Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

Why We Can’t Finish Things

Full stuck in the mud

Image: Wagon stuck in the mud, c. 1911 / William James, photographer

Do you have a major idea that has been swimming in your head for years? Maybe it’s the contents of a book, a scientific theory, or an innovative art project. Have you ever considered why you spend so much time thinking about it, and so little time actually working on it?

If so, we share something in common, and a couple of recent discoveries that were helpful to me might prove useful to you, too.

The first discovery offers clues about why so many of our big ideas never translate into anything tangible. In a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I picked up a copy of a new book — by Phyllis Korkki, a columnist for The New York Times — called The Big Thing: How to Complete Your Creative Project Even if You’re a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me. I felt magnetically drawn to its attention-grabbing subtitle. It sounded all too familiar.

By talking to psychologists, to A.B.D.’s who couldn’t finish their dissertations, and to writers and artists who manage to be prolific, Korkki offers a range of responses to the perpetual “maybe tomorrow” and “when I finally have a good chunk of time” excuses that keep so many of us from moving forward. While there are multiple strategies for combating procrastination, Korkki shared two that I found particularly useful in relation to my “big thing” — a nonfiction book (on navigating organizational politics) that won’t seem to write itself.

Ten months ago I was able to design an entire 22-chapter outline in under an hour, but I’ve have been unable to write a single word toward fleshing it out since. The key question of course is: “Why?”

I have been telling myself almost every day that I don’t have time to work on this project, but Korkki suggests I am lying to myself. We often think we need long hours of free time to tackle our big thing, she writes, but short bursts of effort spent on a regular basis can usually do the trick.

That’s something I already knew, but somehow forgot. Her advice reminded me that roughly two decades ago, I spent a year writing my dissertation from 4:30 to 6 a.m., every morning, knowing that my daughters would wake up soon after and all hell would break loose. Being limited to 90 minutes of writing each day made me highly focused and productive. Those 90 minutes felt precious rather than painful.

So could I do that now? Could I get up every day at 4:30 a.m, and write for an hour and a half?

I could, but I don’t. More important, I know that I won’t. That revelation prompted me to give serious consideration to another piece of Korkki’s advice: Be clear about your motives and fears.

I’ve been struggling to understand why I can picture a whole book in my head, but can’t summon the energy to move it from my mind to my laptop. Why have I been perfectly capable of cranking out plenty of other writing projects during this time, yet remain paralyzed at the thought of typing the 80,000 or so words that would be required to finish this endeavor? There are two answers, I think:

  • First, I am reluctant to invest significant energy in writing a book that no one will read. I have to admit it is easier to have a brilliant book in my head than a dud of a product in print. Korkki challenges us to consider whether we care enough to finish our project even if no one else wants to read it. For me, I’m pretty sure the answer to that is “no.”
  • The second answer comes from the second of my recent discoveries: Tim Urban — the man behind the blog Wait But Why and the Ted Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator. To borrow his phrase, I have no “panic monster” when it comes to writing this book. I have no contract, no deadline, and no advance that must be repaid if I don’t finish it. If I don’t write it, I won’t be fired or fined. There is no pressure and therefore no sense of urgency.

I admire people who are intrinsically motivated and must acknowledge that I am not. I am far more motivated by avoiding consequences like punishment and embarrassment than I am by the satisfaction of a job well done. I must also acknowledge that I am a rebel by nature and find routines to be soul crushing. So much for creating writing rituals.

Now that I understand that about myself (I can’t believe it took me this long), I can consider how to incorporate new motivation strategies in order to move big projects forward. Creating external sources of pressure — like announcing a big project and encouraging supportive friends and colleagues to ask me about it constantly — is probably my best strategy.

What about you? What advice do you have for those who can’t start or finish their big thing?

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