I am also experimenting with bifasic sleep because I want to have more time and energy for my projects.

    I love reading your blog.

    Thank you very much for sharing all this things with us. ^_^!

  • Jacob

    You wrapped up this article in an excellent manner in the last paragraph.

  • Prince Sam

    Real great post Scott .
    Commitments and experiments have very subtle lines of differences.
    But your clearity, made much sense and impact. Thanks and i wish your coast (of understanding ) enlarges the more, to improve your productivity.

  • Keri

    This is a timely message for me. I came to the realization a few weeks ago that I’m not happy in my life because I have dozens of projects in various stages of completion–a piece of embroidery sitting in a stand in the living room, dirt and containers for gardening sitting in the yard and on the front porch that I never planted last year, etc.–and I feel guilty about not finishing any of them.

    I sat down and made a list of all the things I’m trying to do in my free time (which amounts to 2.5 non-consecutive hours per week day, plus the weekends). I came up with a list of 15 things that I’m trying to cram into two days and those 12.5 weekday hours–and one of those things had a myriad of sub-hobbies. (I do medieval re-enacting, and with that comes research, making clothes for two people, embroidery, plus all the other things I want to master: weaving, spinning, basketweaving, jewelry making, shoe making, and some experiments in historical construction. I counted all of these sub-projects as just one in my list of 15!)

    I concluded that there is no way in hell I can get everything done (I couldn’t do everything even if I didn’t work full-time and commute!). So I decided to cut some things off my list. I’ve decided to give up re-enacting–and all its sub-hobbies for a year. I am just going to pack away all my unfinished projects in the garage and store my sewing machines and reclaim my project table for things I’m ACTUALLY working on. No more looking at my idle machines and projects and feeling guilty!

    I’m studying for my conversion and want to do some remodeling to our house–both of which I expect to have done in a year. So, instead of trying to do everything and finishing none of it, I’ve decided to stop one hobby, accomplish a couple of things, then restart my hobby.

    I think this is probably a common problem with creative people–we have so many awesome ideas for things that we want to do, we can’t pick only one or two to work on at a time.

  • Melissa Rachel Black (@YeOldeG

    Great new mantra.. planning on using it on myself extensively 🙂

  • Tom

    Coming from someone who has as many open projects as there are hours in the day, this post speaks to me.

    I just read the Power of Less and am really starting to work on what you are talking about here because I think it’s extremely important. Thanks for the great post.

    Blogs like yours are inspiring my own journey towards a better life. Check it out here.