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How to always finish what you start

Are you first off the starting block but never finish the race? Christine Fieldhouse asks experts for advice on how to keep motivated and achieve your goals

Woman on jogging track
Image Credit: Shutterstock
When you've finished something, acknowledge itby having a few hours off work.

We're all really good at starting projects. Who hasn't known the thrill of embarking on something new - whether it's starting a fitness regime, writing a book or drawing up a business plan? The projects are so stimulating in the early stages that we're carried along by our enthusiasm and we glow with energy and zest.

Then one day all we see ahead is hard work. Throw in some self-doubt and another grand idea is left by the wayside, half-complete, with our sense of self-worth in tatters.

Experts say it isn't starting that's the problem - it's keeping going and seeing things through to the finish, especially if the project is time-consuming and demanding. Then the incomplete projects hang over us, reminding us of our failures and drumming home the fact that we don't finish the things we start.

It's a vicious circle that goes on and on... unless we take drastic action and break the pattern. According to performance coach and counsellor Julia Armstrong, a former marathon runner who represented England in the 1986 Commonwealth Games, finishing things requires hard work, discipline and persistence and when we achieve what we set out to, it gives us a confidence and buzz that drives us to do more.

Yet the flip side is just as powerful - when we don't finish projects we lose our confidence and our self-belief.

"If you let yourself down, then it can confirm your feelings that you're not very good," says Julia, author of Running to Learn. "It can make you feel that life is quite disappointing and not as colourful. It can erode your confidence."

Author and life coach Talane Miedaner acknowledges the difficulty in getting things finished, both in our work and home lives.

"We all have a feeling that we're never finished," she says. "We may empty our inbox, but the next time we look at our computer, there will be 50 or so new messages in there. We're being bombarded with phone calls, text messages, e-mails and other information. We're on a treadmill and gone are the days when we could leave the office behind at work. It's with us all the time, on our mobile phones and our computers."

Talane, author of Coach Yourself to Success, lists accomplishment as an important emotional need to fulfil. "We get personal satisfaction from doing something well and finishing it," she explains. "If you make sure something is 100 per cent complete at home and at work, it won't come back and bite you later.

"If, for example, you're working in customer service and a client isn't happy with what they've got, it isn't enough to take it off their bill. You can be sure another client will complain about the same thing. What you need to do is find out what was wrong with the service and put it right. It gives you a tremendous boost knowing that you have done something well."

But surely we can't finish every single thing we start? How do we choose what to finish?

Talane recommends we analyse where our results come from and ask a vital question: What is important today?

"We need to figure out what's worth polishing and then spend time on that," she says. "If we make sure that is done to100 per cent of our ability, we will feel fantastic. Don't spend a long time working through150 emails. Just spend time on the one that's going to make a difference to your life and yield you some results. Look at what will make you feel good about your day. You may want to finish work early to spend time with your children, or write your book or build your deck.

"Make a list of all your incomplete projects, from the dress you're making for your daughter and the shelf that's still waiting to be put up, to the trip to Disney you're planning for the kids, and go through them to see which fill you with great energy and enthusiasm. Get rid of any that don't excite you. If you're not inspired by them when they're on your list, you'll never finish them."

Taking on too much can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, and Talane recommends having no more than three big projects on the go at once.

"Too much to do can cause feelings of stress, anxiety and depression," says Talane. "You're better off cancelling some of the things, or finding another solution.

"If, for example, you've offered to take food round to an elderly person's house three times a week, and you find that's too much, find someone else to share the job, or admit you're only going to manage it one day a week. Then learn to say no to requests in the future. Otherwise, you're just going to clear the decks and find they fill up again straight away."

Case study: 'I tried finishing school'

Our writer, Christine Fieldhouse, a self-confessed start-a-holic, decides to tackle some of her unfinished projects and finds it easier than expected

I think I'm a start-a-holic! I love starting new projects and while I finish some of them, there are others, such as new books I'm writing, that sit in my computer for years, untouched and incomplete. Every time I see them in My Documents, my heart feels that little bit heavier, and I remind myself I have so much to do, and I'm not doing it.

For my ‘finishing school' project, I went through every area of my life - my marriage, my home, my family, my work, my friends and my leisure - to see what unfinished business there was. And there was a lot! After brainstorming them onto paper, I set about planning which to do or ditch.

Some were obvious. I'd suggested a night out with some parents from my son's school. Seeing their names on my ‘finishing list' made me aware I was just being polite and sociable suggesting we went out. So I crossed them off my list and immediately felt a little lighter.

Then, I planned to do at least one finishing job every day, yet when I started, I found I could batch jobs together. On a visit to family, I returned a book en route, and delivered some of my son Jack's old clothes to a friend (and cleared out a drawer at the same time!). With great satisfaction I was able to tick off at least four jobs that day.

I was shocked at what little time some jobs took me. I'd delayed clearing out an old toy box in the hallway for six months, yet when I got round to it, it took me four minutes. Yes, four! I'd wanted to see Mary Poppins at the theatre for months, yet getting the tickets and fixing the hotel and the train from Yorkshire to London took me ten minutes.

Workwise, I had a long list of unfinished features, so I got out my diary and planned when I could work through them one by one, and I didn't take on any new work until I'd finished.

I'd also delayed putting photographs in an album, yet once they were chronicled, I loved reliving past times.

Some jobs were painful. Sorting out letters to and from my late mum was sad.

The hardest jobs were the long-term projects, but I knew from having finished writing one book that it's easier to think of them as chapters than to see it as one massive job that might take forever.

Six steps to motivate yourself to complete your projects

Focus expert Phil Olley has some simple techniques to help you stay on track

1. Decide what finishing means

Work out how you will know when your task is finished. What will the finished product look like? If you're decorating a room, will you know it's all finished when the curtains are up and the carpet is down? If you're planning a party, what stage do you need to be at before everything is sorted? 

2. Make a list

Write down all those things you're putting up with - buttons missing on a jacket, the light bulb that needs replacing in the garage, the website that needs updating, the survey you need to fill in. Then work your way through them each day, ticking them off. 

3. Break big jobs down into chunks

If you have a massive project, such as writing a book, or launching a business, break it down into manageable steps, and finish one of those every day. If you are redecorating, you could buy paint on one day, prepare the room on another, paint a wall on day three and so on. If you are launching a business, have a list of smaller things you can do every day, such as visiting your bank manager, getting flyers printed, seeing a website designer.

4. Picture the job finished

Visualise the job being completed. Give your image colour and movement and imagine how you'll feel inside when it's all finished. Really wallow in the satisfaction of having taken something to completion, and imagine yourself enjoying the result.  

5. Exercise your finishing muscle

Experts believe it takes at least 21 days to create a new habit so draw up a 28-day grid, for four weeks of seven days, and make a list of things you need to finish. Tackle one a day for 28 days, and tick your grid boxes every day when you finish something. As you start to think of yourself as a finisher, you'll develop great self-esteem and confidence. 

6. Give yourself a reward

When you've finished something, acknowledge it by having a few hours off work and going to the shops or a park, having a beauty treatment or going for a swim.