09/03/2015 04:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2016

How to Finish What You Start (Every Time)

How to Finish What You Start (Every Time)

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark." -- Michelangelo

Some people are adept at finishing what they start. They get an idea and see it through to fruition. Others simply don't. They get lazy, distracted, worn out, tired, and veer completely off track. They follow one tangent after another, never actually finishing what they started.

So, what sets the person apart who can almost always finish what they start, from the person who can't seem to follow through? Are some of us just doomed to a life of mediocrity, unable to realize some of our wildest dreams due to some genetic disadvantage? Or is it something else entirely?

Finishing What You Start

Most people want to finish what they start. At the outset, our intentions are largely good. We want to achieve our goals. But it's not for lack of wanting it that we don't follow through. There's a huge difference between merely wanting something and having an absolute burning desire that you must accomplish it.

The problem? When goals are new, they're lustrous and exciting. We wake up in the morning with full determination to achieve them. But, over time, that newness wears off. The goals lose their sheen, and our willpower becomes diminished and depleted.

It's hard to have the same drive to finish what you start when goals lack newness. It's hard to follow through when the pain of achieving something tends to outweigh the pleasure of seeing it through.

While we will all do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure, the pain-versus-pleasure paradigm primarily exists in the short term. We don't tend to look at the long-term pain associated with our behaviors until some major calamity strikes. If we did, wouldn't we all eat perfectly, not smoke, not drink, and live healthy and active lifestyles all the time?

Still, it's clearly possible to achieve our goals. Most of us have witnessed it firsthand. We've finished what we started, some of the time at least. When we wanted something so badly it ran to the core, we saw it through. We ignored distractions and charged forward full steam ahead.

Yet, all of us can finish what we start every time when we harbor something I like to call the "finishing habits." The finishing habits allow us to follow through and achieve our goals, breaking through our fears and pushing past our limitations.

If you can harbor the finishing habits, you'll finish what you start every time.

What's Holding Us Back?

There was a period in my life where I used to give up - I would throw in that proverbial towel and call it quits. I would utter things like, "That's it! I've had enough!" or "I can't take this anymore!" and "Never again! I'm done!"

Sound familiar?

I couldn't seem to finish what I started. I gave up on all sorts of things. And it got me thinking: "What's really holding me back from finishing what I start?" It was a time of great reflection, born out of an incredible amount of failure, confusion, and pain.

Eventually, I was able to figure it out. And I came away with some unique insights into life and the psychology of the mind. Given that 40% of all human behavior is habit-driven, it's the choices I chose to make day-in and day-out that were holding me back.

My habits weren't serving me; they were limiting me. So I had to make some drastic changes, and I had to do it fast. As the cloud lifted, I came away with 6 very important finishing habits.

#1 - Setting Goals (The Right Way)

Like many others, I used to set goals the wrong way. I set them in the abstract. They lived in my mind and I was perfectly happy with them there. But goals that live solely in the mind aren't as real or concrete as goals that are written out, specified, and planned for.

In a study conducted on a Harvard MBA class, the graduating students were asked two questions: do you have written goals, and if so, do you have a clear plan for their attainment. 84% of the class had no goals whatsoever, 13% of the class had goals that weren't in writing, and just 3% of the class had both goals and a plan for their attainment that had been written out.

Ten years later, the results of the students had been assessed by the same researchers. It shouldn't come as a shock that the 13% of the class that had goals but had not written them down were earning twice as much money as the 84% of the class that had no goals whatsoever.

However, it's the 3% of the class that had both written goals and a plan for their attainment that were earning, on average, 10 times as much. Yes, 10 times as much. There's most certainly a right way and a wrong way to set goals.

In effect, if you want to finish what you start, your goals have to be S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals. They have to be written out, they have to be specific (S), measurable/meaningful (M), realistic (R), and time-bound (T).

But that's not enough. They also have to be constantly evaluated (E) and the plan has to be re-adjusted (R) as you go along. Without constantly evaluating your goals and re-adjusting your plan, it's hard to see how far you've come, where you are, and how far is left to go.

#2 - Active Planning

Without actively planning towards your goals, it's impossible to finish what you start. By creating a plan, we develop a roadmap to our goals. Without a plan, we're lost. It's similar to an airplane that takes off from Los Angeles heading to Miami. That plane has a goal - to land in Miami on a certain date and at a certain time.

In order for the plane to achieve its goal, it has to create a plan, also known as the flight plan. The plane's flight plan accounts for a general direction of travel, a general speed, and a general altitude. It doesn't account for a moment by moment account of what will happen.

However, that plane constantly evaluates its plan as it heads towards its destination. If there's turbulence at 31,000 feet, it might climb to 36,000 feet. If there's air-traffic congestion over a particular city in its path, it might veer slightly off course. The plane's plan might change, but its goal remains the same.

It's through constant active planning that the plane, and any person, is able to finish what they start. If we didn't evaluate our progress and make adjustments where we saw fit, we couldn't see things through, or it would be far harder to do so.

Create a general, long-term plan to achieve your goals. Then, actively plan on a daily basis. You need a massive action plan in order to get you there. Things don't happen overnight. My frustrations in the past were born largely from my failure to create concrete plans.

#3 - Express Gratitude

It's easy to want things. We're a society that's so focused on attaining, that we often forget to appreciate what we have. While it's okay to want things, we have a hard time achieving our goals when we live in a mental state of lack.

What the mind focuses on, the mind receives. When we constantly want things, the mind looks at what we have as not enough. However, when we appreciate what we have and take the time to be grateful, our mind shifts from a state of lack to a state of abundance.

It's easier to finish what you start when you're happily succeeding rather than succeeding to be happy. When I made this shift by expressing my gratitude every morning for the things I did have, my life turned around.

Take the morning to write down all the things that you're grateful for. While you might not think you have anything to be grateful for - especially when you compare your life to others who have more - you, I, and everyone else has plenty to be grateful for.

To start, we can be grateful that we're alive, right now, at this very moment. We can be grateful for our intellect and our ability to reason. We can be grateful that we have food to eat, or a place to sleep at night. We can be grateful for relationships, opportunities, communities, or just life in general.

Life is a beautiful gift. When we live life from a state of gratitude, everything changes. It's a powerful shift that you can feel right down to the core. Take the morning to express your gratitude for 15 minutes by writing out everything that you're grateful for. Do it every morning without fail and watch your life transform before your very eyes.

#4 - Exercise

Exercise is a keystone habit. This single habit can help to promote other good habits while also helping to eliminate bad habits. And, daily exercise can help people to finish what they start, because exercise promotes wellness, a sound mind, and an elevated spirit.

Exercising for just 20 minutes per day will release endorphins and neurotransmitters into the body and brain that not only help with your health, but also with your overall mood and mental health, allowing for clarity of mind to help us finish what we start.

When we exercise daily, especially when we do it in the morning, it provides for a small win at the start of our day. It helps to set the pace and build momentum. It doesn't take much.

You can build this habit by starting small. Just walk around the block for 5 minutes per day for a week. The next week, walk for 10 minutes per day, and so on.

#5 - Eat the Frog

Sound strange? Well, thank Mark Twain for that who's quoted as saying, "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first."

Eating the frog means that you're tackling the most important tasks (MITs) of the day early on. These are associated to your long-term goals. In time management, we call this your "Quadrant 2 Activities," because they're important but not urgent.

Identify the MITs in the morning by referencing your long-term goals. What is it that you're trying to achieve? What single step can you do today, right now, that will help get you just a little bit closer to your goals and help you finish what you start?

We all have several things that can be done each day that will help move us a little closer to our goals. If you can identify the MITs and do them first thing in the morning, then you can build a little bit of momentum and be just a little bit closer to your goals. You don't need to take a giant leap. Slow and steady most certainly wins the race.

#6 - Persistence

The final step to finishing what we start lies in harboring the habit of persistence. Persistence is the art of never giving up. It means that you'll follow through even after suffering through countless setbacks and failures.

Although failure hurts, it also acts as nature's chisel, helping to chip away at the old self to help make way for the new. As long as we use failure and setbacks to help us learn and grow, those same defeats will serve us in the long run.

I've failed countless times over. And each time seemed to be worse than the time before. But I refused to give up. If you can push past failure and suffer through defeat, there's happiness to be found on the shores of hope.

But being persistent can be hard, especially when so many things are seemingly working against us. When the odds are stacked up against you, look back at the reasons why you set your goals. Were they profound reasons? Can you truly envision them coming to fruition?

It's true, finishing what you start can be hard. But we all have it within us. Remember that it's far better to make a little bit of progress every day and inch slowly closer to your goals rather than give up.

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