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Don’t give up: how to finish what you start

Advice on tackling a daunting project that feels impossible

career coaching
Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar

How incredible does it feel when you get to the other side of an enormous task? A project that felt impossible to start with is finally conquered. No longer a mountain blocking your horizon, you can watch it disappear in life’s rear-view mirror. Finally, you can stand on the other side and think, “Yes! I did it.” I recently finished a textbook commissioned more than seven years ago that I’d been working on consistently for two years. I also completed a four-year creative writing degree, which I had started later in life. During the days of doubt and insecurity, abandoning these time-consuming endeavours was tempting.

The road to completing any long assignment is rarely smooth and will present many obstacles and challenges. At times, we’ll wish to terminate it entirely. But with expectations to meet and deadlines to honour, whether professional or self-imposed, we must find some way to push through to the end. Many factors can deter the completion of what we start. Sometimes, when rushed off our feet by multiple responsibilities, finishing a single thought or sentence can be challenging. There’s always something to distract us, as Julia Bell notes in her essay Radical Attention. We have to battle on a daily basis not to be distracted.

Alongside the constant disturbance of digital diversions, destructive mindsets can also sabotage our plans. From anxiety about being judged on the completed work to apprehension around what happens afterwards, fear can have a paralysing effect. Perfectionism can be equally debilitating; if you believe nothing will ever be good enough, you will always be tempted to stall or stop what you’re doing.

8 ways to help finish what you start

1/ Make a plan

Any large job can be seen as a series of smaller tasks, and a production schedule, framework or plan is vital before plunging in. By applying SMART goals (ones that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound), interim deadlines will allow the monstrous project to be reframed as a series of more attainable tasks. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

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HBO/Warner Bros

2/ Develop sustainable working practices

Sheryl Garrett is a professional coach for creatives and works with authors, musicians and actors. She believes regular commitment to the project is vital. “Habit is really important. Authors don’t write for 10 hours a day, but might make it a thing for two hours every morning. Charles Darwin did three 90-minute sessions a day. Stephen King writes from nine until 12. In order to see progress, you must commit and find a sustainable rhythm.”

3/ Allow your subconscious to help

Pacing yourself in a calm, consistent way and working through a project gradually will give your subconscious the space required to support your goals. In How to Engage Your Subconscious Mind to Solve Your Toughest Problems, August Birch writes, “If you fill all your time with busy work, you won’t give your mind the rest required for ideas to surface… You can’t grow if you don’t leave time for fresh ideas.” So, sleep on it, shower, go for a walk – but build thinking time into your schedule.

4/ Tame your inner critic

Most of us have imposter syndrome or an inner critic – the one who internally harangues us, tells us we’re not worthy or good enough. They will speak in absolutes and, if left to dominate, will ensure nothing is ever completed. Garrett suggests we enter into dialogue with them. “Give your inner critic a character, a name and an outfit. Whether you give them a voice like Kenneth Williams or turn them into a staid geography teacher in a flowery dress, this will take away their power and diffuse their words.” On one level, our inner critics are there to protect us from exposure or potential hurt. But sometimes, it’s easier to send them packing.

5/ Keep a journal

As well as executing this work on a daily and consistent basis, it’s a good idea to keep a journal, not only to track progress but to log issues, difficult feelings or problems. Taking regular time to reflect on the work that’s being produced allows us to be more aware of patterns, stumbling blocks and small triumphs along the way. According to the project risk coach Harry Hall, it will also permit perspective and clarity, allow us to see and plan the next steps, identify lessons learnt, and ask questions.

selfish at work   career, office
Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar

6/ Lean into your friends or close network

Having a group or critical friend to lean into when times are tough is paramount when managing a big assignment over a period of time. There may be a team ascribed to work with you, or this may be a personal project. No matter how disciplined or self-motivated you are, there will be times when you need advice, a second opinion or a different view. Although listening to criticism can sometimes be tough, it’s important that your sounding board is someone honest, who you trust and respect. Ultimately, their words should come from a place of support and goodwill.

7/ Tune into your inner mentor

While the inner critic has the loudest voice and can sometimes be the most persistent nag, it is important to cultivate and listen to your inner mentor, who is more softly spoken and part of your deep intuition. This is the voice of wisdom: the one who knows more than our conscious selves and, most importantly, knows us as individuals. This inner mentor is our friend, so listen attentively. Tara Mohr, who wrote Playing Big, for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Stand Out and Lead, offers a number of visualisation techniques to encourage this.

8/ Feel the fear… and finish!

Fear can be a corrosive and destructive emotion. We might worry that people will hate what we’ve done or that we’ll be judged harshly on the results. Garrett concludes, “When we get to the end of our lives, we won’t regret what we tried, but what we didn’t try. One book I often recommend to my clients is Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. And, it was Fritz Peris, the psychiatrist and father of Gestalt Therapy, who said, ‘Fear is excitement without the breath.’”

So, breathe deeply, feel the fear, and do it. And keep doing it until you finish.

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

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