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How to Finish Everything You Start

Habits & Productivity Psychology
How to Finish Everything You Start


  • How to keep promises you make to yourself
  • Why you should cut your goals in half
  • What adding fun to your not-so-fun activities can do for your mindset

Jon Acuff is the bestselling author of six books, including his most recent #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. He joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to discuss how to make our goals work for us, and have some fun along the way.

Jon: Four years ago, I wrote this book called Start, and over the years people would come up to me and say, “I like your book, [but] I’ve never had a problem starting. Starting is the easiest thing in the world. I never actually finish though. How do I finish?” That was a great question, and I kept realizing in my own life that finishing is the hardest part.

Our culture glamorizes the start and ignores the finish. We have popular phrases like, “Well begun is half-done,” or “The hardest part of any journey is the first step,” but that’s not even a little true. The first part is never the hardest part—the middle is way harder than the beginning. With nonfiction, you’re trying to find a need, fill the need, and serve people. I felt there was legitimate need around the issue of finishing that made this a really interesting topic to me.

Finishing is not just a book thing. It’s not like writing a book is hard, but dieting is easy. Finishing is consistently difficult across every goal, every form of life. It’s hard to be a good parent, it’s hard to stay consistent with your kids. It’s hard to exercise, it’s hard to stay focused at work when you maybe feel like they don’t recognize what you’re good at.

“Our culture glamorizes the start and ignores the finish. The first part is never the hardest part—the middle is way harder than the beginning.”

Ryan: James Clear recently said to me that the friction of getting started, from what he’s found, is the hardest. Putting on the running shoes. Once they get the marathon started, it’s easier. What do you think?

Jon: [There is certainly] friction at the start. But is it harder to buy a treadmill, or is it harder to use a treadmill? Ask someone who’s trying to quit smoking cigarettes, “Is it easier to start that process, or is it easier to actually make it a habit that you live?” If you compare the start to the finish, nobody’s going to pick the start as the most difficult thing. They’re going to say, “Actually doing the thing was a lot harder than I anticipated.”

How To Finish Everything You Start

Ryan: This book has drawn from a lot of research—900 participants in your video course called “30 Days of Hustle.” Can you talk about the research that went into doing this book?

Jon: I wanted to get away from narrative bias, which is when an individual has an experience in their own life, and then they go back and they add steps that they really didn’t take. They look for a pattern, and then they teach that pattern. They go, “If it worked for me, it’ll work for you.” [I worked with] a researcher from a university in Tennessee to put together a research project, [over] a six-month period with nearly 900 people. It was people of all ages, all goals.

We found again and again, having a great team is [crucial to finishing]. When I go to a company, it gives them great comfort knowing this is data-driven. It’s presented in a fun way. There are books that do good data, but they’re boring, and there are books that are exciting, but they have no data. I tried to do one that has you laughing as you read it, but also makes [scientific] sense.

Ryan: Let’s dive into some of the topics from the book. Goal-setting is a huge topic. You talk about one of the ways to be a better finisher is to cut [goals] in half. Can you share more about that?

Jon: A lot of people set goals that are too big. Part of my own goal with this book was to pick apart our urban legends around goals—among them, the ideas of “Go big or go home” or “Aim for the moon and even if you fail, you’ll land amongst the stars.” I just didn’t think that was true. My theory was, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds and you lost eight, you would’ve failed by two and you’d quit. Most people judge their goals as an all-or-nothing process. I knew if I got you to cut your goal to five and you lost the same eight, you would’ve won by three, and continued to try. We tested it by asking people to cut their goals in half, and the people that did were 63% more successful.

There are two ways you can take that. You can certainly take it as prescriptive, “I need to cut my goal in half,” but an even more powerful way to take it is, before [you] set a goal, make sure it’s the right size.

“Most people judge their goals as an all-or-nothing process.”

Ryan: Do you work with companies when they set revenue targets and goals? I’ve worked in sales the bulk of my professional life, and when they [hear about] their goal or their quota for the year, they’re like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s 25% higher than last year, and I crushed it last year.” They’re almost defeated before it starts. How would you react in that situation?

Jon: There’s a couple of things I’d say: one, show me why you think this is reasonable. If, in order for your goal to succeed, a miracle must occur, it’s a terrible goal. I’m a big fan of miracles, don’t get me wrong—I just don’t like them in a plan.

The second thing is to have a culture of honesty. You want a culture where people can raise their hand in a meeting in front of people and go, “Hey, I think our product’s amazing and I think we’re going to grow, but where did that number come from?” They should be able to say that without consequences. I’ve worked with companies where the leader sets the wrong size goal and everyone claps in the boardroom, but it does damage to the team because you waste time and energy.

When you make a goal, it’s not just a goal—it’s a promise to yourself. When you break that promise, you start doubting yourself. One of the worst things a leader can do is set goals that can’t be hit because it creates this culture of doubt and mistrust. The next time the leader sets a goal, everybody secretly goes, “Oh yeah, sure. We’re totally going to do that. You mean like last time when we missed it by a thousand million percent? Sure, I bet we’ll do that.”

“If, in order for your goal to succeed, a miracle must occur, it’s a terrible goal.”

Ryan: An offshoot from that is the thought—and there’s science and research behind this—to “Make it fun if you want it done.” What are ways we can make it fun to get it done?

Jon: I wanted to study fun because when you ask somebody to tell you the words they think [are associated] with the word “goal,” they think “discipline,” “persistence,” and all these very difficult, negative words. Culturally speaking, we think something has to be difficult for it to count. People tell me, “I’m going to lose weight.” And I go, “That’s great. How are you going to do it?” They’ll say, “I’m going to run.” I go, “Do you like running?” They go, “No, I hate it. That’s how I know it’s good for me.”

We wanted to study what happens when you make something fun. There are two things you study—satisfaction and performance. Satisfaction is how you felt, performance is how you did. If you want to do something well, the principle is to raise both of those. Raise your satisfaction, but not your performance, and you’re smiling all the way to last place. Raise your performance, but not your satisfaction, and you’re a rich, miserable jerk. So I want to raise both.

What we found was if you make your goal fun, you’re 31% more satisfied, which makes sense. Fun increases satisfaction, but what’s crazy is if you make it fun, you [have] 43% higher performance. The challenge is, not everything we have to do is fun. I’ll travel for business this week, and business travel isn’t necessarily fun. Getting to speak at a company and interact with people, that’s awesome. The principle is, you have to make it fun. Making it fun is a deliberate decision to add joy to something that might naturally not be fun.

“When you make a goal, it’s not just a goal—it’s a promise to yourself.”

Ryan: How would somebody do that in their day-to-day life? What are some practical tips that you could implement right away to make your goals, your life, more fun?

How To Finish Everything You Start

Jon: There are two forms of motivation that people react to—reward and fear. Psychologists call it approach and avoidance. An example would be you go to the doctor and the doctor says, “If you lose weight, you’ll be able to go on all the water slides this summer with your son at Great Wolf Lodge.” That’s a reward, and that’s [what] you’re trying to approach. If you’re motivated the opposite way, the doctor says, “If you don’t lose weight, you won’t be able to walk your daughter down the aisle at her wedding. You’ll develop diabetes.” A big part of it is figuring out your form [of motivation], and then doing that. Leaders know how frustrating this is, because if they get the wrong form, it doesn’t motivate the person. As individuals, we [should] figure out if we’re reward-motivated or fear-motivated: “What are the things I want to approach or avoid?”

Ryan: You used to work for Dave Ramsey, and then you decided to leave and do this on your own. How do you balance your work [and your life]? How do you think that impacts your children when they see you make a leap like that?

Jon: A friend [told me], “What’s the story you want to be able to tell them? Is the story that you played it safe and did the easier thing, or is the story that you took a chance and here’s what you learned?” They’re paying attention more than you know. For me as a parent, one of my goals is I want [my kids] to know the old rules don’t apply anymore. I told my oldest daughter yesterday, I hope that regardless of her future job, she’ll have a side hustle that she’s having fun with, but also making money on. I want my kids to go, “Oh, I don’t have to have a job I don’t like for a period of time. I can do something different and that’s great.”

There’s definitely joy in the stability of having a steady paycheck, and I think there’s definitely joy in having something on the side. There’s a lot of entrepreneurs [who] criticize regular jobs. It always cracks me up when somebody says, “Build your own dream, or somebody will hire you to work for theirs.” I want to be like, “Oh, so you’re not going to hire anyone? Because you just insulted everybody that works for you.” I want [my kids] to have the entrepreneurial spirit, but if my daughter said, “Hey Dad, I want to work at Home Depot corporate.” I’d be like, “Awesome, have fun, great company.”

“Making it fun is a deliberate decision to add joy to something that might naturally not be fun.”

Ryan: One of the ways you end this book is talking about “the day before done” and I’m curious what the science says [about how] terrifying “the day before done” can be. You used the example of Meredith Bray, six years of undergrad, changed majors, attended different schools, and then ended up failing her last final, I believe, on purpose, and didn’t graduate because she was scared of the day before done. Why is that day so terrifying?

Jon: There’s a bunch of issues. One is definitely the fear of success. There’s the fear that if you do succeed, that sets an expectation that you have to recreate that performance next time. A lot of it deals with self-sabotage, some of it deals with what’s next. They talk about how it’s lonely at the top, and I think they’re referring to the loneliness of how you’ve always wanted this thing, and now you got it and it’s like, “What am I going to do with my life now?”

We talked about it, though—it’ll always be easier to start than to finish. You’ll always find a new book you can work on, a new business idea.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Jon and Ryan’s full conversation, click here.

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