Do you have a problem with never being able to finish what you started?
It’s not uncommon.
In fact, 92% of New Year’s Resolutions fail. 1
(I’d be surprised if you hadn’t answered ‘yes’… are you telling me the truth?)
Jon Acuff thinks he has solved the finishing problem once and for all.
As he explains in his new book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (Amazon), Acuff thought he was on the right track when he encouraged people to begin in his earlier book, Start (Amazon).
Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do Work That Matters is about getting started on living. Instead of waiting for inspiration or passion, start and see where it takes you. If you don’t know what you love, try lots of new things until you find it. Learn from the experience and drop what doesn’t work out.
When a researcher approached him to study the outcomes for students in his 30 Days of Hustle Challenge, however, Acuff soon learned that finishing might be the greater barrier to success.
Can Acuff show you how to finish what you start? Let’s review his book by asking some fundamental questions about the problem with finishing and his suggested solutions.
Who is Jon Acuff?
Jon Acuff is the New York Times Bestselling author of five books including titles such as Do Over: Make Today the First Day of Your New Career (Amazon), Start, Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job & Your Dream Job (Amazon) and his first book, Stuff Christians Like. 23
Acuff also blogs about speaking, writing and entrepreneurship. He has five separate newsletters covering those topics as well as fitness and parenting. He is a popular speaker having spoken to hundreds of thousands of people at conferences, colleges, companies and churches.4
Acuff has used proceeds from fundraising at his blog to build a kindergarten in Vietnam. 5
What is Perfectionism?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary has two definitions for perfectionism. 6 It is the second that is relevant in our context:
a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable
In other words, being a perfectionist means striving to complete every task perfectly. This will often have negative consequences for task completion and meeting deadlines.
Perfectionism is also something of which many high achievers might be accused. My partner tells me I am a perfectionist all the time…
Acuff singles out perfectionism as one of the major reasons people fail to complete goals in Finish.
Perfectionism is never finished. That’s the lie. There’s no such thing as perfect, you can always improve. So perfectionism draws an ever moving, ever expanding finish line that you never reach. You get to be finished and imperfect or almost done and perfect.
You can also have a pdf version of this post for free.
You can also have a pdf version of this post for free.
How does Finish solve the problem with finishing?
Failure to Finish warning 1: The Day After Perfect
In Chapter 1, The Day After Perfect, Acuff explores the reason why so many quit once they’ve started pursuing a new goal.
What is the reason so many people quit chasing their dream?
Jon Acuff believes it is Perfectionism. Specifically, that something deviates from how people imagined their progress and so, instead of accepting a variation or modification of the result, they quit altogether.
Have you ever heard someone say something like this?
I fell behind and couldn’t get back on track.
Life got in the way and my plans got derailed.
The project jumped the tracks and got too messy to fix.
Acuff suggests these are all forms of:
When it stopped being perfect, I stopped, too.
Developing tolerance for imperfection is the key factor in turning chronic starters into consistent finishers.
Do you know what will serve you far longer than perfectionism ever could? Moving forward imperfectly.
He reasons that goal-setting is essentially making a promise to yourself. When you don’t finish you break your promise.
Do that enough times, and it’s who you become. Someone who will always quit on a new goal.
To change that, Acuff suggests embracing imperfection. After all, nothing ever goes exactly as you had planned. If you can tolerate the imperfect you’ll persevere, thus increasing your chance of completion.
He concludes this chapter by stating that:
Day 1 isn’t the most important day of a goal. The day after perfect is, and now we’re ready for it.
Do you suffer from ‘never finish anything’ syndrome? Could perfectionism be limiting your success?
Finish what You Start strategy 1: Cut Your Goal in Half
Perfectionism, Acuff argues, will try to cut you down at every step of the way.
In fact, its first trick is to argue that unless you can do it perfectly, you shouldn’t even start. (And you know you won’t do it perfectly.) That’s why the day after perfect is so important.
The next lie perfectionism tells? Your goal should be bigger.
If you are going to do something, shouldn’t it be amazing? Shouldn’t it be larger than life?
Today I’m going to dare you to do the opposite. In fact, I want you to cut your goal in half.
His thesis is that we are often too optimistic when setting our goals. We over-estimate what we can achieve or we under-estimate the time it will take. Or both.
He quotes Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their theory of the planning fallacy.
A phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed. 7
The Planning Fallacy
Why does it matter if we fail to accurately estimate how much we can achieve or how long it will take?
Perfectionism will tell us we are off track. It will tell us we missed the target. And, no matter how close we got, we failed. Again!
This mindset is toxic to achieving goals.
Acuff’s proposal of cutting your goal in half means that if you’re beyond the halfway mark of your original goal but haven’t reached the end, you’re not a failure. You cut your goal in half, and therefore you achieved it.
This will lead to greater motivation to continue for the original goal over a longer period, rather than giving up after failing to succeed.
He gives an example of attempting to lose ten pounds. If you decide to aim for ten pounds and lose eight, you failed. But, you lost eight pounds, which should be cause for celebration, not regret. If you had set your goal at five pounds, however, then achieving an eight-pound loss would be awesome. And, you’d be much more likely to keep going on your diet and exercise regimen and hit the ten pounds you originally wanted.
If you can’t cut your goal in half, what then?
Some goals are difficult to cut in half. For those, don’t cut them in half; give yourself more time.
Giving yourself more time than you had thought it would take addresses the planning fallacy. It also means you’re more likely to forgive yourself for going slower than planned and continue rather than simply quit.
Would the world fall apart if you did less or it took longer?
Finish what You Start strategy 2: Choose What to Bomb
I enjoy Acuff’s casual tone throughout this book. So much so that I’m planning to go back through some of his older works.
‘Choose What to Bomb’ strikes just the right tone for me. It’s playful, and yet the message is important.
This chapter explains that accomplishing a goal will take time. And, as we all know but often fail to acknowledge, our time is a finite resource. Adding a new goal necessarily means you’re adding more tasks/chores/projects/whatever to your commitments. I don’t have a lot of extra time just waiting to be filled by new goals. In fact, I’m pretty full-up with commitments already.
This leads to Perfectionism’s third lie:
You can do it all.
Acuff suggests you only have two options available to you:
- Attempt more than is humanly possible and fail.
- Choose what to bomb and succeed at a goal that matters.
He argues that we can choose between feeling ashamed at not being able to do it all or using a strategy to succeed.
Decide in advance what things you’re going to bomb
This isn’t a failure; it’s just prioritisation. You can’t do everything, so you accept in advance that during the period you’re working on a project or goal you won’t be working on some other things.
By deciding what to drop before you start, you won’t feel ashamed that that chore or task isn’t getting done. You planned for that to occur.
One example of what Acuff de-prioritises is email. I’ve already written a long piece on managing email, and it’s a strong theme in Cal Newport’s Deep Work as well. If processing and responding to email is preventing you from working on what is important, you will need to decide how important email is to you.
Another example Acuff gives is also one of Newport’s targets: Social Media.
Could you deactivate your account during a big project?
It’s not forever, and in the long run the work you get done matters more.
You can also have the podcast episode list to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish.
You can also have the podcast episode list to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish.
Finish what You Start strategy 3: Make It Fun if You Want It Done
Do you have fun trying to achieve your goals? I know that I often set goals that are necessary but I wouldn’t describe them as fun.
Acuff believes this is a big problem if we want to achieve our goals.
Perfectionism believes that the harder something is, the more miserable something is, the better it is.
This leads him to Perfectionism’s fourth lie:
Fun doesn’t count.
He suggests that two important factors in goal achievement are satisfaction (how you feel about the process) and performance success (what you get done).
His research showed that goals you believe are enjoyable are associated with higher rates of satisfaction. It also increased performance success by 46%.
So what do you do if you have to complete a goal that isn’t exactly fun?
To find ways to make a goal more fun, he suggests leaning on either Reward motivation or Fear motivation.
People who are motivated by a reward have what psychologists call an approach motivation. They are wired to approach the reward that accomplishing a certain goal will generate.
They are motivated by the prize associated with achieving the goal.
Rewards can come in many forms. Acuff suggests postponing certain experiences until after you’ve completed the project, to act as a carrot encouraging you toward the finish line. This could be a purchase, a trip, a night out. Whatever it takes to motivate you to finish.
He also provides an example of a reward that you use during the work to make the work more fun along the way. He buys a certain type of scented candle he lights only when writing a book. Thus, he gets to enjoy the scent of his favourite candle only when he is working hard toward his goal, providing motivation to do the work.
Fear of negative consequences can also be a powerful motivational tool. People motivated by fear are trying to prevent an undesirable outcome rather than achieve a desired one.
The fear of the future forces them to change the present. This is called avoidance motivation.
He describes his fear of public speaking as one example:
I’m not motivated by approaching cheering, I’m motivated by avoiding jeering.
Therefore, when preparing for a speaking engagement, he uses his fear of failing his audience as powerful motivation to be as ready as he can be.
Acuff concludes that it is important to know what drives you. Are you motivated more by a reward or fear of a negative outcome?
Pick which form of motivation you need the most and then add it to as many parts of the project as possible.
For many people, both forms will be relevant at different times. Knowing yourself will allow you to choose between reward and fear motivation in any given situation.
Finish what You Start strategy 4: Leave Your Hiding Places and Ignore Noble Obstacles
In this chapter, Acuff theorises about other ways Perfectionism can halt our progress. He suggests Perfectionism will offer two distinct distractions:
- Hiding places
A hiding place is an activity you focus on instead of your goal.
- Noble obstacles
A noble obstacle is a virtuous-sounding reason for not working toward a finish.
Why does he call them ‘Hiding places’? He suggests this is a task you can do to get a fix of Perfectionism without having to confront your fear of messing up.
In other words, your hiding place is something you do well but won’t contribute to the success of your main goal. Instead of making progress on something that’s important, you do a great job on something that isn’t.
You will never accidentally end up doing a difficult project. The work you’re trying to avoid is not something you’ll stumble upon one day unexpectedly.
Difficult work requires discipline. The hiding places perfectionism offers don’t.
If you can’t explain why what you’re doing is directly related to achieving your goal, it probably isn’t. He suggests asking a friend or loved one whether they think what you’re doing makes sense or is just avoidance.
How can you identify your hiding places? Ask yourself three questions:
- Do you find yourself going there accidentally?
- Do you have to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to justify why you’re giving it time?
- What do your friends think?
Once you’ve identified your hiding places, you’re able to see when you’re distracting yourself from your main goal.
Acuff then suggests using Judo to help turn hiding places into motivation.
You don’t push back against a charging foe, you lean backward and allow the rush to topple your opponent unexpectedly. That’s what you should do when a distraction gets too loud.
If you’re getting distracted by a new goal or hobby, use it as motivation to finish your current one:
When new ideas or new goals get shiny, put them at the finish line.
Line your finish line with the dream goals you’re currently using as hiding places and then watch how fast you’ll run toward it.
Acuff suggests there are two forms of Noble Obstacle that Perfectionism will throw up as reasons you can’t pursue your goal:
- you cannot move toward your goal until you do something else
- reaching your goal could actually produce bad results or make you a bad person
He proffers examples of noble obstacles while singling out the word ‘until’ for special criticism:
Until I know why I have an issue with food, I can’t walk around the block at a brisk pace for more minutes today than I did yesterday.
Until I know what my entire book is about I can’t write the first hundred words.
Until I know where all the stuff in every room of my house is going to go I can’t clean this one room.
Until I pick the perfect goal I can’t work on anything.
Until I get rid of distractions I can’t get anything done.
He also suggests phrases including If … then and It’s too hard are sure signs of noble obstacles.
After realising you’re using noble obstacles, how do you get back on track? Acuff dares you to ask two questions:
- Could things be easier?
- Could things be simpler?
Finish what You Start strategy 5: Get Rid of Your Secret Rules
Perfectionism is a desperate attempt to live up to impossible standards. We wouldn’t play if we knew the whole game was impossible, so perfectionism promises us that we just need to follow some secret rules.
What kinds of secret rules have you internalised over the years of your life? What self-talk do you use that guides your decision making, and you aren’t even consciously aware of doing it?
These questions are the basis for Acuff’s suggestion to identify and eliminate secret rules.
He provides examples:
If I’m not miserable, I’m not doing something productive.
If it doesn’t come easily, it’s not worth doing.
Success is bad.
I recognised myself in his examples, as I’m sure many readers would. I am certain that I have been living my life by secret rules for many years, and am now determined to flush them out and expose them to the bright daylight they’re so afraid of.
One of the features of these secret rules is that often won’t stand up to scrutiny. They might not be true, or they might no longer be true.
Acuff suggests a three-step process to dealing with secret rules:
- Identify them
- Destroy them
- Replace them
Smoke Out Your Secret Rules
To identify your secret rules, ask yourself four questions:
- Do I even like ____________?
- What’s my real goal?
- Does the method I’m using match who I am?
- Is it time to quit?
He suggests these four questions will allow you to get to the truth of the matter. Honest reflection on why we choose our goals and how we go about them will illuminate strategies to help with completing these and subsequent goals.
Destroy and Replace
Identifying your secret rules is one thing. Destroying and replacing them is the solution.
The first thing you should do is simply ask the question, “What does that mean?” For each secret rule you encounter.
The second question to ask is “Who says?”
The final step is to write a new rule that is flexible, healthy and reasonable. Replace your nasty, toxic, secret rules with a new one.
Finish what You Start strategy 6: Use Data to Celebrate Your Imperfect Progress
This chapter made my heart sing. I love measurement. Data tells the truth. I wrote a guest post at Asian Efficiency all about the importance of measurement, and I’ve written about it here as well. Ongoing measurement is a critical component of the 12 Week Year process which I also have also described and reviewed.
Acuff believes that data can disprove the lies of Perfectionism. Specifically, that Perfectionism will tell you that you aren’t making progress and things aren’t going well. When you have data representing where you were before, you can prove your progress (and quieten Perfectionism).
Perfectionism hates data. Why? Because emotions lie, data doesn’t.
What are some examples of where data can help you fight back when Perfectionism tries to hijack your attention?
How many inches have we lost during our diet?
What percent of body fat?
How many hours did we work out this week versus last week?
How much has our salary grown over the last three years?
How many total words did we write this summer versus last?
How many dollars do we have saved up for our next vacation?
Is our progress on this goal any different from the last goal?
One of the reasons we fail to appraise our progress accurately is denial. Denial is an especially difficult foe, as it is far easier to recognise in others than ourselves. Which leads to the most quotable phrase in Finish:
Data kills denial, which prevents disaster
Acuff argues that data allows you to take out the emotion and just deal with the facts. What is the truth? Perhaps the truth is that you’re tanking this goal, in which case you might want to review your plan or even reconsider why you’re doing it.
Another way that data helps is by showing us how far we’ve come. When you’re running a marathon, it could be easy to focus on how far away the finish line remains. Another way to look at it is to consider how far you’ve already come. You can’t know how far you’ve come unless you record the data that tells you.
Your goal is to get to 100 percent and you’re only at 40, you’ve failed.
The reality is that 40 percent is monstrous progress when compared to zero, but miniscule when compared to 100.
Sometimes, to make it through the middle, we have to be very deliberate about our perception.
Finally, it is important to consider the past. Ask yourself: when have tried to reach a goal like this one before? What happened? What can you learn from that experience? How might this help you have greater success with this goal?
Once you’ve collected the data, you need to review your progress. If you’re falling behind, you have three options:
- adjust the goal
- adjust the timeline
- adjust your actions
You can also have a pdf version of this post to read again any time that suits you.
You can also have a pdf version of this post to read again any time that suits you.
Failure to Finish warning 2: The Day Before Done
Remember the day after perfect? What if Perfectionism has one more chance, one last chance to create havoc?
You fought through the day after perfect. You cut your goal in half. You made sure your goal is fun. You are inches away from finished and perfectionism knows it.
Acuff suggests there are three more fears that Perfectionism can create:
- The fear of what happens next
- The fear that it won’t be perfect
- The fear of “what now?”
His research led him to conclude that the best way to finally finish is to enlist the help of a friend. A friend can cut through all the fears and the misinformation that Perfectionism throws our way. A friend can tell us the truth, and help us to finish.
Fear no finish line. You’ve worked too hard to give up now.
Will the outcome be different from your vision? Yes. I can’t lie to you this late in the book. But you’ll never know the unbelievable joy of keeping a promise to yourself unless you finish.
Starting is fun, but the future belongs to finishers. Ready to be one?
I had a great time reading Finish. And I’ve enjoyed skimming and re-reading highlights while preparing this summary.
Acuff’s writing is jovial and light-hearted, but it conveys the interest of someone who feels like they care about your success. He is humorous and tells a good anecdote. Some of the stories he shares from people he has worked with are moving, and others just frustrating. But they’re always interesting and will often make you laugh.
Finish is an easy book to read: I completed it in a few days of intermittent reading while on holiday and found it wasn’t taxing at all. This is deceptive, however, as I have found myself reflecting on the lessons from the book in the weeks since, realising that I have been holding onto my own secret rules and noble obstacles.
I can’t tell how many of my goals have been subverted by Perfectionism, but I know that there was something in every chapter of Finish that rang true. This is one easy read that could have a profound effect if applied in full.
I am planning to ensure my next goal-setting period incorporates several of the tricks and tips from Finish. I haven’t included the action steps Acuff lists at the end of each chapter, but I will be checking those off in my planning. I look forward to reporting back on my successes and failures.
Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Doneis applicable for anyone who has ever failed at achieving a goal. Everyone, in other words.
One of the benefits of Acuff’s writing is that it is so accessible. There aren’t a lot of complicated ideas or data to review, just ideas from research translated into actionable recommendations that anyone can apply.
One of the best examples I could find in my life is my inaction during most of this year on having an academic paper published. I submitted my article and it was promptly rejected, although the reviewers provided a list of ways to improve the submission.
This is common, and should not stop someone from re-writing and re-submitting elsewhere. However, for a variety of reasons I haven’t gone on to do so.
These include not being sure of exactly which journal I should submit it to, and how much to re-write and modify the piece. After reading Finish, I suspect that these were hiding places and noble obstacles rather than valid reasons. I believe I have a secret rule that suggests that if one journal didn’t want it, no-one will want it.
Acuff has inspired me to open my article, review the editor’s comments and find somewhere to re-submit.
Another goal I have been failing to work on is my goal of writing articles for this site. I want this website to be a powerful resource for physicians who want to become more productive. How have I been pursuing that goal? I’ve spent a lot of time tweaking fonts and scripts, trying to work on page loading speed and caching plugins.
All of those things are good things to do, but not if they are distracting or diverting me from getting the important work done. The important work is writing new articles. Fiddling with plugins and scripts, albeit useful, are noble obstacles I’ve been using as excuses.
I hope that my behaviour moving forward is more mindful of the value I hope to create and that I can keep Acuff’s Finish principles in mind!
One the real joys of reading Finish is that Acuff has provided action steps at the end of each chapter. These steps are simple and easy, but I suspect they will show results faster than you imagine.
Although his writing is easy to read throughout the book, the action steps Acuff provides will walk you through identifying ways to prevent you from falling victim to the Planning Fallacy, how to decide on things you can bomb, how to add fun back to goal-setting, how to identify and neutralise the impact of hiding places and noble obstacles, how to identify, destroy and replace your secret rules, how to enlist data to kill denial, and how to just finish.
The action steps will guide you. Just buy a copy of the book (Amazon), read it, study it and follow his steps. Don’t forget to register your purchase as Acuff has provided a bunch of worksheets and guides to help readers even more.
Finally, Acuff has three separate mailing lists for his readers aimed at Writers, Speakers and Entrepreneurs. You can sign up for one or more at his site.
Do you have trouble actually finishing what you start? After reading a lot of the best books on goal-setting and personal productivity in the last few years, I can say that Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done is one of the easiest but most powerful.
If you have ever wondered how to increase your chance of success, Acuff’s book might be just the answer.
Have you read Jon Acuff’s Finish? Do you fail to finish your goals? Did any of Acuff’s advice ring true? Let us know in the comments!
- Jonathan Acuff, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2017), 2. [↩]
- https://acuff.me/ [↩]
- https://acuff.me/books/ [↩]
- http://stuffchristianslike.net/about/ [↩]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Acuff [↩]
- https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perfectionism [↩]
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 260. [↩]