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.

  • vrjpptl24

    Scott, Great post (as usual) and I completely agree with you. Finishing something is definitely a skill well-worth the time and effort it takes to acquire it. Personally, I have found that committing to finishing a task is extremely gratifying. For instance, I started reading more books in the past few years; however, I noticed that I would give up on the goal towards the middle parts of the year. So, this year, I decided to add a writing component. Namely, after finishing a book, I had to write a 1,000 to 1,500 word review of the book: https://medium.com/the-2015-book-reading-challenge. Of course, I’ve fallen a bit behind already, but I certainly feel the difference. Having publicized the challenge by posting about it on Medium, I have the added external pressure (in addition to my own internal motivation) to make good on the challenge.

    It’s definitely hard work, but it’s taught me to finish what I start. And, really, at the end of the day, that’s where the true growth lies.

  • vrjpptl24

    Scott, Great post (as usual) and I completely agree with you. Finishing something is definitely a skill well-worth the time and effort it takes to acquire it. Personally, I have found that committing to finishing a task is extremely gratifying. For instance, I started reading more books in the past few years; however, I noticed that I would give up on the goal towards the middle parts of the year. So, this year, I decided to add a writing component. Namely, after finishing a book, I had to write a 1,000 to 1,500 word review of the book: https://medium.com/the-2015-bo…. Of course, I’ve fallen a bit behind already, but I certainly feel the difference. Having publicized the challenge by posting about it on Medium, I have the added external pressure (in addition to my own internal motivation) to make good on the challenge.

    It’s definitely hard work, but it’s taught me to finish what I start. And, really, at the end of the day, that’s where the true growth lies.

  • Ez

    Writing reviews doesn’t seem like it solves the originally perceived problem. In fact it sounds more like a hassle. What will happen when you get to the middle parts of the year with a bucket load of reviews still to write? You’ve just given yourself a perfect excuse not to continue reading through the mid-year slump.
    In any case Scott, I agree with your emphasis on actions that make the distinction, not just mental. I believe that we are limited in the amount of commitments we can yet we can do so many more experiments. Question I wanted to ask you, how do you decide whether one commitment is better than the other? Or is it better to find a way to make them co-exist even though it may not be ideal? Or will it depend on a case-by-case basis? For example, you may feel it is better to go to the gym early in the morning before school/work but you also want to pursue a social life which means at times, late nights which make it harder to go to the gym in the morning. Do you decide between the two or just move gym time to after work/school?

  • Ez

    Writing reviews doesn’t seem like it solves the originally perceived problem. In fact it sounds more like a hassle. What will happen when you get to the middle parts of the year with a bucket load of reviews still to write? You’ve just given yourself a perfect excuse not to continue reading through the mid-year slump.
    In any case Scott, I agree with your emphasis on actions that make the distinction, not just mental. I believe that we are limited in the amount of commitments we can yet we can do so many more experiments. Question I wanted to ask you, how do you decide whether one commitment is better than the other? Or is it better to find a way to make them co-exist even though it may not be ideal? Or will it depend on a case-by-case basis? For example, you may feel it is better to go to the gym early in the morning before school/work but you also want to pursue a social life which means at times, late nights which make it harder to go to the gym in the morning. Do you decide between the two or just move gym time to after work/school?

  • deltaForce

    you’re not that good man…you don’t have a reasonable college degree, and you’re not qualified to comment on many topics you post on. I would recommend you get your life together first before making recommendations to others. You’re not successful

  • deltaForce

    you’re not that good man…you don’t have a reasonable college degree, and you’re not qualified to comment on many topics you post on. I would recommend you get your life together first before making recommendations to others. You’re not successful

  • Commenter

    Sounds like sour grapes to me. Really, a “reasonable college degree” and “not qualified”? Scott is sharing things that have worked for him and doing a darn good job of it. Success is in the eye of the beholder and its definition is personal. Get a life, man. Grow up. Learn to write.

  • Commenter

    Sounds like sour grapes to me. Really, a “reasonable college degree” and “not qualified”? Scott is sharing things that have worked for him and doing a darn good job of it. Success is in the eye of the beholder and its definition is personal. Get a life, man. Grow up. Learn to write.

  • Scott Young

    I do have a college degree. I got my bachelor in commerce before starting the MIT Challenge.

  • Scott Young

    I do have a college degree. I got my bachelor in commerce before starting the MIT Challenge.

  • Ben

    Hey Scott,

    thanks a lot for your post. That’s exactly what I needed right now. I am two months into a project and need approx. one more to finish. And guess what: I’ll do it!

    Stay tuned and keep writing awesome stuff like this.

    Ben

  • Ben

    Hey Scott,

    thanks a lot for your post. That’s exactly what I needed right now. I am two months into a project and need approx. one more to finish. And guess what: I’ll do it!

    Stay tuned and keep writing awesome stuff like this.

    Ben

  • gui

    Thanks Young,I am older than you,but you did teach me a lot.Sharing is one of the most noble deeds in the world. You did great! People are thwarted(I mean intervened) by someone mostly just testfied that they are doing well. Human beings has much guts in face of virtue than crime. Ignore criticism ,keep going!

  • gui

    Thanks Young,I am older than you,but you did teach me a lot.Sharing is one of the most noble deeds in the world. You did great! People are thwarted(I mean intervened) by someone mostly just testfied that they are doing well. Human beings has much guts in face of virtue than crime. Ignore criticism ,keep going!

  • Great idea to distinguish between experiments and commitments. Thanks, Scott!

  • Rohi Shetty

    Great idea to distinguish between experiments and commitments. Thanks, Scott!

  • joshlipo

    This hit such a chord, Scott. I am going to build a framework on my DevonThink system. Experiences V. Commitments…I have a lot of unfinished commitments, and I need to get them on paper right now.

  • joshlipo

    This hit such a chord, Scott. I am going to build a framework on my DevonThink system. Experiences V. Commitments…I have a lot of unfinished commitments, and I need to get them on paper right now.

  • Steve H

    Scott – another absolutely solid column. I’ll put this distinction between experiments and commitments into practice as I have struggled with trying to finish everything but ending up finishing so few projects and feeling guilty about it. The way you write these gems, borne of your real life experiences, is just amazing. Thanks for sharing all you’ve learned with the world.

  • Steve H

    Scott – another absolutely solid column. I’ll put this distinction between experiments and commitments into practice as I have struggled with trying to finish everything but ending up finishing so few projects and feeling guilty about it. The way you write these gems, borne of your real life experiences, is just amazing. Thanks for sharing all you’ve learned with the world.

  • Ahmad

    Thanks a lot Scott for raising such a good point. I have always reminded myself of what you wrote back in 2009 in another superb article:

    “What are You Going to be Exceptional at in 10 Years?

    Skill produces the feedback that makes work enjoyable. Basketball isn’t fun if you’re
    awful at basketball. Writing isn’t fun if you feel self-conscious about every
    sentence. Programming isn’t fun if every compilation produces bugs.”

    I had very quickly lost interest in Darwin’s Origin of Species that I bought a few months back. But I am now using the Pomodoro technique to chip at it slowly and as I read it I am enjoying it more and more. I believe setting up
    a process takes a lot of the anxiety away because then you don’t need to decide each time you site for a dreaded task or project, you just follow the process and results come on their own.

  • Ahmad

    Thanks a lot Scott for raising such a good point. I have always reminded myself of what you wrote back in 2009 in another superb article:

    “What are You Going to be Exceptional at in 10 Years?

    Skill produces the feedback that makes work enjoyable. Basketball isn’t fun if you’re
    awful at basketball. Writing isn’t fun if you feel self-conscious about every
    sentence. Programming isn’t fun if every compilation produces bugs.”

    I had very quickly lost interest in Darwin’s Origin of Species that I bought a few months back. But I am now using the Pomodoro technique to chip at it slowly and as I read it I am enjoying it more and more. I believe setting up
    a process takes a lot of the anxiety away because then you don’t need to decide each time you site for a dreaded task or project, you just follow the process and results come on their own.

  • füsun güzelmeriç

    wonderful.

  • füsun güzelmeriç

    wonderful.

  • nzgirl

    I am a lurker of many years; subscribe to and read this blog and I have never commented before. I have to say this guy is wrong! Please do not stop sharing, Scott. You are fantastic! You are so rare – someone who gets the potential that exists inside of most people. There are so many people out there who say how smart they are and who talk about the things they know as if they are better than others because of it. You talk real. Anyone can do what you do. You give solid strategies to help others to success. You are a small part of my own success – two very reasonable college degrees finished, and I have used some of your strategies. I have no one around me who could have told me what to do, I had to research how to study, how to stay motivated, how to FINISH hard things!

  • nzgirl

    I am a lurker of many years; subscribe to and read this blog and I have never commented before. I have to say this guy is wrong! Please do not stop sharing, Scott. You are fantastic! You are so rare – someone who gets the potential that exists inside of most people. There are so many people out there who say how smart they are and who talk about the things they know as if they are better than others because of it. You talk real. Anyone can do what you do. You give solid strategies to help others to success. You are a small part of my own success – two very reasonable college degrees finished, and I have used some of your strategies. I have no one around me who could have told me what to do, I had to research how to study, how to stay motivated, how to FINISH hard things!

  • This is an awesome mental model!

  • Gergely Imreh

    This is an awesome mental model!

  • judy

    Hi scott, thanks for your post, I started a few months ago with course at home for law but lost intrest while I know it can give my career a great boast, now because of your post im going back to the books thanks!,!

  • judy

    Hi scott, thanks for your post, I started a few months ago with course at home for law but lost intrest while I know it can give my career a great boast, now because of your post im going back to the books thanks!,!

  • Binni

    Another great post on habits!

    I recently had the idea that I wanted to get up at 6 am every day for a year, so I decided to just go for it. Two days after getting the idea, I had created a blog, and started my year-long journey of early rising. I’ve been successful at getting up at 6 am for two months now (in fact, I just posted my two-month update this morning: http://www.upat6.com/my-first-two-months-of-waking-up-at-6-am/) but I can definitely see the dangers of committing to such a project for more than a few weeks. In hindsight, the fact that I decided to commit to such an idea on such a short notice, and with minimal preparation, is crazy. Almost as crazy as the fact that I haven’t skipped a beat so far.

    I think I’ve been successful because it’s a very general commitment, and within a few days I was already reaping the benefits of early rising and having a regular sleep schedule. I have also found weekly and monthly planning to be a key tool in helping me stay on course.

    Along with my commitment to wake up early, I have created a system whereby I’m improving my eating, exercising, and working habits through a series of experiments (each one lasting a couple of weeks or so). I have been very successful in improving my physical and mental well being as a result of my experiments.

    Your post is the second one in the matter of days that independently summarizes the principles I have been utilizing over the last couple of months. That, coupled with my own “quick wins”, makes me feel like I’m on the right track, so thanks for the motivation. 🙂

  • Binni

    Another great post on habits!

    I recently had the idea that I wanted to get up at 6 am every day for a year, so I decided to just go for it. Two days after getting the idea, I had created a blog, and started my year-long journey of early rising. I’ve been successful at getting up at 6 am for two months now (in fact, I just posted my two-month update this morning: http://www.upat6.com/my-first-… but I can definitely see the dangers of committing to such a project for more than a few weeks. In hindsight, the fact that I decided to commit to such an idea on such a short notice, and with minimal preparation, is crazy. Almost as crazy as the fact that I haven’t skipped a beat so far.

    I think I’ve been successful because it’s a very general commitment, and within a few days I was already reaping the benefits of early rising and having a regular sleep schedule. I have also found weekly and monthly planning to be a key tool in helping me stay on course.

    Along with my commitment to wake up early, I have created a system whereby I’m improving my eating, exercising, and working habits through a series of experiments (each one lasting a couple of weeks or so). I have been very successful in improving my physical and mental well being as a result of my experiments.

    Your post is the second one in the matter of days that independently summarizes the principles I have been utilizing over the last couple of months. That, coupled with my own “quick wins”, makes me feel like I’m on the right track, so thanks for the motivation. 🙂

  • TF

    Excellent.
    Amazing how apparantly simple conceptualization of motivational and self directional issues can cut tough knots, as here. I’m more than happy to bootstrap my own self work with insights like this from others.
    Thanks.

  • TF

    Excellent.
    Amazing how apparantly simple conceptualization of motivational and self directional issues can cut tough knots, as here. I’m more than happy to bootstrap my own self work with insights like this from others.
    Thanks.

  • DronesClub

    I’m a long-time lurker as well. The reason I started following Scott is how he’s willing to learn widely varying topics through a holistic point of view. I think it takes real honesty to fit what you learn into the general framework of your knowledge, and if you’re honest you’ll need dedication too in order to learn this way. For all the years I’ve followed Scott, he’s stuck with this way of learning. In that sense, I think he’s got his life together pretty well, since he’s got his – character – together. A lot of the rest is chance.

    I have a master’s degree in physics. Would you consider that a “reasonable” college degree? I know physics, so let me explain how this method is good from that point of view.
    The sort of holistic learning Scott does is how theoretical physics works. Given that you verify each smaller piece of knowledge experimentally, you create a logical framework around it which is sturdier than the subcomponents. Within the scales of measurement that you have experimentally verified, your theory is safer from “black swans” because it is very unlikely that the same black swan will appear for every piece of evidence for the theory. And even when it does, your results are generally still safe within the scale you’re working in. This is why the physics of classical scales was hardly shaken at all by both the quantum revolution and relativity.

    Look at the two great educators in physics, Lev Landau and Richard Feynman. They both have a unifying way of looking at nature, and that’s also how they make the subject beautiful and fulfilling. Take a look at Landau’s Mechanics if you know calculus. Take a look at Leonardo’s La Scapigliata, and notice how he uses his knowledge of turbulent eddies in water to draw realistic hair blown by the wind. Did Leonardo have “qualifications”? In his notebooks, he whines about how people didn’t think you’re qualified unless you know Latin.

    Scott’s blog makes me want to get up and be a go-getter. I think it inspires many people, through example, to follow their dreams in a constructive way. You don’t need to be a classicist who’s specialized in memory athleticism in order to learn Roman memorization techniques.

  • DronesClub

    I’m a long-time lurker as well. The reason I started following Scott is how he’s willing to learn widely varying topics through a holistic point of view. I think it takes real honesty to fit what you learn into the general framework of your knowledge, and if you’re honest you’ll need dedication too in order to learn this way. For all the years I’ve followed Scott, he’s stuck with this way of learning. In that sense, I think he’s got his life together pretty well, since he’s got his – character – together. A lot of the rest is chance.

    I have a master’s degree in physics. Would you consider that a “reasonable” college degree? I know physics, so let me explain how this method is good from that point of view.
    The sort of holistic learning Scott does is how theoretical physics works. Given that you verify each smaller piece of knowledge experimentally, you create a logical framework around it which is sturdier than the subcomponents. Within the scales of measurement that you have experimentally verified, your theory is safer from “black swans” because it is very unlikely that the same black swan will appear for every piece of evidence for the theory. And even when it does, your results are generally still safe within the scale you’re working in. This is why the physics of classical scales was hardly shaken at all by both the quantum revolution and relativity.

    Look at the two great educators in physics, Lev Landau and Richard Feynman. They both have a unifying way of looking at nature, and that’s also how they make the subject beautiful and fulfilling. Take a look at Landau’s Mechanics if you know calculus. Take a look at Leonardo’s La Scapigliata, and notice how he uses his knowledge of turbulent eddies in water to draw realistic hair blown by the wind. Did Leonardo have “qualifications”? In his notebooks, he whines about how people didn’t think you’re qualified unless you know Latin.

    Scott’s blog makes me want to get up and be a go-getter. I think it inspires many people, through example, to follow their dreams in a constructive way. You don’t need to be a classicist who’s specialized in memory athleticism in order to learn Roman memorization techniques.

  • Umm Yahya

    Unique and insightful post, thank you for a practical idea that can actually be applied; many articles on the topic simply try to “motivate”. This is something tangible someone can immediately put into practice, and monitor the results. Hoping that it’ll seriously benefit me, but regardless, hats off.

  • Umm Yahya

    Unique and insightful post, thank you for a practical idea that can actually be applied; many articles on the topic simply try to “motivate”. This is something tangible someone can immediately put into practice, and monitor the results. Hoping that it’ll seriously benefit me, but regardless, hats off.

  • David

    Thank you, Scott!

    This makes so much sense. Thanks for the practical advice. I will make sure to think through what will be a commitment in my life, and when it is a commitment, I will see to finish it!

  • David

    Thank you, Scott!

    This makes so much sense. Thanks for the practical advice. I will make sure to think through what will be a commitment in my life, and when it is a commitment, I will see to finish it!

  • Juan Soler

    Muy buena recomendación, Scott. Gracias.
    Trataré de que este cambio no sea para mi uno may de los proyectos abandonados.
    Juan soler

  • Juan Soler

    Muy buena recomendación, Scott. Gracias.
    Trataré de que este cambio no sea para mi uno may de los proyectos abandonados.
    Juan soler

  • emun

    Thanks scott for this post.This is very usefull post infact so simple to undrstand it will really help me alot.Thanks again.

  • emun

    Thanks scott for this post.This is very usefull post infact so simple to undrstand it will really help me alot.Thanks again.

  • Kelly

    “experiments and commitments”…. this is one of the most useful ideas that you’ve shared. I am applying it to so many situations. A great organizational tool that adds clarity to both work and mental endeavors. Once I decide into which category a particular item or thought should be filed, it becomes so much easier to decide what I want to do next. Thank you, thank you!!

  • Kelly

    “experiments and commitments”…. this is one of the most useful ideas that you’ve shared. I am applying it to so many situations. A great organizational tool that adds clarity to both work and mental endeavors. Once I decide into which category a particular item or thought should be filed, it becomes so much easier to decide what I want to do next. Thank you, thank you!!

  • If I could only remember to apply all these things when I am stuck with writers block perhaps I would finish a book. Have to thank you here for your sound advice, I think too often having just one viewpoint tends to stifle a person and locks a lot of doors that would otherwise be opened the moment the veil was lifted.

  • James Holmes

    If I could only remember to apply all these things when I am stuck with writers block perhaps I would finish a book. Have to thank you here for your sound advice, I think too often having just one viewpoint tends to stifle a person and locks a lot of doors that would otherwise be opened the moment the veil was lifted.

  • Ahmad

    Hi Scott,

    I have read your blog for some years now. Recently I was reading the Emotional mastery series and I realized that I need to ask you what are some of the effective punishments you have devised for yourself in case you don’t follow up on the task / routine.

    I say this because some people like myself are what NLP classifies as Move Away from Pain type of personality and are likely to be more motivated by the need to escape pain than the satisfaction of achieving a goal.

    Thanks

  • Ahmad

    Hi Scott,

    I have read your blog for some years now. Recently I was reading the Emotional mastery series and I realized that I need to ask you what are some of the effective punishments you have devised for yourself in case you don’t follow up on the task / routine.

    I say this because some people like myself are what NLP classifies as Move Away from Pain type of personality and are likely to be more motivated by the need to escape pain than the satisfaction of achieving a goal.

    Thanks

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