How to Keep From Starting Things and Not Finishing Them

Confession time. I have a starting problem. I LOVE starting things! And I’m really good at it. I can start so many things, that you’ll loose track of them. In fact, I can start so many thing that I’ll loose track of them. I can get so excited about the ideas behind things that I want to just jump in and start. And I do.

I can think of a handful of small projects that I’ve decided to start– often they are things that I’m making or building. I go to the store and get supplies. It’s all so much fun, until I get back and then realize how much work is ahead and how it may be really really hard work. If I’m not careful I can do a lot of starting things and not finishing them.

(If you’re curious about my projects, that I’m committed to sticking with (finishing) are my photography company, this blog and my work helping people find meaning.)

Starting has its limits.

You can only have so many balls in the air at one time. The down side of being good at taking initiative and starting is that you can then find yourself spread too thin. The more you have going on, the less effective and invested you can be in any one of those areas.

If you are really good at starting things, here are four things you need to learn in order to survive and be more effective.

1) LEARN TO SAY NO

This is the hardest for many. The thrill of starting can be fueled by the endless possibility that could come about. Saying no to taking on another project means saying no to the possibilities that it could create. It also means saying yes to a deeper investment in the things you are already a part of. Anytime you say no to another project, idea, or commitment, you are protecting your time and energy so that you can invest more in the places that you are already investing. Starting things and not finishing them can be avoided by not starting as many things.

2) LET PROJECTS END

This is hard because you’ve loved the idea enough to start it. It’s hard to see something that I care about die. It’s also hard because it forces you to confront your limits and admit that you are unable to do it all at once. It forces you to see that starting things all the time is not sustainable or effective.

Good starters get good at letting projects go. The more you practice this, the more you’re able to stop yourself and evaluate whether or not you’ll be able to follow it through to completion. If it’s going to be just another thing to do and another distraction, then quit while you can– before you’ve invested too much. Yes, this means they will go unfinished, but that might be necessary in order to free yourself up to focus on other project. You can stop starting things and not finishing them by clearing space to work on and finish the things that matter most.

3) FIND COLLABORATORS

I am a huge advocate for collaboration. We can accomplish so much more together than we can on our own, and the creative process is so much more interesting when more are involved. Finding collaborators is a great way to deal with the challenge of too many projects, and it’s a great way to team up with people whose strengths balance you out, and vice versa.

But keep this in mind: People don’t want to enable your lack of focus and/or self control. No one wants to be your clean up crew.

Teammates and collaborators can help you carry a project through the difficult places where you get stuck. Those places may be some of why you keep starting things and not finishing them. Collaborators can help.

4) LEARN TO FINISH

Starting is fun, and finishing is also exhilarating, but making it through to the end is the hard part. Anyone can start something, and many do. Few finish things because of the difficulty of staying on course and committed in the middle. The middle is a very hard place.

Have you ever watched a long distance race? I ran a marathon a number of years ago. The start was just so much fun. There were people everywhere cheering. I was running with gobs of people too. It was an absolute rush! Because of this, the first 8 miles went by fast; too fast, in fact! By the time I hit the half way point, I was feeling pretty spent and was starting to hurt in all kinds of ways.

The rush was gone. Starting was easy, keeping on through the middle was very difficult.

Starting and finishing are exciting, glamorous, and sexy. The middle is dull and hard. The middle is the connection between the beginning and end. Without the ability to get through the middle, you’re stuck starting things and not finishing them. Surviving the middle (and thus finishing) requires dedication, fortitude, endurance, mettle, resolve, and determination. These are not fun words. These words are painful.

No one quits at the start or the finish. It’s the middle where the body count rises.

How do you deal with starting things and not finishing them? What other lessons have you learned along the way?

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14 Comments

  1. Ryan Moore September 30, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    The story of the marathon and the parallel to the physical is a helpful connection for me. When it comes to physical endeavors like finishing a long hike or climbing a mountain words like “endurance, mettle, resolve, and determination” actually are descriptive of me. I am well acquainted with these middle-lands where perseverance is required.

    But this is less true of myself when it comes to finishing projects. Thanks for helping me draw that parallel. Hopefully I can translate that strength from the physical to other creative endeavors.

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland September 30, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      You’re welcome! Here’s to approaching your creative ventures in a similar way to the physical ones!

      Reply
  2. Lacy September 30, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I’ve never had problems finishing the small projects in life, but in the big things in life–particularly seasons–I find myself ready to move on to the next best thing when things get hard, which is to say, in the middle. I’m in a season now where I’m not leaving, perhaps for the first time, and it feels unnatural, uncomfortable, and on many days can be crazy-making. But I’ve found collaborators, like you mentioned, really help me to stay by encouraging me, walking with me, and carrying the load if I need them to. In fact, I don’t know if they’d let me leave if I tried!

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland September 30, 2013 at 3:31 pm

      “I’m not leaving, perhaps for the first time…” That’s a lot of history to fight against. Glad to be a part of your collaboration team 😉

      Reply
  3. Anna Hamberg October 1, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Reading the blog text and the comments above, I come to think of the middle from another angle and how blessed that place can be, too! It can truly be a place of rest, a place of “well we’ve started and found a pace, now let’s just march on and enjoy the view”. It’s a time to just be present and to be faithful and perhaps to not put so much energy and effort into things, but rather having worked up a system that work for one’s project, one can just enjoy the ride.

    It’s a matter, perhaps, of finding that we can only get to “here” in life, never “there”. Where ever we get to, is a “here”. And the middle is a series of now now now, here here here. It’s a matter of centering one self, bringing one self into the middle of one self. And exhaling.

    (oh, however let’s not mention the numerous projects my drawers are full of… and that the most boring thing with knitting mittens is that one would need to make two – of the same! Hello…Boring! 🙂 )

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland October 1, 2013 at 5:20 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. The middle can be very good, while still being hard. Thanks for chiming in! I love your honesty 😉

      Reply
  4. Emi October 2, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Guilty as charged. I love starting things (usually it comes about in the form of books- I’m a sucker for starting books and not finishing them). There really is a certain rush when you begin something that has the potential to go someplace you have never been before and of course, that place is always so lush and green (..”grass is greener” analogy). But that isn’t always true AND hey, don’t forget about your own yard! One may find him or herself busily coveting the other side while your own yard gets all brown and crispy, neglected and sad. I think it rings true that the more you put yourself ‘out there’, invested in several projects scattered about, the true essence of you inside is compromised. We all need to remember that we can’t ourselves be the rich green pastures that we are created to be when we are too caught up in admiring the ones that lie elsewhere. Let’s be green together! 😛

    Reply
  5. Stacey October 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Gosh dang I’m super familiar with this. Sometimes I have to remember things I have done successfully so that my whole self knows it is in fact possible. Get the whole mind and body involved, ya know?

    Reply
  6. Josh May 5, 2014 at 4:29 am

    I’m finding right now that my life list is full of things I’ve either started and not finished or not started and wish I had. I know I’ve also completed a lot of great things as we’ll but I feel overwhelmed by the thoughts of all the things I wish I had done, wish I could do or wish I was doing or should be doing but can’t bring myself to start – because I’ve tired myself out with all the things I’ve started but never finished… Gee what a mouthful! Bottom line is I think I tend to start lots of little things as a way of avoiding starting work on the things I wish I was doing because I’m afraid to start the things I wish I was doing, only to never finish them… Does that make any sense??

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland May 5, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      This is fascinating, Josh! Thanks for sharing. For some us, it’s important to start by working on letting go of the things that we haven’t finished. What if you can have permission to not ever finish them? Rather than starting at a deficit of not finished vs. finished. You may need to forgive yourself for those things so you can start at 0-0.

      I also wonder if where you are is more about risk and fear than about not finishing. There’s not a huge difference in outcome between not starting something and starting something and not finishing it. Either way you don’t finish. The difference is the risk it takes to invest yourself in it and say, “I’m going to do this.” That’s where you may need to push in: facing your risk and fear.

      I hope that makes sense. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing!

      Reply
  7. Bill July 3, 2014 at 11:03 am

    I’m wondering if we fail to complete what we’ve started because we’re afraid of how we might feel once the task has been completed? Do we sub-consciously self sabotage ourselves to think that the task is too hard to finish once we’ve started so that we can continue to feel unfulfilled? Do we beat ourselves up for not finishing because it’s so familiar?

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland July 3, 2014 at 3:54 pm

      I think you’re on to something here, Bill. I’m sure self-sabotage is a part of it!

      Reply
    2. Debi October 8, 2014 at 7:08 am

      I believe this to be true as I have this issue. I start some really cool projects that not only I’m all excited about, but others around me. I start them with the best intentions and dont finish. Then I start something else.. and so on. Right now, almost everyday I get up, go to finish a small uncompleted task and 99% of the time walk away from it because it seems so overwhelming to finish. This is so frustrating

      Reply
      1. Dan Cumberland October 8, 2014 at 8:27 am

        We all know what that feels like, Debi. You’re not alone. Sometimes you have to push through and finish the projects, even though the middle isn’t as fun as the beginning and the end. Othertimes you just need to quit and let yourself walk away — which can be more difficult. We’re behind you, one way or another!

        Reply

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