Surely we’ve all done it: start something new and then leave it unfinished. There's nothing wrong with that, in itself. The trouble arises if it’s a frequent pattern that causes you distress.
Consider the sax lessons begun and stopped, the welding class you dropped out of, the novel you intended to have done by now but haven’t worked on in months (or years). Or the decluttering you meant to finish on your living space, the blog you began and on which you genuinely hoped to post regularly, the eating or exercise regime you started and stopped.
Is there a more functional way to go about achieving goals we truly believe are worth going after? Here are a few thoughts to consider.
Why We Abandon Projects
Starting a new project is like falling in love. It’s exciting, emotionally arousing, and infused with the natural motivator of novelty. Perhaps we even get obsessive about this new activity. We imagine it as “all good” and don’t pay much attention to potential obstacles, downsides, or challenges we may soon face.
Then, after some time goes by, the activity (or book or lessons or relationship) turns into harder work than we expected. It takes longer to complete than we’d hoped, or there’s some tedium and drudgery involved. We realize we aren’t sure about the next step. Stuck, we grind to a halt. We usually don't recognize that we’ve essentially quit trying. No, we just put off the “getting back to it” until such time as we imagine it will be effortless again.
This sort of procrastination may or may not be fueled by perfectionism and the fear that the next steps may not be excellent enough. Regardless, some ways of thinking frequently—almost inevitably—stop you in your tracks. There’s a block, a wall, or a fear that’s getting in the way.
Laziness may be one small piece of the problem, but few of us are lazy when it comes to doing what we love, what’s easy, and what’s intrinsically rewarding.
How to Avoid Getting Stuck
Here are a few actions to take before you promise yourself (or others) that, this time, you’ll complete what you start:
- Become aware of your pattern of starting and stopping. A way to recognize a possible pattern is to list every past project you can recall. Every class, resolution, language, book, or plan you have begun. (Maybe a close friend can help.) Write down why you started this activity, and when and why you stopped. Can you determine any commonalities?
- Research more deeply into your next project before jumping in. Learn what others have experienced when aiming toward your same goal. Don’t think you’ll be the first one to learn Mandarin in a month, or the first to complete a novel that needs no revising, or the first to lose much weight and keep it off while never feeling the least bit hungry.
- Know yourself and try be realistic. If you’re not particularly reality-based by nature, it may be a useful trait to work on. Setting goals that you can’t possibly achieve, while insisting you can and you will, merely sets you up for failure.
- Make a timeline or write out a set of steps toward your goal. Adding structure to your plans can really help. So many words a day, so much time per week promised to this activity, and so on. It’s not “successes” you’re counting at this point, but rather specific efforts you can realistically make.
- Ensure your main motivation is intrinsic. Do you really want to do this for personally meaningful reasons? Or do you think finishing your book will get you lots of money or prestige (or the equivalent)? If you can find pleasure in the doing, in the learning, you won’t get as anxious when things take longer than expected.
Of course, maybe you should consider quitting, on purpose, without a sense of failure. For more on this, see my upcoming post about quitting.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry