The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished

FocusToday I have a treat for you. Cal Newport from Study Hacks is going to share some of his insights on productivity. Cal is also the author of How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Win at College. He is currently studying for a PhD at MIT.

Last August, I published an essay on my blog, Study Hacks, that was titled: Productivity is Overrated. The basic idea: productivity systems, like Getting Things Done, reduce stress and help you keep track of your obligations, they do not, however, make you accomplished. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the act of becoming accomplished is almost entirely unrelated to being productive.

Productivity is Overrated

That is, the two don’t need to go together. Indeed, as an author, I’ve spent the past five years researching and interviewing unusually accomplished young people, and I would estimate that the majority of them are terribly disorganized. The minority that did have good productivity habits were certainly less stressed. But it played little role in predicting their ultimate success.

What Accomplished People Do Differently

From my experience, the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it. If they’re organized, this might happen in scheduled chunks. If they’re not “like many” this might happen in all-nighters. But they get it done. Fast and consistently.

It’s this constant stream of finishing that begins, over time, to unlock more and more interesting opportunities and eventually leads to their big scores.

If you are productive without harboring this intense desire for completion, you will end up just being busy. We all know the feeling. You work all day off of your to-do list. Everything is organized. Everything is scheduled. Yet, still, months pass with no important projects getting accomplished.

In this post, I want to present a simple system, based on my observation of the highly accomplished, that will help you cultivate your own completion obsession.

Introducing Completion-Centric Planning

With traditional GTD-style methodology, during each day, you look at your current context and at your next action lists and choose what to do next. It’s easy, in this case, to fall into a infinite task loop where you are consistently accomplishing little actions from your next action lists but making little progress toward completing the big projects. This is what I call the Zeno’sParadox of Productivity. Give me any project, and I can fill days with easy, fun little tasks on the project without ever finishing it.

Here’s the reality: Real accomplishments require really hard pushes. GTD style, “one independent task at a time” productivity systems make it easy to avoid these pushes by instead doing a lot of little easy things.

Completion-centric planning rectifies this problem. It refocuses you on completion of projects “not tasks” as the central organizing principle for each day. It works as follows:

Setup: Construct a Project Page

Using a single-paged document in your favorite word processor, do the following:

  1. Make an Active Projects List
    List 6 – 12 of the most important projects in your life. Pull from all three relevant spheres: professional (e.g., school or work related); personal (e.g., home, family, fitness); and extra (e.g., big projects like blogging, writing a book, starting a club).
  2. Label Each Project With A Completion Criteria
    To quote David Allen, to finish a project you must “know what done looks like.” Next to each project type a concise description of what action must be completed for the project to be completed. (When you do this, you’ll notice how easy it was for you before to think about projects in a much more ambiguous, impossible to complete style).
  3. Label the Bottom Half of the Page as a “Holding Pen”
    This is where you can jot down new projects that enter your life while you’re working on the active projects. They can be stored here until you complete the current batch.

Example: My Current Project Page

Below is my current project page, just started, on October 12th. Excuse the wrinkles, I keep it in my pocket all day:

Sample Project Page

Using the System: The Daily Check-In

Each morning, look at your project page and ask: “What’s the most progress I can make toward completing this list today?” Your biggest goal should be to complete projects. If you see a way to do it (even if it requires a big push, perhaps working late) go for it. If you can’t finish one, think of the single thing you could do that would get you closest to this goal over the next few days. Harbor an obsession for killing this list!

At the same time, of course, you should still reference your existing productivity system. Outside of your projects you probably have other, more mundane tasks that need to get done. Your goal here is to make as much progress on your projects as possible despite the other responsibilities you have each day.

Finishing: Rest and Reload

Don’t start new projects until you’ve finished the projects on your current project page. If you dynamically repopulate this list your are liable to let the least fun projects lie fallow indefinitely. If you come up with new project ideas before you complete the current active projects, simply jot them down in your holding pen.

Work as hard as possible to finish your projects as fast as possible. Once done, take a break. For at least a week. Try to do a minimum of work during this time. Recharge. Then, once you’re ready, build a new project page and start over again.

Why This Works

The work flow rhythm required by completion-centric planning is as close as I can get to describing how really accomplished people tend to tackle their work. This approach doesn’t have the same effortless, autopilot appeal of a pure, GTD style work flow. But, unfortunately, accomplishment is not pretty. If you want to make your mark, you have to learn how to charge after things with a furious zeal. This system will help you develop that trait. The rest will follow.

Related Articles from Study Hacks

Note from Scott: I completely agree with Cal here, as a completion focus is something I strive for myself. I generally do assignments and projects that are 1-4 hours in one sitting, and aim for speedy completion of bigger projects. Don’t confuse this completion focus (which deals with the process of getting things done) and a process focus (which deals with the broader theme of craving and motivation) as the two function together, just on different levels.


  • Eugene (Editor, Varsity Blah)

    I think the biggest thing with tools like this is that you need to make sure what goes onto the list is something that actually needs to be done. There’s no point in talking about being efficient (i.e. doing things right) if you’re not being effective (i.e. doing the right things in the first place).

    It’s something I’ve been exploring a lot lately. Simply deciding that most of the things on my to-do list weren’t that important to begin with made me cut it in half quite quickly! The rest are what really matters.

  • Stephen

    Crazy!

    I’ve recently been looking into ways of changing the roadblocks to success in my life. Primarily, I have the starting-new-projects down. I start new projects in a way that makes a sugar-hopped 5th grader with A.D.D. seem passive.

    Meanwhile, I’ve used a very simple yet effective to do list which maintains 3 top priority tasks to complete and 3-4 sub-tasks that are available if all 3 top priority tasks are completed; generally speaking each to-do-list is targeted on a 7-day cycle.

    Just as you noted in your article, it becomes an endless cycle of completing tasks yet not completing projects, and i have a seemly endless trail of semi-completed projects to prove it.

    Thanks for the writing and if your interested in seeing my most complete project head over to http://www.ponderplace.com.

    I’m definately going to give this system a shot in my pants. (I’ll keep it in my pocket too ;))

    -Stephen

  • Stephen

    ps. You’ve been clipped. 😉

    http://clipmarks.com/clipmark/

  • Jared

    Hey this is some pretty sweet advise. Thanks

  • Perfect Life Project

    Interesting and clever approach. I like it.

  • Yoav

    Hi Cal/Scott

    This is a great post. But how does quality/perfection relate to this process? Do you evaluate/throw out non perfect accomplishment. Or is a 80/20% approach more appropriate.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone,

    I’d like to note that a completion orientation (if I have license to interpret Cal’s post) wouldn’t deal with the subject of perfectionism.

    I’m a fan of marginal productivity with perfectionism. That means you stop when an increased unit of time on a project does not increase the benefits of working on it. (i.e. An extra hour spent researching might be worth a 15% grade jump on an assignment, but not a 2% grade jump.)

  • Doug Kyle

    I love it. As a project manager, I really appreciate the concept behind this message and while I believe my profession has given me the tools to avoid the infinite task loop, this is the first I’ve seen it articulated so well. I tend to use a structured goal list where lower level goals are great, but cannot detract from the higher level goals and thereby, all tasks sliced to the GTD level have to be reviewed in light of all goals (detraction includes taking too much time individually or collectively away from the tasks that accomplish the high level goals).

    I’ll definitely be thinking some more on this to see how it can enhance my current flow!

  • Cal

    Yoav,

    An important thing to keep in mind is the size of the project. Notice the “completion criteria” from the sample project sheet included in the post. My projects are bigger than tasks, but, at the same time, not huge. That is, they are endeavors which I wouldn’t feel too bad about completing then reflecting I didn’t want to go forward. I worry if I evaluate too much in process I’ll think myself into procrastination. Having concrete, accomplishable goals becomes half the battle.

    I think if the goal gets too big (e.g., “write a screenplay”) then your concern because much more tricky. In that case, it sounds like Scott’s marginal productivity approach is a good bet.

    – Cal

  • Amit C

    Outstanding article. I have observed, the doing a lot, going only a few steps on personal task front has been there for me. I am definitely going to try this.

    Amit

  • lucien parenteau

    Albert Camus

    We value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavours are meaningless… a greater appreciation for life and happiness… the experience of the Absurd..

  • Chris O’Donnell

    This is one of the more insightful articles I have read and so focused. Really need to focus on completion rather than racking up dozens of tasks that don’t lead to completion. Well done, Scott, I enjoy reading you blog and you seem very accomplished for someone of your age.

  • Sarvesh Patil

    I like the whole idea of Completion Oriented planning (and doing.)
    And GTF(Getting Things Finished) sounds SO cool.

    Great Article..Im inspired.

    I’ve alredy made a project page and started working on the list.

    Thanks Cal and Scott.

  • Cal

    There are, of course, a variety of ways to help jump start a completion focus. I thought I would point toward a recent post on Study Hacks that describes one such strategy:

    Declare a Productivity-Free Day

    I would be interesting in what other hacks people have developed to energize them enough to push project to completion?

    – Cal

  • AL

    This article gave me one of those aha moments I get once in a while when I read insightful articles that I resonate with very much. Thank you so much for this!

  • Keith M

    I tried to implement GTD several times but it never worked for me. It just didn’t feel natural and I fell back into my natural productivity pattern which is very similar to what Cal has so brilliantly presented. Not that I’m an accomplished person, but I’ve learned to embrace my OCD-like desire to complete things in one or two big pushes rather than micro-steps.

    Cal’s beautiful Project Page was the missing piece. Brilliant stuff. Thanks for an insightful (and validating) article.

  • noway

    This is exactly what i do …. ahah …

  • Ben

    I’m curious how you deal with a job that’s reaction oriented, such as tech support?

    My job is a constantly increasing list of projects and though I can generally keep on top of them, I can’t always say “That project will have to wait.” Do you propose putting current projects off the list to complete the more important or urgent ones?

  • Sean

    It sounds like an interesting idea, but it’s poorly explained. I understand how this works for small tasks (jobs that require a few hours to complete), but I don’t get how it applies to big projects. Say, for example, someone has two big projects: write a book and lose 30 pounds. Writing a book is a year-long project; losing 30 pounds is a 3-4 month project.

    Are you suggesting complete the book before beginning the diet? That sounds crazy to me, but it seems to be the point of completion-centric behavior.

  • Cal

    Let me fold two responses into one comment:

    Ben:

    This is a really good question. In a reaction oriented job, you probably still need some sort of customized, GTD-styled system for keeping on top of the constant influx. Completion-centric planning, however, should help you make sure that *despite* this unavoidable work you still also finish the big, non-urgent things in your professional and personal life. For example, in IT, it might help you finish the revamp of the ticket system which would make you stand out more in long run.

    Sean:

    You have to break projects into the right-sized chunks. For me, what works best is thinking on the scale of roughly a month. That is, an active project page might capture what I want to get done in 3-4 weeks. Therefore, you wouldn’t make “write a book” a project. But you might put “finish draft of book proposal” as a project. The tuning of this time frame, however, is likely specific to your situation and the types of projects you tackle.

  • Colin

    I suspect that this works better if you own your schedule. I don’t, which means I don’t have the luxury of choosing not to work for a stretch of time after completing a project… well, not officially anyway.

  • Idetrorce

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  • slothbear

    Somewhere between reading this post and one at ThinkHacks (ref below), I’ve come up with a nice summary of this approach: “The goal is to run out of things to do.” (then rest, reload, repeat)

    http://www.thinkhacks.net/blog

  • Rohan

    Thanks to Scott and Cal for posting this, I’ve been frustrated at not finishing things for a while and this looks like the ideal solution. Thanks!

  • GG

    I’m a mom of 3 young kids who have all just started school which leaves me completely free in the mornings. I had so many ideas and things I wanted to catch up on since I stopped working and find myself in a complete state with tons of unfinished art / sewing / excercise projects and it’s driving me crazy! Can you imagine my joy when in a fit of frustration I googled ‘getting things finished’ and up came the answer I’ve been looking for! In a word ‘COMPLETION’. WOW, why didn’t I think of that!!!? It’s like a light has just gone on in this fuzzy brain of mine! ha ha. I’ve started a project page and am so excited to start and accomplish. Thanks Scott.

  • andres jg

    Scott,

    It seems to me, that in essence, to complete the work
    one has to go for “low hanging fruit”
    however….
    inevitable one has to go for higher and higher fruit
    every time with out burning out mentally and emotionally.
    (outside comfort zone)

    Cal Newport, thx for commenting this post.

  • Scott Young

    Andres: Agreed.

  • Jerry Grimes

    Love it! You guys are really on to something here. GTD style systems have always kept me busy and organized, but it was only when I went “off grid” that I got anything done: Starting a company, developing a non-profit, casting a vision for something new.

  • Cheryl

    I love the idea of keeping the project page in your pocket. I usually have such a page, but it is never where I want it, when I want it. If it’s in my pocket, I always have it. So, thanks for the idea! Mine is now in my pocket, and strangely, I feel much more committed to it now.

  • Selina

    I feel extremely motivated by this post and will be trying out this method right now. Thanks for the tips!

  • core stability exercises

    To me it is always ‘one … at a time’ whether that be one lift at a time, one set at a time, one workout at a time.

  • buy house newport

    This is an interesting concept of “completing” a project versus being organized and doing chunks of many things. It does make sense to complete big overall ideas rather than half-doing small projects.

  • Brian

    Success is a commitment to completion. It is not a good idea to keep starting projects and leaving it. You presented some interesting concepts here that I have never heard told in this way and it make sense. I like your idea.

  • Ret

    This is true since, productivity and the extensive process in organization may create some waste of time and energy. We may instead concentrate our time and energy on accomplishing a task rather on organizing. However, the benefit of productivity and organization can be advantageous when it comes to routine accomplishments.

  • Francesca

    Absolutely FANTASTIC! Thank you.

  • Nenad Ristic

    I love it! Although instead of keeping it on a piece of paper, I will keep it as a file on my phone…

    Perhaps the first project for the system will be “Write Project app…”

  • Mario

    Interesting post! The process probably works for a student or for someone that can decide about his projects without important of frequent interferences from someone else. Consider this example (from my direct experience). I create my project list A, B, C, D. I start to work hard on it. My boss call me….or a client email me…they have something urgent…they need a feedback within tomorrow or even today (this is just routine and not exception in many work settings)…Now I have a new project E to cope with…I cannot tell my boss or my client to wait until I have finished A, B, C, D…I need to add E to the list and put another item in standby. If you transfer this in real life you will see that very easily you will be have to have very flexible priorities, constantly being updated and you will probably have to reconsider your commitments and some of your projects will be probably be left back against your wishes… What do you think?

  • Leon

    One of the best pieces of time management advice I have ever found on the web – and also very concisely written. (The other being the ‘Not Insane To Do List’).

    Are you still using this approach?

  • Caro

    This is a great approach! Giant ‘to-do’ lists haven’t been working for me, and I end up procrastinating on the tough projects and they don’t get done. I’m going to adapt this a bit though as I have a day job, and I can’t just decide not to go into work one day in order to clean out my freezer or complete other personal projects, so I’ll do one list for work and one for personal projects.

  • Angela Ursery

    This is a very, very valuable tool. I’m so glad Cal wrote it, and thank you, Scott, for posting it.

    This sentence is electrifying, and should be on a motivation poster: “If you want to make your mark, you have to learn how to charge after things with a furious zeal.” Wonderful!

    Thanks again.

  • Chris

    Very interesting article!

    However, one doubt pops to my mind, and I’m wondering what Scott, or Cal, or anyone else has to say about it:

    Aren’t there certain tasks you have to do where you don’t know yet what your completion criteria is, until you’ve done it, or at least where fixing a completion criteria up front stifles you?

    for example, you may be assigned a reading about a topic you know nothing about for a class. if you decide beforehand that the goal is to “understand concept X” in the article, you might block yourself from noticing interesting points that are not related to concept X.

  • Luke

    Great article, and I’m bookmarking it so I can make sure to go back and implement some of your tips. I do have a topic for discussion I would love to get your feedback on.

    You mentioned that “the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it.”

    What if the actual common trait is not an obsession with completion, but rather a dedication to the incomplete task that a majority of people don’t have?

    A majority of people seek for purpose or satisfaction in completing tasks/jobs/books etc, but the feeling of completion is never quite as good as they thought it would be while working on it, or at the very least that sense of satisfaction and accomplished purpose dwindles after time. They reached the top of the mountain, but somehow at the top of the mountain they see the peak of another, even bigger and better looking mountain.

    This process of climbing from one mountain to another is the same experience as moving from one completed task to another. You get burned out if you only have an intense desire to get to the top each time, and it isn’t as good as you thought it would be.

    The accomplished people do finish more tasks than other people, but that is because they are dedicated to the climb. They have an obsession with doing their best on each task or project, and when that task is finished they move on to the next one fulfilled by the process of giving their best, rather than the sense of accomplishment from completing a task.

    What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them. These are just some of my opinions and my own unique perspective.

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  • danielgrant

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  • Jad

    How frequently do you update/reprint the list?

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