The pace of contemporary life has each of us continually starting more things than we can finish. Beneficial projects go uncompleted; good intentions are unfulfilled; action lists grow longer and longer. The result is a personal sense of frustration and weakened organizational performance.

The logical response to this state of affairs is to simply start fewer things. We should not take on more than we can do. We should be selective in what we start. We should learn how to say no to some requests for commitments of our time and personal effort. This is the logical approach to the situation and each point is correct. Each point is helpful and each point is a part of the solution. The most important part of the solution is, however, something different. We will overcome the sense of frustration and the weakness created by things left undone not by becoming an expert in “not-starting”, but by becoming an expert in the fine art of finishing.

To finish a task, project, or initiative is to achieve completion; when all that needs to be done has been done. Finishing is easier when you are given direction from others and told the specific steps to be taken. You can work the list and when the last item is completed, you are done. Finishing becomes an art, however, when the person holding you accountable is in fact you. The art of finishing requires you to not only know when you are done, but also what needs to be done. Have all of the steps needed for completion been identified; has each step been successfully completed; can any step be improved?

A business creates standards, processes, checklists, and training programs to help assure a high level of service is continually provided to our customers. Unfortunately, even with the standards, processes, checklists, and training programs a customer can experience a level of service which is marginal at best. The key to moving past marginal, average, and simply acceptable is to master the art of finishing through the mastery of seven fundamentals:

1. Begin with the end in mind.
2. Gain agreement on the desired result.
3. Don’t wait; work.
4. Get better as you go along.
5. Yesterday is over, but is it finished?
6. Recognize milestones along the way.
7. Clean-up; get ready for the next adventure.

Begin with the End in Mind

Steven Covey used this phrase as his landmark book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. First published in 1989, this classic book continues to be recommended reading for anyone interested in personal development. Beginning with the end in mind speaks to the need to see how an effort is expected to be concluded. Many times, an effort is ended when either energy or time runs out. Results can frequently be measured, but there is not a benchmark to indicate whether success was achieved. The popular phrase “it is what it is” can be used to describe the end of a targetless effort. To begin with the end in mind is an introspective act. You become comfortable with what you intend to do. Vividly picturing the end result of a major effort brings the path into focus. There will be many bends in the path along the way, but if the end remains clear, the journey will be completed.

Gain Agreement on the Desired Result

There are few things in life which are completed without the assistance and support of others. In addition to having a clear picture of what you want to achieve, agreement on the vision must be shared with others who will support and assist in the process. The challenge is to be able to clearly convey not only the value of the desired end, but also the group’s ability, given the right resources, to achieve that end. A final requirement is that each member must recognize that he (she) has a role in the effort. Agreement is an exercise of buying-in to the effort, establishing a commitment to see the process through to its conclusion. The leader must periodically check back with others on the journey to assure the commitment is being maintained. There is nothing more disconcerting than for a leader to look over his (her) shoulder and see no one there.

Don’t Wait; Work

No one has ever become truly successful by waiting for something good to happen. A careful investigation of overnight success typically shows that what seems to be a rapid ascent to success was preceded by a long period of effort to develop the skills and knowledge needed for the breakthrough which appears as overnight success. A benchmark of 10,000 hours of sustained effort or practice is needed to become an expert in an activity. Mastery of the same activity requires a doubling of the investment of effort. They key, however, is not to ponder the length of the road, but to learn to appreciate the value of each step. Learning is the result of taking conscious steps.

Get Better as You Go Along

A journey is all about improvement, about learning. A simple march through time to achieve a goal incrementally does not lead to mastery. It is instead a production exercise where your effort is simply an asset applied to create a result. If, however, at every step of the journey you look for improvement, you will find mastery to be the true reward for achievement of the desired end.

Yesterday is Over, But is it Finished?

Time travel remains a fantasy for most with serious discussion being reserved for those with expert status in quantum physics. In our daily existence we understand that no matter how much we would like to, we cannot go back even a single moment in time. The only time we have is the present moment. Yesterday is over, it cannot be brought back to the present. Yesterday may be over, but it does not have to be finished. Do you accept the way you left yesterday or is there more to do? Are there steps which deserve some of your present effort in order to properly finish the effort of yesterday? If there are, do you take the time to complete those steps before you move on to the business of today?

An equally challenging question is whether there are actions you are presently taking that are simply a habit formed over the course of your accumulation of yesterdays? Actions which consume time, but do not move you forward in any aspect of your life. If there is work left undone from yesterday, do it now. If the work of yesterday has been finished, stop doing it.

Recognize Milestones Along the Way

A truly meaningful end requires a journey to achieve. A journey is an extended endeavor, a commitment of time and effort, which challenges each of those who sign-on. Over time, commitment is tested. The level of eagerness and excitement experienced at the beginning naturally wanes as effort becomes routine. The tedium of a journey requires routine replenishment of commitment, eagerness, and excitement. Milestones provide a stop along the way. A successfully achieved milestone affirms the direction being taken and reinforces the commitment to the journey. A missed milestone is a warning signal that the direction may not be correct or that effort may have to be increased in order to achieve the desired end.

Clean-up; Get Ready for the Next Adventure

Finishing is not the last step in the process, but rather the step before starting the next process. Singer/song writer Harry Chapin wrote:

“All my life’s a circle; …
 There’s no straight lines make up my life;
 And all my roads have bends;
 There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
 And so far no dead-ends.”

Finishing is a necessary step in the process of starting new. If we become experts, or even better, masters at finishing, we will choose wonderful journeys which will lead us through a successful life.

Joe Schumacker
October 2013


Deeper Dive

Harvard Business Review, “The Making of an Expert”, K. Anders Ericsson, July 2007, reprint #R0707J
This article is the basis for accepting the need to spend approximately 10,000 hours of effort to become an expert in an endeavor.

“Mastery”, Robert Greene, 2012
The author provides a detailed explanation of what is needed to become a master in any chosen endeavor. The book is a good read.

“Zentrepreneur”, John J. Murphy, 2013
Murphy provides a view into the mind of those who successfully conclude journeys. As with “Mastery”, “Zentrepreneur” is a good read. It is accessible with a significant amount of content.

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