5 Steps to Finish What You Start

It’s not over ‘til you quit. Here’s how to persevere.

How to finish what you start

I’ve started and quit hundreds of projects in my life. I’ll get distracted by something shiny, go knee-deep in research for weeks or months, then drop it for the next shiny thing. I lost most of the projects due to a lack of perseverance.

Testing many ideas is a great way to expand our knowledge, but if we want to be leaders in our creative fields we’ve got to persevere to the end. I’m a multi-passionate, so I’m hard-wired to want to try many different things. This is a constant struggle between sticking with an idea to the end and knowing when it’s time to quit.

It’s OK to quit.

But if we do make the decision to quit it should be based on exhausting all possible options — taking the idea to the end and recognizing it won’t work for us. It’s OK to quit early. Maybe we do a napkin test and realize the project was a terrible idea before we spend a dime on it.

It’s not OK to quit due to shiny object syndrome.

Perseverance is a funny thing. We know when we could use more of it. We know when it disappears. We know when we’re kicking ass. In the middle of a hot project we don’t need perseverance. We have excitement.

The crux of quitting lies in what Seth Godin calls the dip.

The dip is the part of a project where the universe conspires against you. It’s the rock of Sisyphus. We plow through the excitement phase and onto reality. Once we reach the dip, if we recognize it, we know we’re on the right path.

Only recently I’ve developed a set of tools to help me persevere when things get rough. The dip is sinister. There’s another name for the dip too. Steven Pressfield calls it the resistance. I think it’s important to give your resistance a name. I call my resistance Duke. We all know the feeling — the storm clouds brew. We feel it in our gut. There’s a wind-shift and things are about to get really hard. Our project has become work. We see the struggles ahead.

I think it’s important to give your resistance a name. I named my resistance Duke.

When you name your resistance you have something to fight.

There’s no longer a feeling, but a target. We coast along the joy of a project. The joy becomes a cliff. The cliff becomes a pit. Here lies Duke, biting at my ankles, pushing me back, and doing everything he can to make me quit. Life is easier in Duke’s world — Cheetos on the couch and no outlook for the future.

Duke must die. I do everything I can to squash him when he first arrives, to prevent him from getting too strong later.

How to Persevere in Five Steps

  1. Recognize your point of resistance. Pause when you feel it. Recognize it, but don’t give it any negative attention. Give the resistance a name. Now you have a sworn enemy. Enemies are easier to fight than ghosts. Enemies are easier to spot when you know their name. Resistance is the green light your on the right path, not the wrong one. If you never encounter resistance, your goal is probably a cop-out.
  2. Accept tiny steps forward as a sign of progress. I used to quit all the time, because I believed in an all-or-nothing approach. Either I made daily, massive progress towards my goal, or I was a failure. This is a sign of the dip. Duke tells me I’m nothing if I don’t write 2,000 words every day. I spot Duke across the street. I give Duke the finger and yell “all I need it one written word and you lose today.” Duke skulks away.
  3. Track your progress. We think we’ll remember, but we won’t. I couldn’t tell you what I for dinner two days ago, let alone tell you if I wrote, but my tracking app will. I could tell you if I wrote last week or last month. The tool doesn’t matter. It can be analog, smoke signals, or digital. What you track, you can measure.
  4. Find your lion. The resistance is bad. When Duke shows-up in my life, I know I’m in for a fight with the oldest parts of my brain. Our brains hate change. We run from change. Old patterns are much stronger and easier for the brain to follow. Find something to run from. Whether it’s the thought of being stuck in a job you hate, or a permanent reputation of a quitter — something strong, a lion you can run from. We avoid pain stronger than we seek pleasure. Make some pain and run from it instead of running towards a goal that resists you.

Here’s another post I wrote about using fear as a motivator:

5. Celebrate the small victories, they’re more important than the destination. If I see Duke on the street corner I double-down and look for anything I can do to move me towards my goal — even if it’s just a thought exercise. If Duke spots one moment of weakness, he’ll lunge at me. The attack will make it much harder to resist him. I might give up and try something new, only to find Duke hiding later. When I celebrate small victories, Duke isn’t invited to the party. You can’t be both proud of yourself and unmotivated in the same thought. Hit your small victory. Write one word. Walk one step. Film one second. Call one prospect. You did your work. You kicked Duke in the teeth. It’s time for a mini-party.

When to quit

Blind goal-following is also dangerous. Sometimes the right answer is quitting to make room for the work that matters most. Earlier I mentioned the napkin test, where you pen your idea first and run it through a mental model before wasting too much time and energy on a bad idea.

Most ideas are bad.

Quitting too late is also bad, because you wasted valuable time. I can’t tell you when to quit. You know inside. Sometimes we chase an idea with manic passion until the truth finally hits us. Sometimes we run out of money and we’re forced to quit. Sometimes there’s no audience.

There’s no perfect answer, but you can’t fail until you quit. I find comfort in knowing the decision is up to me. The comfort doesn’t make the road easier, but it make the road possible. Your Duke is out there. Recognize him or her and be relentless in the fight, because it will be a fight. Anyone who’s ever accomplished anything has faced her Duke. We play hurt. We get back up with skinned elbows and black eyes. We hang from the ladder with one hand as Duke tries to pull us off.

NEVER QUIT UNTIL YOU SHOULD.

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