The Cycle of Not Finishing Your Writing
When you think about it, New Years resolution time is not that far away, which is also the season of failing at what you start. Or, that’s what seems to happen most of the time.
What is the real reason why you don’t finish things? This is a question we writers need to answer, even if we don’t have any choice but to finish our work. And that’s because, well, sometimes we don’t finish.
There may be starts and stopping of various projects and interests, but there definitely is starting and stopping of the various tracks, directions, and possibilities that open up as we write. So many great ideas do not get realized.
And then there is the big one, not finishing the dissertation or book, or even article that we put a lot of work into. That happens sometimes too.
So an academic writer like you can always benefit from some insight into the reason why we sometimes don’t finish what we started.
I’m going to explain three key skills that lead to successful finishing and some specific techniques that you can use right now to become a successful finisher.
So what is the key difference between people who finish and those who do not?
It usually comes down to some core beliefs that get repeated in our thoughts yet often go undetected.
Here’s how the cycle goes:
First, we feel inspired and excited to get going. Maybe an idea strikes us in the middle of the night, or we see some creation that other people did and we feel “I can do that too!” Or the vision of our finished thing flashes up in our eyes and we really want to get there.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is a great thing and we would not want to live without it. But obviously in writing it is not good enough, because the work of writing lasts far longer than the inspiration.
So that first spark of inspiration and hope is great. But the second part of the cycle soon commences, which often consists of disjointed and haphazard efforts. We get a bunch of books out of the library, or worse, buy a bunch of books. We collect articles and start reading and browsing through them. And soon enough, we have also collected a whole plethora of tasks, skills, knowledges, and multiple directions and numerous conversations to enter into, and pretty soon a whole array of mounting tasks build up in piles up around us.
That was a bad word choice, by the way: “array.” It’s almost always not an array but a disarray.
So again, don’t get me wrong, exploration and adventure is fun and interesting. But there is a cost, isn’t there? Because with each bit of fun you are having at this stage in the cycle its possible that you are accumulating a whole big pile of responsibilities and things to live up to. That’s something that we need to recognize and acknowledge.
In the next step of the cycle is we start to apply ourselves, and it gets hard, and it gets unpleasant, and there is so much to do and so much to be done, and then we experience it as a “grind.”
And what happens next, is that we start to lose our motivation. We come down from the high and start experiencing the low, and we get stuck feel stagnant and then start to experience indifference.
We retreat to something that feels more safe, and that is where beliefs start to kick in that have something to do with the idea that there’s something wrong with you, that you are typically not someone who finishes things. We may also start to revise our perceptions and say things like” I wasn’t really that interested anyway” or “I’ll do it later” or “the next one will be different.” But it’s probably the case that, underneath those statements, a belief is actually being strengthened that we have an inability to finish things and follow through to success.
We feel bad about that. Tell ourselves to do better. And start off with new hope with the new inspiration.
Repeat, and deepen.
That is the classic cycle of not finishing things. Like I said, that cycle might come in mini-cycles with our ideas and directions inside our projects, or it might happen on the large scale.
How to Side-Step This Cycle
Now I want to talk about how to break out of that cycle, how to entirely escape.
So you probably know from the cycle that in the end we end up feeling feel guilty, we feel some self-loathing, while also making rationalizations about why we failed, and neither of those things are helping.
And every time we do that, go through this cycle, we are reinforcing these core beliefs about ourselves. So we might think when starting off on something that it couldn’t hurt to try. But actually it could hurt. Because if we are using our finishing as evidence in our own personal self assessment, then not finishing is obviously going to feed into that in a negative way.
So the first thing to understand is that finishing what you started is a skill, a process, and it is not a personal trait or characteristic. It is not a personality factor.
When you are learning to write in school, you had hard deadlines tied to the course and semester system, and you finished what you started. But as you move on in academia, writing becomes a far more nebulous process. And this is mirrored by lifestages in general. As you get older, life gets more complex, often, and there are many more balls in the air and aspects of life that need to be balanced. There are million different things to think about, meanwhile your writing life is not structured in the way it was before. Writing demands are not the same as they were in our formative years of learning the process of writing.
People who finish their writing are no different than you or I. They’ve just been at the skill of finishing their work longer, maybe because they started at it earlier or because they’ve been around longer.
So, naturally they are better at it. We may have not even begun to practice the skill, so of course we’re not that great at it. But this has nothing to do with our personal qualities or traits. It simply that we have not developed the skill.
So the first and most important tactic that we can use is to make finishing our deliberate and conscious goal: in other words, we need to plan.
The first key skill to finishing what you started is conscious and deliberate planning of the steps it will take to accomplish the task. We have to recognize right at the start that we are impulsive. Not that that is all bad. But we have to recognize right at the start that impulsivity is not the way to get things done, over the long term. Nor is, simply working hard, or when things are going south, working even harder.
One of the first and most important principles is to slow down. To consider what one is doing, and how exactly to get there. The earliest stages of the not-finishing cycle need to be addressed early on with planning.
Personally, I will spend a few hours at a time planning and re-planning my work, on occasion. And every day I will sketch out for a few minutes what I am going to write or do for that day. That planning is not necessarily outlining the content. It’s outlining the process tasks and events that have to happen for the thing to get finished. That should be mapped out as best as possible.
When we sit down to work later, we need to know what we are there to do. We can’t have 12 tabs open in the Internet browser, answering emails, browsing through books, and just go forth on our work day with no plan for action. Most of our work will swim around in chaos if we don’t do the planning. Plans can change, nothing wrong with that, but the consistent application of the mind towards planning the steps to get to the end is a mental action that is absolutely necessary to finishing.
The second tactic is strengthening the force of habit. None of us can feel inspired all the time, or run on brute willpower to get things done. We need to make habit formation a conscious goal, because when we have laid down the rails of habits then we can run on those rails regardless of our level of motivation which of course is going to rise and fall all the time.
We need to build habits that will stick, rather than depend on willpower. Habits become automatic, which means we don’t have to force ourselves all the time. If we have to force ourselves all the time, eventually we will lose that battle. Then we think there’s something wrong with us. It’s not that. It’s simply that habits have not been formed strong enough yet.
The third skill we need is deep focus. And that is the power of doing one thing.
If you find yourself opening your laptop, or opening up your Internet browser, with a certain task in mind, and very soon after find you cannot even remember what it was you were there to do, or you start one task and hours later find your doing a different task, or if you are working with 12 browser windows open, your phone on, email dinging, while watching some YouTube videos, viewing your Facebook feed, and or searching the Internet for information, it’s almost 100% certain that you are not finishing as much or as well as you wish you would.
The multitasker is a lie. The multitasker is not an efficient person. It’s just an excuse and a cover for operating in a manner with multiple and simultaneous not-finishings, surrounding maybe a few finishings.
You must focus on the power of doing one thing if you are to side-step the cycle of not finishing.
It is absolutely essential that you become a writer, rather a person who is responsible for trudging through the grind and who fails because of a personal lack of fortitude. That person is bound to the cycle of not finishing. If they absolutely must finish because of material threats and constraints, they still might “finish,” but it’s going to get ugly. Don’t “be” that “person.”
Instead, recognize that finishing is not a personal trait but comes primarily from these three powers, which any one can strengthen.
So, devote some time to planning your steps. Choose small, regular writing sessions that build your habit. Make habit building a priority that is equal or greater than any actual content-writing issue that is facing you at the moment. How to say X Y or Z in one paragraph can be an important, but it is not as important a question as, “Did I write today?” If you can see that, you are in good shape! And finally, realize that deep focus and the power of doing one thing is essential. Do short bursts, with no divided attention.
Keep your eye on the ball. These powers are what will take you through to finishing what you started.
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