Getting Tasks Finished


When I introduced this two-part series on starting and finishing tasks, I should have introduced the psychological dimension: some people are better at starting things, while others are naturally focused on finishing. As Slava Polonski put it,

Starters are motivated by the act of creation. Finishers are motivated by the satisfaction of completion.

There may be some perfectly balanced people out there, but each of us is likely aware of their personal leanings toward one end of the spectrum or the other. I, for example, lean toward starting things and therefore have little trouble outlining the concept for a new project, writing an abstract about it, and starting the research. However, I tend to bog down in the messy middle, and many of my most ambitious projects wind up gathering cobwebs in the archive of whatever generation of work management I was using when I had the original idea. So I have to employ techniques like those I explore in this meditation to actually get to -- or even meaningfully define -- the finish line.

On a team level, however, we can take advantage of the spread of people's different styles of motivation and balance starters with finishers. That often takes the form of one or more starters coming up with an idea, sketching out its broad strokes, building a prototype, and getting others inspired to help make the dream a reality. That's when the baton is metaphorically passed to the finishers, the Steve Wozniaks who finally build the computer that Steve Jobs was waving his hands about.

If you are capable of doing both, great. Personally, I have trouble finishing, so here are some tricks I've collected, and several are backed by science, not just my anecdotes.

There is no doubt that the process involved in accomplishing goals is just as important as the outcome. Participants were trained to throw darts in one study, where one group was told to simply attempt to get the highest score, while a second was told to focus on the process of expert dart throwing: bring your arm back, adjust the angle of the throw, and keep a firm grip on the dart throughout the toss. A third group did the same as the second, but once they had mastered the throw, they were then asked to focus on the outcome: a high score. They outperformed the other two groups by a large margin.

In my case, when I pursue the goal of a writing project, I focus my energy on the process of research, accumulating ideas and source materials, and only turn my attention to the actual writing -- and what exactly I am going to say -- after the search for clues has led to a thesis and supports.

Research has shown that accomplishing goals can be influenced by four actions: writing down the steps needed to meet a goal, assessing the steps (by factors like difficulty, importance, and familiarity), committing to achieve the steps, and then sharing the goal and progress with a friend. Just writing down the goals increased the likelihood of completion, but those who committed to those actions fared even better. Sharing the goals with a friend led to additional benefits, and the most came from sharing progress with a friend on a weekly basis. Additional research suggests that sharing goals with higher-status individuals -- not peers -- can be an additional inducement to finish goals.

So, depending on the importance of the project, adding more of committing and sharing actions may be worthwhile. But in any case, definitely write down the actions needed, and consider each action's qualities in the form of a stepwise plan. And make the steps small enough that they are tackleable, not daunting.

Other research has shown that planning in reverse is more effective to accomplish goals with multiple steps. It may be intuitive to plan things chronologically but, as Jooyoung Park wrote about the study,

Backward planning may be beneficial because it requires people to imagine their hypothetical goal achievement as they begin their planning, which makes them feel close[r] in time to achieving their goals. In our studies, people also tended to perceive that they had a clear view of the steps necessary for their goal achievement when planning backward.

This is support for the saying "keep the end in sight", which brings the light and heat of accomplishing the goal into the motivation of those chasing goals. Perhaps this also shares some of the benefits of pre-mortems that I wrote about in Constructive Uncertainty, which looks at projects from the perspective of the hypothetical future, after the project is over: and in the case of pre-mortems after the project has hypothetically failed. Except in the case of backward planning, we are looking at the steps to success, but that can take on aspects of pre-mortem-like planning, as well.

Thinking backward brings us closer to finishing since we are visualizing crossing the finish line rather than the many steps between here and there.

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