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Even when you take the time to set clear goals, visualize success, and break big goals down into projects and action steps, it can be difficult to get yourself to take action consistently until your goal is 100% complete. Crossing the starting line is much easier than crossing the finish line.
Your overall results in life largely depend on your ability to follow through until you achieve completion. Many projects produce essentially zero results if they’re 90% complete. The key results only appear when you reach 100% completion.
For example, if I write 90% of an article and don’t publish it, it produces no value other than being a private journaling exercise. The value cannot be delivered until the article is 100% complete and published.
Incompletes can produce feelings like dissatisfaction, discomfort, stress, worry, shame, and regret. We worry that we may have wasted too much time and energy on such projects with little to show for our efforts.
One way to avoid racking up too many incompletes is to give more careful thought to which particular projects you’re willing to accept in the first place. Having too many active projects at the same time makes it hard to complete them. It’s like trying to juggle too many balls at once. You end up dropping every ball.
One reason we take on too many projects is the desire for variety. Working on the same project day after day can get boring. Another reason is that projects tend to be easier and more motivating in the beginning. Starting a new project is often fun. It’s much more difficult to work through the middling grind of a project and see it through to completion.
Learning Your Lessons
In order to move forward into a better place of achievement, we first need to absorb the lessons from our incompletes. If you’re carrying around some psychological baggage from past incompletes, then take a moment to forgive yourself for those mistakes. You screwed up. It’s okay. You’re human.
At the same time, it’s wise to allow a little of that sting from past incompletes to hang around. That feeling of regret is there for a reason. It serves as an ongoing warning that we don’t want to get into similar situations again. The feeling of regret has a positive message, encouraging you to avoid starting too many projects if you won’t complete them.
Instead of trying to drug this seemingly negative feeling with excess food or drink, turn towards it. Give it your full attention for a moment, and listen to what it has to say.
Ask yourself, What lessons can I learn from my incompletes? How can this make me stronger?
You might hear something like this: I’m tired of wasting time on projects that never go anywhere. Obviously I’m only going to get results if I complete something. So before I set any new goals or tackle any new projects, I’d better be sure I’m going to see them through to completion. If circumstances really do change in unexpected ways, and the project becomes obsolete before it’s done, then it’s okay to dump it and move on to something else. But if the original decision is still sound, then let’s keep pushing through to the end and get it done.
I need to avoid overloading myself with too many projects at once. Ideally I should keep things simple and stick to one serious project at a time, perhaps two projects for variety. When I’m done, then I can add something new. But trying to do 10 things at once obviously isn’t working. I need to stop saying yes to new projects when I still have important incompletes to close.
Abandoning Failed Strategies
Notice which strategies you’ve already tried to get yourself to take action consistently. If you’ve tried something a few times, and it has never worked, stop doing it.
Quite often people get into circular patterns where they keep trying the same failed strategies every few years, hoping that somehow things will be different. That doesn’t work.
An example of a strategy that has never worked for me is trying to associate more pain to incompletion and more pleasure to completing a project, such as by using NLP techniques. I can safely abandon this strategy because I know it’s a dead end. My mind is smart enough to see right through these silly attempts at conditioning. It might work for a dog, but my mind resists such obvious attempts to make it less conscious. I always know that I have a choice. So I don’t use or revisit this strategy because it’s ineffective.
Consciously acknowledging this realization helps me avoid using the wrong approach. When I feel overwhelmed, instead of trying to get myself to feel more motivated and work harder and faster, I say no more often, cancel some items, and pay more attention to simplifying my life.
What are your failed strategies? Are you willing to drop them, so you can free your mind to figure out something more intelligent that might actually work?
Resting in the Space of Possibility
One positive step forward is to recognize that it’s at least possible for you to complete projects, even very difficult ones.
Perhaps if you think back, you can recall some projects you did actually complete, and you can remember the results you got from them. Maybe it was something as simple as completing a school project and getting a good grade on it.
Take a moment to acknowledge that for whatever goal or project you’d like to tackle next, it is at least possible for you to complete it in a timely manner. You aren’t attempting the impossible. There is a way to get it done. The action steps are doable. The project is achievable.
Accepting the Difficult Work
Worthwhile projects don’t normally complete themselves. A good project will frequently require a serious investment of time and energy. Even if the work is enjoyable, you may still need to put in many hours to see it through to the end.
Almost every meaningful project will include some unpleasant or difficult tasks. You aren’t going to enjoy those tasks, but they’re essential for the project’s completion.
You have the option of only doing what’s easy, but if you stick with what’s easy all the time, most of your projects will be pretty low on the value scale. Even if you complete them, they aren’t going to make much of a difference.
If you wish to stop having so many incompletes and see more of your projects through to completion, you must accept that certain tasks will be difficult and to decide to do them anyway.
It’s easy to say that you’re committed to completing a project. Anyone can say they’re committed. But a real commitment means that you’re willing to do the dirty work. It may slow you down. It may frustrate you. You may need to take more breaks in order to get through it. But when you’re committed, you accept the existence of difficult work, and you decide to push through it regardless of the difficulty. This is a key difference between starting projects and finishing them.
Most of the perceived difficulty has nothing to do with the true nature of the task anyway. You’re simply interpreting the task in a way that creates resistance. So a commitment to complete difficult tasks is really a commitment to face and overcome your own resistance. It’s a commitment to overcome the limiting beliefs that bias you against doing certain types of work.
To complete a project, you must eventually do the steps required for project completion. If you don’t feel like doing a particular step, and you use your feelings to justify avoidance of that step, then your project will remain stuck in an incomplete state. A better approach is to recognize that a task is just a task, and it’s subject to many different interpretations as to how pleasant or unpleasant it may be, so instead of looking at it from a perspective that creates unpleasantness, you can choose to regard the task as simply one more stepping stone on par with all the others.
Asserting Your Dominant Will
It’s nice to have a toolkit of techniques, but that isn’t enough by itself. Many people know plenty of anti-procrastination techniques, but they can’t get themselves to apply them consistently. The problem is if once you fall into the trap of procrastinating, you can just as easily procrastinate on overcoming procrastination. Anti-procrastination techniques don’t self-activate. The nature of this problem is that it encourages you to resist solving it.
A strategy I’ve found that works well is more of a mindset than a technique. It’s the mindset that says, No matter what, my conscious will is ultimately in charge, and it always has the ability to step in and take command immediately.
When you tackle a challenging goal, you’re going to catch yourself going dark now and then. At some point your conscious will steps in and says, Hey, you’re procrastinating. This is a waste of time. That barely noticeable voice is your inner alarm clock. Instead of hitting the snooze button, pull that thought into the center of your consciousness and amplify it. Give it your full attention.
When you give that thought your full attention and let its voice be heard, it gets louder: WTF, you lazy ass! You don’t need to be checking the news right now. You have much more important things to be doing. Get your ass back to work!
The mindset aspect here has to do with your relationship to that voice.
When you succumb to procrastination for long periods of time, and that voice shows up, you’ll have a tendency to push it away. You define the part of you that procrastinates as “me” and the part of you that wants to get some real work done as “not me,” as if the strong part (not you) is trying to push the weaker part (you) into action. As long as you maintain these kinds of inner relationships, procrastination will be your constant companion.
To overcome procrastination, do the opposite. When that alarm clock voice shows up, realize that this strong voice is the real you. And the lazy procrastinator is not you. When you procrastinate, you go dark and become something less than your true self. When you wake up and recommit to your goals and projects, that’s the real you.
Self-Dominance vs. Self-Abuse
When you wrap your identity into the part of you that wants to procrastinate, you’ll have a tendency to beat yourself up. When you look back and realize you wasted a lot of time, you’re identifying with the part of you that procrastinates. So when you get frustrated with that part, you’re getting frustrated with yourself. And when you beat up that part of yourself for its bad habits, you’re abusing yourself.
This won’t help. It will simply perpetuate the cycle and keep you stuck.
The problem is that when you self-identify with the part of you that procrastinates, and then you beat up that part of yourself, you’re lowering your self-esteem. You’re saying to yourself, I’m such a loser. I suck. I can’t get anything done.
This is self-abuse. It cannot help you. Don’t do this.
Avoid self-identifying with the part of you that procrastinates. Imagine that the part of you that procrastinates is the animal part of you. It’s prehistoric baggage. It has many positive aspects that keep you alive, but you can’t let this part of you run amok. Your conscious mind needs to keep a tight leash on it.
The real you is the part of you that’s conscious and aware. This is the part of you that’s capable of making high-level decisions. This is the part of you that sets goals and takes on projects that aren’t essential for survival.
Your arms are a part of you, but you probably wouldn’t say that your identity is that of an arm. Your conscious will dominates your arms. You can wave them around, use them to pick up objects, train them to get stronger — whatever you desire. You’re the boss of your arms.
Similarly, you’re the boss of the lazy part of yourself that wants to procrastinate. Acknowledge that it’s there. Recognize that it’s a part of you, but it can’t fully define you, just as your arm can’t define your body. Appreciate the good it does for you, like directing your fight or flight impulse to keep you alive in emergency situations. But whatever you do, don’t give your power away to this part of you. It is your servant. It isn’t meant to be your Master.
In order to shift yourself to a place of achievement, you must claim your role as Master over the part of you that wants to be lazy and expedient. You have the power to be dominant over this part of you. Your conscious will is so much stronger.
Strengthening Your Will
Just like a muscle, your conscious will grows stronger when you exercise it regularly, and it atrophies when you fail to exercise it.
Fortunately, no matter how weak you’ve allowed yourself to become in this area, you can always train yourself back up to a place of strength.
Practicing self-dominance can actually be fun. A good way to practice is to verbalize your commands to yourself out loud. Tell yourself what to do, as if commanding the lazy part to get in line.
For example, if you have a tendency to want to linger in bed when your alarm goes off, say to yourself, On your feet now! Get dressed and brush your teeth. Imagine that this commanding voice is your true self commanding aspects of your lower self. Your fully conscious self is commanding parts of you that are less conscious. See the truth that the real you really does want to get out of bed. You want to have that experience today. Choosing to do the opposite isn’t really you.
No matter how much you struggle with this, that’s okay. It’s a lifelong challenge, and perfection isn’t a realistic standard. Sometimes you’ll go dark. But when you eventually rise again to a new level of consciousness, strive to maintain it as long as you can.
I’m taking a 10-week course where the current assignment is to check in with myself every hour for two full weeks (an hourly alarm can serve as a reminder). At least once per hour I must pause and reflect on what I’m thinking and doing in that moment. Am I behaving wisely? Or have I slipped into unconsciousness? Am I creating my life, or am I merely reacting?
I’d encourage you to try a similar challenge. Whenever you catch yourself slipping into negative emotions, unconscious behavior, or self-identification with laziness and procrastination, take a moment to reassert your dominant will. Take stock of who you really are, and issue the proper commands for what you are to do in this moment.
Don’t project your higher self as something outside of you. Embrace the beingness of your higher self in each moment. Your higher self is the real you.