10 min read

Scared to Finish Your Work? Here's What to do.

“I observe that some men, like bad runners in the stadium, abandon their purposes when close to the goal; while it is at that particular point, more than at any other, that others secure the victory over their rivals.” — Polybius

Finish Your Work

"You start a job and you finish a job." -- Chef Josh Eden, in Work Clean by Dan Charnas

We must finish. To the recipient of your project, 90% done is the same as 0% done. It doesn't matter how hard you worked to get to 90%. If you don't deliver, you don't create any value. Not finishing means you have inventory sitting around.

Unfinished work occupies physical space in your office, your warehouse. It occupies virtual space on your computer desktop, your folders. Unfinished work occupies attention. Your brain doesn't want to forget what it needs to do, so it loops over unfinished tasks, trying to remember.  Unfinished work distracts you and clouds your thinking.

Once you deliver a project you get feedback. Your clients will let you know where to improve next time. They will let you know when you're traveling down the wrong path. They will let you know when you verge on something game-changing.

Once you deliver, you free up mental attention and memory for the next project.

If finishing is so important, why would we ever fail to finish?

Part I: The Resistance

If you've ever made something you've met The Resistance. Stephen Pressfield's "The War of Art" explores the idea of The Resistance. His book shows us how to overcome it.

"Resistance is the urge to procrastinate, delay, wait, the belief that you’re not ready, in sum anything that gets in the way of the artist creating his or her art." -- Stephen Pressfield

The resistance comes from within. It is your self-doubt and perfectionism manifesting as procrastination.

Unfortunately for us The Resistance gets stronger as we approach the finish line.

"The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we're about to beat it. It his the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it's got." -- Stephen Pressfield, The War of Art

Fortunately, we can beat The Resistance. We can weaken The Resistance at any point by attacking self-doubt, perfectionism, and procrastination.


Delivering a project exposes us to our deepest fears. Embedded deep in ourselves lies a fear of social rejection. Even worse than rejection: "What if no one cares about my work?"

The consequences of rejection are much smaller than we think. While our own failures feel painful, they are quickly forgotten by our peers. No one remembers Babe Ruth for his strikeouts.

Self-doubt also manifests itself as perfectionism.


By improving each tiny, inconsequential part of our work, we can avoid the risk of rejection.

We say to ourselves, "It's not ready yet. I still need to make these tweaks."

We use our 'artistic vision' as an excuse to avoid judgment, delaying projects for as long as possible. We include every detail, use time-consuming methods, and insert tiny Easter eggs no one will notice. All to avoid judgment.

By staying at 90%, we avoid the judgment of others. We can hide from our fear of rejection indefinitely. This is procrastination.


Both self-doubt and perfectionism result in procrastination.

Image of stick figure procrastinating

Animation via /u/CobraKaiStudent

Self-doubt holds us back from releasing our work into the world. Self-doubt brings out our inner perfectionist, demanding a perfect work of art before showing the world.

Perfectionism generates an endless todo-list of tiny tweaks. The unfinished list of changes paralyzes us. The unfinished list fuels our self-doubt.

The result is procrastination, The Resistance, and a project stuck at 90%.

Too many balls in the air

Often we juggle too many projects. Fear of rejection drives us to start new things, rather than finish, in hope that the new project will win the approval we seek. Now we juggle too many balls. None of them can get enough attention. We start throwing wildly, we start missing catches, and still we start more new things.

Dividing by infinity is zero.

Even mathematics teaches us what happens when you split your attention everywhere instead of focus.November 10, 2016

Want to level up your productivity and start getting work done?

We built an interactive coach, available 24⁄7 to give you a feasible next step to improve your productivity skills.

Get the Digital Productivity Coach

Part II: How to Finish What You've Started


How to finish what you've started? Make Finishing easier. We can weaken The Resistance at any point by attacking self-doubt, perfectionism, and procrastination. We can make finishing easier with a small but powerful set of tools. Let's explore some of these tools.

Make Clear Definitions

Vague definitions make it hard to start, hard to continue, and hard to recognize when you’ve finished.

  • Why am I producing this?
  • Criteria for the finished product
  • Plan for finishing
  • Plan for setbacks
  • Without a ‘why’ we can’t overcome the fear of rejection.

Without clear ‘finished’ criteria we extend the deadline forever with perfectionism.

Without a plan for finishing, we take on too much, burn ourselves out early, or miss important steps that cause delays.

Without a plan for setbacks, we crumble at the first sign of trouble.

We know the reasons why we struggle to finish. Now, let’s find ways to deal with them.

Reduce the Scope

Want a double-whammy technique for reducing fear and increasing feedback? Reduce the scope.

Finish something easier. The smaller scope reduces the fear of judgment. You get more opportunities to share your work. Feedback arrives fast and frequently.

Later, you can build back up to the original scope. In the meantime you have more feedback driving your project.

For example, scared to write a book?

  • Have a conversation with a few friends.
  • Write a tweetstorm.
  • Write a blog post.
  • Write a book.

Along the way, you'll figure out what resonates with your readers, what confuses them, what you can cut, and what you need to add. Ryan Holiday's book, "Growth Hacker Marketing" grew out of a popular blog post.

Another example, scared to start a business?

  • Talk to potential customers.
  • Put up a landing page with a non-functional 'Buy Now' button and grab their email.
  • Make a Minimum Viable Product.
  • Add the smallest feature possible that improves your product.
  • Add larger features.
  • Grow into a self-sustaining business.

The design firm IDEO uses prototypes for everything. Prototypes aren't limited to only physical products or software. Tom Kelly points out that "virtually every step along the ideation path can be prototyped—not just at the development stage, but also marketing, distribution, even sales."

Pick Your Battles

Be Honest with time. Embrace creative laziness, and pick your battles.

Attention to detail is important, but one must draw the line.

Steve Jobs is well known for his meticulous attention to detail.

"Details matter, it's worth waiting to get it right."

But remember: Apple has shipped an iPhone every year since 2007. The first iPhone sucked. No 3G, no copy-paste support, tiny storage. But Apple improved each version until the iPhone became ubiquitous for its design and ease of use.

Too Many Projects

If you're juggling too many projects, it's time to cut something out.

  • Get other projects out of your head and on to a 'do-later' list.
  • Maintain a limit on how many active projects.
  • Clear everything out of your vision except for your target of focus. Close your email, close your Slack. Close every browser tab except ones related to the work in front of you.
More on working on one thing at a time

Attacking Fatigue

When you're tired, you're slow and you make mistakes. There's nothing more unproductive than making a mess you'll have to clean up later. If you're tired, take a break. Plan to take breaks.

Dan Charnas, the author of Work Clean, points out 4 types of breaks.

  • Mental - When you can't think anymore, take a mental break. Do something mindless. Browse the internet. Check your phone.
  • Physical - When you've been sitting at the desk too long. Get up, walk outside, get a snack.
  • Social - Chat with a friend or a coworker to clear your head.
  • Work - Work on a different project for a while.

Remember, these are breaks. Don't let a 5 minute Facebook break turn into an hour.

Take a nap. Twenty minutes of sleep makes a great refresher.

If you're truly exhausted, call it a day. Separate yourself from work, and relax at home. Rest up and be fresh for a new day.

Setting Definitions

“It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved.” — John Dewey, Logic: Theory of Inquiry

The biggest driver of our inability to finish is a lack of clear definitions:

  • Why am I producing this?
  • Criteria for the finished product
  • Plan for finishing
  • Plan for setbacks

Clear definitions remove uncertainty. Take the time to plan. Make clear definitions so you know exactly what to do.

Sebastian Marshall and Kai Zau have a fantastic set of questions for gaining clarity.

"What am I trying to achieve here? Why am I trying to achieve it?"

What's your 'why'? Why do you want to finish? Visualize the benefit. Imagine yourself finishing. Feel the relief as your project gets tied up and all those loose ends stop bouncing around your brain.

"How will I know I’m successful? When do I want this to be complete?"

Get clear on what finished looks like. How to fight the perfectionist in you? "That feature isn't in my definition of finished, I won't do it."

"How much time do I estimate this will take? What’s my budget in time and money for this? What key advantages can I build for myself early?"

Plan. Break the large down into the small and the easy.  When stuck, focus on the smallest possible task that will keep you moving.

When planning, give extra weight to finishing. Don't assume the last 10% will only take 10% of the total project time. A good rule of thumb: "When you're 90% done, you're half-finished".

Tom Cargill of Bell Labs once quipped, "The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time." It's a joke, but it's not as far off as you'd think.

A few more questions from Marshall and Zau:

"What are the most likely pitfalls? If I hit major setbacks, what will I do?"

No matter how amazing the plan, you will make mistakes. The unexpected will rear its head. Make a contingency plan before you need one.

Get an Expediter

Last but not least in our finishing toolbox: the expediter.

Accountability is a powerful force. We fear finishing because we fear the social repercussions, the judgment. The same fear can be used to push us to finish.

Tell a friend or a colleague about your project and your deadline. Get them to bug you until you finish.

Put some cash on the line. Tell a friend you'll give them $100 if you don't deliver. Or better yet, automate the process so you don't chicken out. Stikk, Beeminder and gofuckingdoit.com both let you wager cash online.

If you can, get someone to look at your project. You've been entrenched in this project for a long time. An outsider has a different perspective. They can point out superfluous details, non-essential areas, and time sinks.

Finishing is a skill. Practice it.

We discussed some reasons for our inability to finish and outlined a set of tools for getting your work out the door. What lessons can you turn into action?

Remember that finishing is a skill. The best way to get better at finishing is to practice it.

Let's hear from Marshall and Zau again:

"A very important rule: do not allow yourself to quit things that are 90% complete. You must not self-destruct at the finish line. It creates a terribly bad habit. You do not want to be someone, nor get the reputation of being someone, who does all of the work and gets none of the gains, self-destructing at the end. Get repetitions in the fine art of finishing. Finishing is hard, and finishing anything is worthwhile. "

The Resistance never goes away. The fear of delivering never goes away. But you can train yourself to crave it.

Train yourself to push towards your fears, instead of pulling away from them.

"Commit to delivering. When a task is nearly done, finish it. Always be unblocking." - Dan Charnas, Work Clean

Conclusion: Attacking Self-Doubt and Perfectionism

"The more afraid of something you are, the more you can be sure that you have to do it." -- Stephen Pressfield, Do the Work
"You’ll know you’ve opened the right door when you feel a strong, irresistible impulse to do something else, anything else." -- Julien Smith, The Flinch

The fear of finishing never goes away. No matter how many projects you ship, how many works of art you display, how many times you get on stage, the fear will be there. You will never be 100% ready. And that's okay.

Ringo Starr of the Beatles has performed on stage countless times. Yet he still gets nervous.

Ringo Starr on stage
“I feel like running away three seconds before I’m due to hit the stage. That’s why I always run on to it. I would love to coolly stroll on stage but I cannot” - Ringo Starr

Your project is ready to be delivered. Will you run onto the stage? Or will you hide in the wings, hoping you'll be ready one day?

If you want to improve, finishing is the only way. Every time you release something into the world, you get the feedback that you so fear. Positive or negative, this feedback points you towards improvement. Only by iterating can you improve.

The only path forward is to finish.

"When we ship, we open ourselves to judgment in the real world. Nothing is more empowering, because it plants us solidly on Planet Earth and gets us out of our self-devouring, navel-centered fantasies and self-delusions" -- Stephen Pressfield, Do the Work

The way to get better at finishing is to practice finishing. The only path forward is to finish.

Are you struggling to finish a project? Send me a message, I'll help you expedite it.

Further Reading