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Birthlines, Part 3: If You Want To Win, Stop Trying To Finish

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Birthlines
This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Mediocre Excellence

“The only time you mustn’t fail is the last time you try.” ~ Charles Kettering

Stop trying to finish things.

The reason you have trouble getting stuff done is because you’re always trying to finish things.

You even write it down: “Finish X”. “Get X done”.

Why does trying to finish things, ironically, lead to failure — and not the good kind of failure (high-momentum, growth-directed failure), but the “yeah, one of these days I’m going to write a novel but until then I’ll keep reading blogs about it and watching Hulu just like I have been for the past 3 years, because last time I tried I wrote 10 pages but they all sucked” kind (do-nothing, zero-momentum, neglect-failure)?

Because when you say “Finish X”, you start to conflate starting it with finishing. Since finishing is what’s on your to-do list, you start to think that doing = finishing. And since the project is big, the doing is big, and if the doing is finishing, well, then, you’d better get some rest now before you even try. Better get in some Hulu. Better relax before the pain. Better have some calm before the storm. Classic avoidance behavior (procrastination).

But you see, the thing is, you can’t finish. It’s not physically possible. “Finish” is not actionable. “Finish” is not an action that you can do. It’s a verb, and verbs are “doing words”, but you can’t do it. The English language is lying to you; it’s obscuring the reality of the situation.

“Start” is an action.  Start you can do.

“Finish” just happens. In that sense it is a verb, but it should really be intransitive — unable to take a direct object. You start something, but it finishes itself. Finishing just happens.

So don’t finish stuff any more. Don’t even try. You never have and you never will.

Instead, start. Start on stuff. Start on it. And then start again on it. And then start again. Start. Put a timebox on it. Start, rest, start again. The more times you start, the more you win.

Start often. In language acquisition, it’s called “play” — there’s actually a button on your iPod for it. Try it. Start. But leave finishing to nature.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a matter of momentum. What most of us (us = people with running water, electricity and literacy, i.e. the richest people in the world) lack is not vision, skill or resources. It’s momentum. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. You only have momentum by (and when) moving, and you can only be moving if you start. And, generally speaking, you can only start small.

Start. Start early. Start now. Start little. Start often. You’ll win.

“Start little” really doesn’t make sense in this context…anyway, you get the point!

Series Navigation<< Birthlines, Part 2: Birthlines, Digital Sampling, ImmersionBirthlines, Part 4: If You Want to Succeed, Start Off On The Wrong Foot >>
Series Navigation<< Not Nothing1 ≫ 0: One Is Better Than None >>

  10 comments for “Birthlines, Part 3: If You Want To Win, Stop Trying To Finish

  1. Mattholomew III, Esquire
    October 13, 2010 at 00:31

    Fantastic, as usual.

    And, not to be a nitpicky editor type, but I think you meant “What most of us lack” (last paragraph, second sentence).

  2. gaijinadrian
    October 13, 2010 at 03:37

    Hey Khatz, another great post. Btw, I just bought the LARD and was wondering if you were going to make new volumes after a while to keep up with your posts.


  3. October 13, 2010 at 06:11

    I think a key element of focusing on starting, though, and not finishing, is that you have to continue to start things that are at least related if you want to see movement. A lot of people (myself included) are very good at starting eight things headed in eight different directions which, because they don’t build on each other, or reinforce the work that each of the others required, never really result in any movement. I think you at least need a “cone of direction” to corral your starts into at least a general vector so that they build on each other.

  4. October 13, 2010 at 07:38

    ^ That’s me, baby. You do get somewhere eventually though, it just seems to take sooo much longer.

  5. fairykarma
    October 13, 2010 at 08:01

    I agree on the “finishing as a state” mentality. Because finishing is an arbitrary thing that one chooses. I could start a paper a month early or some days before. Either way, my mind comes to stage where it says, “I think I’m done”. I can never truly determine how exactly I came upon that idea that I’m just….done. Done. Finished. Hand it in. The funny thing is the mind tells me that I’m done only when I get close to the deadline. But when I start a month early and just work on it, piece by piece, there’s always something more to be done. It doesn’t matter if my draft has fulfilled the rubric requirements weeks before the set deadline. Technically, the paper could be finished, but my mind will keep giving me ideas on how to improve the paper even when I’m not actively working on it. I could be showering or driving and ideas on how to improve the paper will pop out of nowhere. Once the deadline approaches, my mind just seems to shut down. No new ideas. Maybe the mind perceives the deadline as a threat because you could have been having all the fun in the world composing that paper, but the deadline brings ideas of failure, peer comparison blah blah.

    But then I get my paper back, sure enough it’s an A+. But deep in the back of my head there’s a pile of shame. I tell myself that I could’ve made this paper into a masterpiece were it not for that stinking deadline.

    So while deadlines SEEM….ahem SEEM to be crucial for institutional progress, I don’t think we should perceive them as crucial. A deadline is completely arbitrary. Say the paper is due on the 25th. The teacher could’ve made it the 24, the 23, or god forbid the 30th. Five more days. Yea! Having read Khatz’s articles on these theme though, I think it’s better to think of deadlines as the day you stop working on your paper. Not the day you finish the paper. You and I know that paper is never finished. Given no deadline, you would go on forever. You might even become obsessed with that paper striving to make it perfect when you know deep in your heart it will never be perfect.

    I completely agree with Khatz. Start little and often. Chances are you’ll probably accomplish the amount of work that will given you an A+ long before the deadline. If you know in your heart you’re definitely getting that A, would you honestly just flat out quit working on that paper, especially if it’s fun? There’s too much goodness and juiciness going on there for you stop. You could go on forever. But the deadline is what stops you. Preserves your sanity. Too much fun on the wrong things is not good.

    But Japanese is not a paper. You definitely want to keep drinking that juice until you completely lose your sanity. Do you want to be the guy that spent 70 years working on that paper or 70 years working on that Japanese? Deadlines are there to stop other things like school assignments from hogging all the fun you could be having with Japanese. So yea, have fun with school. Have fun with work (Try your best on this one!). But think of deadlines as tools to manage your fun. Fun is a limited resource. You gotta spread it around to your life activities in a way that keeps you moving in the direction that you want to go.

    Deadlines = Fun distributors? I dunno. What do you guys think?

  6. fairykarma
    October 13, 2010 at 08:02

    Yes, I was working on that comment for a good half hour before I put an arbitrary deadline on it. I could’ve worked on it for another hour or two or forever.

  7. Mattholomew III, Esquire
    October 13, 2010 at 09:12

    Does this apply to comments as well? Should we compulsively start to comment with no intention of fini

    …just kidding, I love you man.

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