Today’s snippet comes from some recent musings related to work I’m doing with a client and my own frustration with the lack of progress I’ve felt on my PhD work this week.
A huge challenge I’ve noticed many of our clients struggling with is what I’ve been calling a culture of “starting” instead of a culture of “finishing.” When potential new work emerges at their organizations the goal is to assign it to somebody as quickly as possible. Immediately assigning the work to someone alleviates some of the anxiety that comes from making new commitments (which is exactly what agreeing to do some kind of work is). There’s no real plan about how to undertake it and nobody has really thought through whether this work should be done — but at least somebody is “in charge” of it now, right? The problem with this approach, though, is that everyone within the organization is already swamped with more work than they could ever possibly do in a timely matter. Mission critical work is mixed in with projects that probably don’t even deserve to exist. Lots gets started but very little is ever finished.
How do you shift from a mindset of starting toward a mindset of finishing?
I know there are a couple things that have helped me move in this direction in my own work (although I’m still not as good at finishing things as I’d like to be). My hypothesis is that when you get a group together who understands and uses these approaches well you’ll start to see the team or organization adopting more of a finishing mindset as well:
Be honest about what you can do: The hardest part of this mindset shift is saying no more often. There’s no silver bullet here. In order to focus on fewer things (which is what a culture of finishing requires) you’ll have to say no more. You can start moving in this direction by saying, “Yes, but…” more often and start building caveats and understanding around the conditions in which you are accepting the work. This won’t happen overnight (and often requires some serious introspection around what your actual priorities are) but moving toward being more selective is the step zero of any mindset shift toward finishing. This is just as true for organizations looking to build a culture of finishing as it is for an individual trying to cultivate the ability to finish better. An organization that doesn’t know it’s purpose is likely to take on work that distracts which makes it difficult to finish the stuff that actually matters.
Keep a list of things you’ve said no to: You can use this tactic to help drive home the fact you need to really step up your game in regards to the stuff you’re working on because you’ve had to say no to some cool stuff to be able to do it. This only works if you’re already good at saying no in the first place. It basically throws the opportunity costs of your decisions into your face — hopefully encouraging you to take the results of those decisions more seriously. I literally have a piece of text file on my computer that has a list of the opportunities I’ve said no to over the past couple years. Looking through it never ceases to motivate me to work harder on the stuff I’ve said yes to.
Think of work sessions as projects or mini-projects to finish, not as time to “work on” something: When you’re really in the zone with your work you probably feel like you’re making progress every time you sit down to work. To get that feeling more often make sure you conduct every work session with a concrete goal to finish something. I’m always much more productive when I’m working on my thesis if I think of it as “I need to finish planning my analyses” or “I need to re-draft these three paragraphs” rather than “I need to work on this for 45 minutes.” This slight shift helps drive the work forward because it allows for the slow accretion of progress and the build up of momentum. In other words, I can check items like “plan analyses” and “re-draft introduction” off a list much more meaningfully than I can “work on thesis for 45 minutes.”
Trust your system to hold the backlog: What I’m talking about here is working on an extremely small number of projects at once to minimize multitasking and the spreading of attention across too many requests. In order to focus on one or two things at a time you have to have a place you trust to hold everything your planning on getting to in the future. This is one of the reasons Getting Things Done has been so monumental for me. It helped me create a system that I trust intrinsically to have all the information I need for future work — letting me focus on the here and now. A text file, a formal tracking system, a Trello board; have one place you and your team trust to hold all inactive projects.
Deciding to stop something is just as good as finishing it: The best way to remove something from a to-do-list is to decide it doesn’t actually need to be done and deleting it. This requires that you and your organization get extremely clear on purpose, mission, values, and priorities. If you catch yourself working on something that doesn’t jibe with these then you should figure out a way to end your responsibility to it as quickly as possible in order to move onto something else.
Reflect and change direction as needed: Projects evolve over time. New information comes to light that enhances or decreases a project’s importance. A lot of time I see people continue to slog away at a project that used to be crucial but over time has become unimportant. People just keep working on it out of habit or a misguided sense that just because it once represented something important it still is. Start to break out of this mindless approach by scheduling recurring and regular sessions to reflect on the entire active and backlogged project list and asking yourself if the current prioritization is still true. Weekly, monthly, quarterly — it’s up to you and your team to figure out the cadence that works best. Put mortally wounded projects out of their misery instead of wasting more time trying to finish them.
Any moron can start something. Starting projects isn’t special or noteworthy (even though it can feel good).
The best organizations and the highest performers become that way because of their commitment to mastering the art of finishing.