The Secret to Finishing What You’ve Started

by Rochelle Bailis

4 min read

Even the most intelligent, ambitious and influential people struggle with follow-through. No matter how excited you are when you begin something, you might find the ability to finish it frustratingly elusive. Even our deepest personal goals, those related to our physical health, our personal dreams or our career success somehow seem to slip through our fingers like sand—why does this always happen?

The reality is that your ability to follow through with your goals has little to do with how important the goal is to you personally, and more to do with how you are approaching it psychologically. Several studies have provided us with a window into human motivation, and provide rather simple solutions to changing how we approach task completion.

To-Go vs. To-Date Thinking

Let’s say you have a goal to build your own website. You finally sit down one night and download WordPress, set up a hosting server and purchase a template you like. Maybe you even create the homepage, and it looks super sleek. Before you head to bed you congratulate yourself: “Awesome, I’m so proud of myself for finally sitting down to do this, the homepage looks great.” Sounds like good progress, right?

It’s common for people to motivate themselves by occasionally stopping to give themselves a little pat on their backs for getting this far. However, science shows that this approach could actually be the root of your downfall.

Several studies conducted by University of Chicago psychologists Ayelet Fishbach and Minjung Koo find that the tendency to focus more on how far you’ve come (this is called “to-date” thinking) than what you have yet to accomplish (called “to-go” thinking) can actually weaken your motivation rather than sustain or improve it.

To go back to our example, even though on the surface you know your WordPress site isn’t done, your self-congratulation spurs a premature sense of achievement. This feeling of accomplishment will either increase your likelihood of slacking off or make you feel better about moving on to other goals that are also important to you. Starting another task will make you feel like you are accomplishing something yet again, when in reality task hopping like this leaves you with countless unfinished dreams.

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Fishbach and Koo’s study found that finishers approach their goals with a “to-go” perspective instead. They don’t stop to congratulate themselves as much as they ponder the next step in order to get closer to their goals. Changing how you think about goals will be challenging at first, but like any new approach it simply takes practice.

Remember, there’s no need to be harsh on yourself; it’s natural to approach any goal with a mix of “to-date” and “to-go” motivation. After all, managers wouldn’t get very far if they only ever reminded their employees of what they have yet to accomplish. Encouragement is important, but it should be focused on what remains to be done rather than constant accolades for what has already been achieved. The vast majority of praise should be experienced once a job has been completed. Studies consistently show this is the absolute best way to motivate people to finish what they’ve started.

The Truth About Willpower

Finishing things is great, but what if you struggle to harness enough willpower to even get started?

When you look at the accomplishments of those around you, it’s easy to think that some people are simply born with more willpower than others. However studies show this is actually not the case. In reality, we all have pretty similar willpower reserves (i.e. the ability to expend energy to tackle and complete tasks). The key is understanding the limitations of our own willpower, then channeling and managing it properly.

If we all have similar amounts of willpower, how do some people accomplish so much more than others? In order to undertake challenges, everybody needs to purposefully exert energy and consciously control their actions. However, building productive habits allows you turn conscious actions (which cost you precious willpower) into automatic behaviors.

Therefore, while forming habits does not increase your willpower, it allows you to conserve your willpower reserves to tackle more new challenges (and maintain enough willpower to follow through with your goals, rather than start them and burn out halfway through).

Let’s say you start waking up at 6am every morning to go for a run. While this will never be “easy,” it will require less willpower over time as this action becomes a habit. It will become automatic behavior, and free up some of your willpower for tackling new goals. Most people cannot increase their overall willpower, but they can learn how to use it wisely.

Sustaining Self-Discipline

Remember, accomplishing things comes at a cost. You are only human, and no matter how determined you are to complete something you only have a limited supply of willpower. If you reach that point where you simply can’t force yourself to open your laptop and put in another hour of effort, then give yourself a break. Studies have found that giving yourself some time to procrastinate on difficult tasks is not only all right, it might be important for innovation. Even in moments of rest, the key is to stay focused on where you plan to go, rather than where you’ve gotten so far.

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