It’s About Starting, Not Finishing

One of the more common challenges that many people have emailed me about over the past few months is the problem of motivation. It’s relatively easy for most people to get started on something new, but somewhere along the way, they get lost. They drop into a funk and it’s difficult to make forward progress.

Instead, they find themselves sitting at their desk doing not much of anything. They waste the one or two precious hours they had being “busy”, but not necessarily making progress. This is called thrashing. Lots of movement, but very little forward motion.

Sitting in your chair provides the illusion of productivity. Click To Tweet

So what do most of us do? We search the internet and ask people we know about productivity hacks because we’re not being productive. But is that the real problem? I would argue that it isn’t. Not in most cases anyway. If you are being unproductive, that’s a symptom of the problem, but is not the problem itself.

If you step back and look at the situation from a macro level, you’ll see that the person has stopped moving forward. So it’s clear that they’re not making progress. It seems rational to assume that the problem isn’t getting started, but rather it’s finishing.

But that’s not the problem either. Zoom in to a micro level and analyze minute by minute rather than by weeks or months at a time and you’ll realize that finishing isn’t the problem. The real problem is getting started.

Every work session starts with the same basic pieces in place. You sit down in front of your computer, turn it on, log in, pick something to work on and then get started. Dating back to the beginning of any project, all of those things are in place every time you sit down except when you find yourself getting stuck.

The place you’re getting hung up might be occurring as early as sitting down in front of your computer, as late as actually doing the work or anywhere in between. This is a sequence of operations and each operation is almost entirely dependent upon the last. If you always leave your computer on, that’s one less thing to do in the sequence but you have to follow that sequence of events.

Where are you getting hung up? What are you having trouble getting started with? Because you can’t finish unless you get started.

Finishing is not an act. It is a byproduct of following the process. You need to consistently start up again day after day, week after week. You can finish anything if you consistently start working on it every day.

This is what productivity hacks are designed to do. They’re designed to force you to start working on things. For example, consider the Pomodoro Technique. Anyone can work on something for just 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. As another example, look at “Don’t Break the Chain”. This idea with this technique is to work on something a little each day and establish a chain of work efforts. Sooner or later, your job switches from getting something done each day to not breaking the chain.

These are what are called forcing functions. They create rules under which you must operate. Follow the rules and you will make forward progress. Disregard them and you won’t. Simple as that.

So we need to analyze the process of starting and restarting our tasks. It doesn’t matter whether you have one task or fifty to complete. You have to get into work mode as quickly as possible because you don’t have a lot of time to waste. What does that look like? There are three basic prerequisites for getting into work mode consistently.

The first prerequisite is that you have to have a good reason to get started. Human beings generally don’t like doing meaningless work. I remember back in my consulting days, I would work really hard for certain customers to provide great solutions, only to have them pull the plug at the last minute. It was a waste of my time and their money. What’s worse is that I could usually see it coming weeks in advance. Eventually, this happened too many times and I got burnt out.

So the work itself can’t be meaningless. In the case of building a product, you need to be reasonably sure that the work is going to pay off. If you’ve done marketing upfront and have an email list of 1,000 people, it’s much easier to justify starting to work on something again because you know that people are interested. If that same entrepreneur has an email list of just 10 people after six months, it quickly becomes a motivation problem. Deep down, you know the idea isn’t going to fly so you stop working on it and blame motivation, rather than poor marketing.

The second prerequisite is that you have to explicitly make the decision to start working. According to Parkinson’s law, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If you give yourself all day to get something done, it will generally take you all day to get to it because you will wait until really late in the day before making any real progress.

To help solve this, set a specific start time. Even better, start a timer. This is part of why the Pomodoro Technique or time boxing strategies work so well. Without an explicit start time, you will waste the time that you do have until very little time remains. Then you either make the decision to quit for the day, or work really hard for the last hour, having wasted the previous three.

The third prerequisite is that you need to commit to starting the work. If you have good reasons to do what you’re doing and a specific starting time, then this part should be easier to manage. But you can’t fake this. If you do, the only person you’re cheating is yourself and it will be obvious that you didn’t by the lack of forward motion.

Every day is made up of a series of tiny steps towards your goal and its those steps that will help you reach the goal. Finishing is a result of starting each of those steps, each and every day. It’s not a to do item on your task list.

Get started.


  1. seba368 on April 20, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    Thanks Mike! Great topic. I’m glad you’ve mentioned the Parkinson’s law as it did happen to me more times than I care to admit. One major thing that I’ve changed in the past few months is to get up early, go about my routine and start working. I also started using Pomodoro technique. Like you said “small steps” 🙂

  2. Keith Gillette on May 8, 2015 at 11:29 am

    I like your recommendation to start a timer, Mike. While I don’t practice the Pomodoro Technique, I’ve started using Toggl to track all of my time. This has simplified time tracking for my billable consulting work but has also kept me much more focused. The mere act of starting a timer and then looking back on elapsed time for a given task brings to awareness how much time can be spent on non-productive activities. While I have a long way to go, the practice has been extremely helpful in keeping from getting pulled into distractions as much or spending too much time on something non-essential, since I know that I’ll have to account for that time.

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