You would think that starting or sustaining at anything is hard enough, right? But once you do start and once you do keep doing it, assuming that there’s an actual end to it, you’d expect it to be easy, no? Since you overcame the static friction and (hopefully) managed to do it for long enough to bring it to closure, finalizing the thing (whatever the thing is) should be a no brainer, right?
I can tell you, firsthand, that you are so damn wrong. Doubly so if you are somewhere high on the perfectionist spectrum.
Finishing a task, finalizing a project or wrapping up your bachelor thesis – they all come with specific set of issues. And this article is all about tackling them.
I finished all my exams and was discussing with my mentor which subject to tackle for my thesis work. Everything run by so fast and I just felt like I never gave my 100%. I did pretty good overall but I just felt like I never demonstrated my best. This was a time to make up for that.
“How much time do I actually have to submit this thesis?”. It was around late February.
“Well, the latest you have is by October, but I’d strongly suggest you to aim for June. No need to drag it any further than that”.
Almost eight months in worst case. Hell, even if I wrote half a page a day, I could tackle this in three months. EASILY.
Now, you have to understand that, by being a perfectionist and if you’re reading this – you probably are one, you tend to categorize tasks in two categories — ULTRA IMPORTANT or NOT IMPORTANT AT ALL. The latter ones are fine – you probably don’t need this article to have those tackled. But the ones that you categorize as ULTRA IMPORTANT, well hell’s bells, unless you apply some tools of the trade, those tasks are doomed to last FOREVER.
Needless to say in which category did my thesis end up, right? It was my personal work of art, expressed by letters being grouped into words. Every chapter would be a mind blowing one. Every comma had a pure holistic reasoning behind it. It was my terrestrial legacy to all of the readers and all future generations to come.
Two months and, I kid you not, all I had was a title. Well, a rather good one I should say – “Using audio-fingerprinting technique for the purpose of identification and categorization of an audio sample”. But still, it’s ALL I had in TWO months. And it wasn’t even written in a required format, but rather hanging in my notes app. At least it ticked all of my shitboxes – it sounded holistic and I’m sure the academia would fall over it’s butt once I released it to wilderness …
“Okay”, I thought, “at least I have a month to wrap it up. I can do two pages a day or so and I’ll be good to go”. What a dumb-ass thinking it was …
I’d like to say that it took me a month to finish, but that’d be a lie. It took me seven months and twenty eight days of randomly writing thoughts here and there, widening and narrowing down all the topics that I’d love to cover … And the clock was actively working against me. The paranoia started kicking in. Frankly, I probably would never even have finished it if it wasn’t for my professor who contacted me in late September to tell me that I have two days to deliver a finished and printed version. He loved the progress and he approved everything that I covered so far, but he needed it finished. F*ck!
Not only did I finish the whole thesis in 48 hours (I was literally writing the day and night; the only time when I wasn’t writing was during the 8 hours when I had work to attend to), but it turned out pretty good! Probably not how I envisioned it, but regardless. And I liked it.
Now, I would love to say that I learned my lesson here and that my master thesis took a different course. Not exactly. However, I’ve learned a trick – I wrote the intro and conclusion before I wrote the middle part. Combined with a fixed deadline, it actually did wonders. And I’ll elaborate on that now …
The “Life’s Work” problem
You know, I’m not exactly sure if this is just my problem or a rather generic one. I would bet on the latter.
Be it a thesis, a short-term task or a whole project that you are working on, we tend to believe that it just has to be perfect. Good enough is not good enough. But, why so?
I can’t speak for everyone, but when it comes to me, I actually think that I’m afraid of being judged. Especially for something that I do care about. I’m afraid that someone is going to look at what I did and just be like “meh, it’s okay”, or “meh, it could have been better”. The sheer thought of that scares the living shit out of me.
Obviously, the only way of preventing someone from judging you (yes, YOU!) is to make it your life’s work. Pour all time and energy into it, trying to make it perfect.
And you know what’s the problem with “life’s work”? You either drop dead before you’re finished, or you give up on it. But one thing is guaranteed – they take shitload of time and you probably miss bunch of other opportunities in the process. Worst of all? Once you do do finish (assuming that you do so), and once the initial excitement wears of, you realize that it wasn’t even that important in the first place. It becomes yet another “meh, it’s okay” on your shelf. And you move on, determined not to repeat the same mistake again.
Deadline as a medium of creative drive
You know, I’m a programmer. And I’ve been so my whole life. And if there is ONE thing that is guaranteed to trigger my vomit reflex it has to be the mention of a “deadline”. Seriously.
Yet, I would lie if I told you that there’s been anything remotely more efficient than having a fixed deadline. The date when you have to have your project finished, or the date when you have to turn your homework or thesis in.
You would assume that NOT having a deadline is a proper way to fire up your creative juices, right? Because, putting a TIMELINE on a creative work beats the purpose of creativity, right?
Wrong. Partially, at least.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d strongly suggest you go and read Creativity, Inc. It’s written by Ed Catmull, a guy who happens to be a brain behind 3D graphics and many of the Pixar’s cartoons. He also happens to be a President of Disney’s animation studio.
He argues that the deadlines are THE BEST way to bring your creativity to anything that is useful. Like, you know, a Toy Story for example. And how so? Well, by treating it as a medium, and not as a whip. You set a deadline for a check-up, but you don’t threaten people with being beaten if they miss it. You have people commit to deliver SOMETHING by the fixed date and then you decide how to proceed. Rinse & repeat until it’s perfect!
But, what do you do if you DON’T have a fixed deadline (e.g. you’re working on your personal pet project, like, a blog post for example)? Well, you MAKE one! And just to ensure that you do have actual stakeholders waiting for the “outcome”, you make a public commitment!
Public Commitment as a viable alternative
If you’ve been following my “work” on Instagram or LinkedIn, you probably have noticed that I usually publish a screenshot of the new article that I’m starting to work on. And you might have been wondering, and rightfully so, WHY am I doing that? What’s the purpose of publishing a screenshot of an unpublished article?
That is my public commitment! That is how I make an artificial deadline and how I make you a stakeholder. By publishing the screenshot, I’m passively announcing that I’m working on something new and that you should expect the final version soon. And there it is. My artificial 5-days deadline is set and my creative juices are on fire now!
So, in case that you want to work on ANYTHING that doesn’t have a strong deadline, go and make one! If you’re about to embark on a diet – announce that you are planning to “lose X kilograms by …..”. If you’re working on a task, tell your boss that you will be finished by next week. Or, if you’re about to start blogging … well, announce it! Make your public commitment and then, the only thing that you’ll be left with is – having to do it 🙂 Because, you wouldn’t want to be a liar, wouldn’t you? 🙂
Whatever it is that you are working on (or planning to do), go and announce WHEN will it be finished! Make a PUBLIC COMMITMENT. Make artificial stakeholders.
You don’t have to make it PUBLIC PUBLIC though. Sharing it with your inner circle, your family or, you know, your boss, is absolutely OK as well. What’s important is that you commit to at least one person and that person has to keep you accountable!
I guarantee that once you scratch the power that lies under the surface of public commitment, you’ll have hard time NOT finishing anything ever again!
Be it a task, a project, a thesis or a general goal that you want to achieve, putting end to what you started is as complex as starting and sustaining at it is. Combined with a “life’s work” problem where we tend to categorize things as ultimate expression of our creativity and skilfulness, we have a perfect recipe for a never-ending crusade.
One of the best ways to tackle this is a battle tested method of a deadline and commitment. Commit yourself either to your best friend or by announcing it publicly, and do make sure to create stakeholders and set expectations. This, in turn, will be one of the best driving forces both to keep you on track of what matters and to ensure that you are actually going to close.
Good luck and let me know how you did!
Unfortunately, I don’t have that many resources directly related to the subject of “finishing” things. Hence, I will recommend some of the things that, among other things, tackle some of the topics that I wrote about:
- Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull – it’s not a self-help book but it deals with the topic of creativity and how Pixar achieved it. You’ll get to learn that, indeed, deadlines can be one of the best drivers of a creative endeavour. Here’s my review of it
- Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink – another one not directly related to “finishing” but it helps to understand how to simplify things and make simple goals
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – this one is gigantic. And it deals with every possible aspect of how our brains work and how we process things. Regardless, I would wholeheartedly recommend this as a “must read” reasource. Here’s my review of it
- I would also say that reading anything on the topic of “Agile” or “Scrum” is a valuable resource as well. Why? Because it deals with chunking and goal setting at its finest. And frankly, that’s what you should be doing. One that I read a while ago and can definitely recommend is Learning Agile.
- Finally, why not sprinkle it a bit with reading some classical Stoicism that might help you set your priorities accordingly. Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life might be a very good intro to it
If you liked this article, you might also like:
- Art of Starting Things
- Art of Sustaining at Things
- I’m as anxious as you are; I just choose to do it
- Do something that you suck at
- Why do we ignore cognitive (over)load?
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