The art of finishing: Why 80% is worse than 0% done

I’m a starter. I love to get things started. And I do, seriously, start lots of things; but, truth be told, I don’t always finish them. In fact, if you looked at my to-do list you’d find that the list of things I intend to finish is a lot longer than the list of things I have actually finished.

A lot of these unfinished tasks are great ideas that would help my business and my clients! Some of them are things I promised to do for someone else. These tasks are all over the scale — anywhere from almost-done to not-even-half-baked.

Having something 80% done is worse than 0% complete. (click to tweet)

The sad truth is that having something 80% complete is actually worse than having things 0% complete. To the client it’s the same — both have zero value — but the task that is 80% done has already absorbed a bunch of my time and attention. I have spent myself (my time and effort) for nothing! If I look at it that way, my to-do list is littered with bad investments — projects that have a negative ROI.

I’m guessing that if you are honest, your situation is not so different from mine. People who work for themselves often have that “starter” personality. We love to start things. Our brains get flooded with endorphins when we tackle an idea and work through all the logic that tells us why it won’t work; but when it comes to actually slogging it out to get it finished…well, not so much.

This month at EnMast we are going to focus on finishing, on getting projects done. By the end of March I want us all (me included) to have finished more projects than ever before. I will outline some research, show you some tools, teach you different methods, and start us on new practices that can “trick” our brains into getting beyond the slogging portion — to the finish line — more often.

Taking Stock

But before we can make this situation better, we actually have to take stock of just how bad it really is. The truth hurts.

When I talk to business owners I find that many of them are overwhelmed. There is more that needs to be done than there are hours in the day to do it. If we put everything that we owe people down on one sheet of paper, we would want to quit! So we don’t; we never really take stock of all that we have to do. We keep it in pieces, and squirrel it away. Some of it is in our email, some in our project management system, some on a to-do list — it’s really spread all over the place. We know this isn’t a “best practice” — we should have it all in one place — but if we did, it would exhaust us just to look at it…

I understand this feeling, I really do. But to let fear of it dictate how you manage, or don’t manage, your to-do list…well. It’s killing you — and wreaking havoc in your business!

Whether you have all those things down in one place or not — you still owe them, right? They are still on your mind! Having them scattered about actually means that you are using more of your brain’s resources trying to keep track of them. Yes, you will have to manage your feelings of being overwhelmed and not up to the task (we’ll talk about that in another post), but once you stare the beast of a-real-life-complete-task-list in the face, then it will actually free you up to make better choices — about what needs to get done, who can do it, and how to manage your way out of the hole you are in.

The danger of tools

At this point (if you are willing to play along) you might be wondering what tool I might suggest to put this list of things into. THIS IS A TRAP. This thought is actually your brain inviting you to start another project! A project to find the perfect task management tool! Don’t be fooled. Please just use a tool that you already have: use paper, use Outlook, use Basecamp, use whatever tool you have and are likely to keep using. More time has been wasted in the name of productivity than you can imagine. Don’t fall for it.

The power of the pause

Creating this list — the list of everything that you owe anyone (including you, and your business) — is going to take some time. I know you feel like you are too busy to do it. You might even feel like taking the time to make this list will be the straw that breaks your back. Trust me. It won’t. In fact, every time I’ve made this list it has made me feel better! Once I have the list, I’m able to make some choices: I can call these three clients and push back the deadline, I can delegate 8 – 10 things and get them off my list entirely, I can find 5 things on the list that I can get done (and off the list) in the next hour… With a better idea of what’s there I can take action. And I can do that without the burden of a lingering anxiety. Because I have counted all my chickens, I can see, really see, everything on my plate — nothing is hiding on my phone or buried in my email! I can put it all on a scale and weigh the urgent and the important together, and make much better decisions about what to do with them.

I hope you’ll join us as we work to get things finished this month. But whether you are following along or not — stop right now. And make that list!










Photo credit: Elvert Barnes


  1. Oh, that’s a really good way to look at it. I would hope that the endorphin rush of FINISHING would be enough to get us through that last 20%…

    I think for me I get to the messy middle when things get hard and at that point starting something new seems so much easier…

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