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.