How to Finish What You Start

The art of doing what you set out to do

Posted Jun 27, 2015

Do you start many things and finish few? If this sounds like you, are you behaviorally procrastinating? Can you stop?

Behavioral procrastination is starting something that benefits you, and then quitting prematurely. This is like running a race and then stopping before you reach the finish line. It is the opposite of deadline procrastination, where you start late and rush to finish. It is different from trying on different hats to see which one fits. For example, you test the waters to see what career track you want to follow.  You test a marketing idea before producing a product.

If you are not sure if you behaviorally procrastinate, here are a few examples and questions for you.

  • You join a health club and quit after a few weeks. You tell yourself you don’t have the time.You know that you can make the time. Practically everything you’ll do will have a purpose. What purpose does not finishing serve?
  • You buy a dozen self-help books on how to cope with anxiety. Someday you’ll get around to reading them.You know that you can find time to read a chapter a day. How do you stop yourself from going further?
  • You write a plan for a great new business. That is as far as you go.What can you do to take an extra step in the direction of completion?

If behavioral procrastination sounds like something you might do, we’ll start by looking at where this process begins.  Then we’ll explore how your new initiative may conflict with your usual routines. Next, we’ll look at how you may get in the way of your own progress. Finally, I’ll share a three-step technique for following through.

Where Does Behavioral Procrastination Begin?

Behavioral procrastination can happen at almost any stage of a project. For example,

  • You are an idea person.  You have many interesting ideas daily.  You plan to follow through with some, someday.  For example, you have an idea for an original app, but that is as far as you’ve gotten. Procrastination surfaces at the point of deciding what to do with your idea.
  • You are super at planning and organizing.  For example, you have a unique business in mind that you’d like to start. You set goals. You create action plans. You get organized. Maybe someday you’ll test the waters about financing the business. Procrastination surfaces when the time comes to testing your plans.
  • You set your goal and start to follow through. For example, you buy a classic car to restore. You disassemble it. You buy new parts. You are ready to finish.  That’s as far as you get. The car gathers dust as it starts to rust. Procrastination surfaces midway through an implementation stage. What can you do to get beyond that point?

Let’s start with how behavioral procrastination might result from competition between your new initiative and your normal routines. What you might do to balance your initiative and routines?

A Case of Competing Conditions

Behavioral procrastination may surface when you start something new that interrupts your usual routine. You have trouble balancing the old with the new. So, what can you do?

  • As you pursue a new initiative, you may find that the time and resources you put into your new initiative upsets your normal routine.You’ll have to carve out time to pursue your idea. For example, is it possible to substitute some of the time you spend reading novels?
  • Even small changes in your daily routine can throw you off kilter.To continue a new initiative, you’ll often have to accommodate to these changes. For example, if you want to build physical exercise into your daily routine, accept a long-term change in your schedule as necessary to fulfill this commitment to yourself.
  • You start by feeling enthusiastic about a new idea. Enthusiasm gives you a burst to start, but rarely stays strong for long. To gain the benefits from your new initiative, you’ll have to grind it out when the going gets tough.

You may be able to work out compromises with yourself until your initiative becomes part of your routine. However, you may have bigger challenges.

Procrastination Has Complications

As practically everyone who procrastinates knows, you’ll rarely stop procrastinating by telling yourself “Stop it” or by telling yourself, “Next time I’ll do better.”  That is because old problems tend to linger for personal reasons. Let’s look at five causes and possible antidotes. 

  • You have an aversion to discomfort. At the first whisper of tension, you do something safer. Antidote: stick with your priority.
  • You come to a point where you need to learn something in order to take the next step. You don’t take the time to learn. Antidote: work at what you need to learn, whether you feel like it or not.
  • You magnify short-term inconveniences and lose sight of the long-term benefits. Antidote: think beyond the moment by focusing on what you want to accomplish.
  • You stop prematurely to avoid a possible failure. Antidote: stretch to see what you can do.
  • You act as if you believe that you don’t deserve success. Antidote: live with success for a while. Once you’ve experienced a success that followed your initiative, see if you want to give it up.

Procrastination is normally complex, which means that more than one thing is going on.  For example, a change in your routine, along with self-doubts, layers a problem onto a problem.

Three Steps to Emotional Freedom

If you find yourself operating with a complex form of procrastination, dealing with the underlying conditions can help. However, you can lessen these same underlying conditions by directly combatting procrastination. Here is a three-step program for that purpose.

  1. Tune into what happens just before you stop prematurely. When you feel like stopping, do you promise yourself that you’ll start again later, and then you don’t? If so, this promise is like a hypnotic drug.You feel lulled with hope while your project stays dormant. Your first step is to work through this hypnotic effect. Use a flip technique. This is where you do the opposite of what you do when you procrastinate. Start now and you won’t have to deal with this delay later—maybe a different one, but not this one. The following two techniques can help.
  2. Imagine yourself crossing a bridge between where you are and want to be. You’ve reached a point where procrastination seems appealing. To help break this cycle,
    Bridge over Quiet Waters with permission from Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art and Design, Fayetteville NC
    Source: Bridge over Quiet Waters with permission from Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art and Design, Fayetteville NC
    talk to yourself in the language of change. Here, you give yourself concrete, step-by-step instructions on how to persist. For example, you want to get back to working out at your favorite gym. You tell yourself, “The first step to get to the gym is to walk to my car. Then I’ll start the car. Then I’ll drive in the direction of the gym.” This is the verbal rehearsal phase to change.
  3. Following your verbal rehearsal, take real-time steps and use the same language to talk yourself through the paces. For example, as you walk toward your car, you tell yourself, “I’m walking toward my car.”
Bridge over Quiet Waters with permission from Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art and Design, Fayetteville NC
Source: Bridge over Quiet Waters with permission from Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art and Design, Fayetteville NC

The three-steps compete with behavioral procrastination avoidance talk, such as, “I’ll get back to this later.” However, to strengthen your performance, practice persistence with this method.

Persistence pays is an adage for success.  However, persistence comes with a price. The cost comes in working through problems that stand between where you are and where you want to go. 

As you work to develop your abilities to operate efficiently and effectively, you’ll procrastinate less.  However, a problem associated with avoiding work, or tension, takes effort to correct.

For more about combatting behavioral and other procrastination styles, click on The Procrastination Workbook

Here's a reference to my seminal work on behavioral procrastination: Knaus, W.  (1979) Do it Now. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall pp 96 – 98.

For a comprehensive presentation on behavioral procrastination, click on

For a pithy 2 minute presentation on combatting behavioral procrastination, click on

(C) Dr. Bill Knaus. 2015. All Rights Reserved.