One of the most frustrating things about work and life is that it’s relatively easy to start things but dramatically harder to finish them. If starting things put food on the table, it’d be a lot easier for us to thrive – unfortunately, it’s more important to start a few things and finish them rather than starting a bunch of things and finishing fewer.
What we often don’t think about, though, is that there are steps to completing objectives, projects, and tasks. The more we can internalize and streamline the different stages of completion, the more effective we become at finishing what we start and starting things we can finish.
There are five C’s to completing anything:
I’ll discuss each in turn.
If you don’t have a clear idea of what you need or want to do, it’s hard to do anything. You might have a gut feeling that you kinda-sorta need to do something, but that doesn’t get you very far.
A lot of people get stuck in inaction from the get-go precisely because they don’t have clarity about what they need to be doing. And without that clarity, it’s hard to move on to the other steps of completion.
What it’s like to have clarity: You have a general sense of what needs to be done. There’s not a lot of wheel-spinning at the general level, though there may be some uncertainty at the specific level.
What happens if you don’t have clarity: It’s hard to start anything, and the things that are started usually don’t get finished. At the end of the day, a list of things that you should’ve done becomes apparent, and self-punishment begins.
Clarity is knowing generally what needs to be done, whereas concreteness is knowing specifically what needs to be done. Getting down to the specific level is what enables you to take the vision in your head and turn it into something in the world.
Most project planning and To-Do list advice focuses on concreteness – it’s where learning how to write effective To-Do Lists and thinking S.M.A.R.T. come into play. The general insight here is that small, concrete actions make it easier for you to get out of continual planning mode and stay more in the continual doing mode.
What it’s like to have concreteness: You know specifically what needs to be done to complete the task or project you’ve planned to do. You can move onto commitment and dig in to complete what you’ve set out to do.
What happens if you don’t have concreteness: You’ve got a general idea of what to do but don’t know where to start. Big projects are prone to lack concreteness, as are tasks that are new and unfamiliar to us.
If you’ve made it this far into the stages of completion, you have both a general and a specific idea of what needs to be done. Commitment moves you from “this needs to be done” to “this is what I’m going to do,” and this is one of the critical steps that so many of us fall down on.
The troubling thing, though, is that many of us don’t recognize that the way we’re filling out our To-Do lists builds in a lack of commitment. When it comes to creative work, it’s not really possible for you to complete seven projects in a day, yet how many of our lists contain seven projects that need to be done? Since we know at a gut level that it’s impossible, we don’t commit to doing any of them. We’ve set ourselves up to fail from the gate, and that prophecy is fulfilled at the end of the day.
This is one of the reasons that I strongly urge people to have the smallest To-Do and project lists possible – the fewer the items, the easier it is to commit to doing them. One you commit to doing something, you can concentrate your resources to ensure that it gets done, but if you don’t commit, you can’t concentrate.
What it’s like to have commitment: You’re not looking at a world of possible things that need to get done – you’re looking at a few specific actions that you can finish. Since you have clarity and concreteness, you know that getting them done matters, so you can be all-in.
What happens if you don’t have commitment: Though you know what needs to be done, you don’t have the motivation or the will to do it. You’ll be more prone to get caught in the Loop or to get swept away by some other shiny bauble, and your work will be left undone.
We normally understand concentration as mental concentration, but in this context, let’s broaden our understanding to all of your different physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual resources. The more you can concentrate all of your resources on a given action, the easier that action is to do.
The difference between focusing all of your resources on a task or project and focusing just one resource is much like the difference between using a pick and a hammer. When you use a pick, the full force of your energy is exerted in a very small space and has dramatic effects, whereas applying that same energy with a hammer creates a much more diffuse blow. What’s even better to consider, though, is that a smaller amount of force with a pick can have the same effect as a larger amount with a hammer – concentration makes it easier to do what you’re trying to do.
Concentration is largely the idea behind the engagement threshold. Figuring out your engagement threshold for your work is simply allowing you to use the right amount of energy for the right job, rather than having a mismatch between what it takes to complete your work and the time, energy, and attention you’re giving to your work.
What it’s like to have concentration: When you commit, you complete. It’s that simple because once you’ve made up your mind to do something, you harness your resources to get one thing, and only one thing, done.
What happens if you don’t have concentration: You’ve committed to doing something, but when you try to do it, it just doesn’t happen, or when it does happen, it takes a lot of effort to do it. You’re also prone to project shuffling since you’re not staying on task – it’s easier in the short term to start working on something else than it is to stick with and complete what you’re working on.
If you’ve worked with me or heard me talk, you’ve probably heard me mention the importance of celebrating. Despite the stories we tell ourselves, the stuff of life is more about the small steps than it is the huge wins, but if you don’t celebrate and acknowledge the small steps, it’s hard to get the huge wins.
It seems like the more responsibilities we have, the less we’re likely to celebrate the completion of the things that correspond to those responsibilities. There’s more stuff to do, and we just don’t have time to stop and pat ourselves on the back, right?
Wrong. Without celebration and acknowledgement, everything blurs into a never-ending list of things to do. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter internally whether you do or don’t do anything; as soon as you finish something, there’s just something else to do, and if you don’t finish anything, there’s still something else to do.
Every single thing you do that makes your future better (or that maintains your current position) is a win. Of all the things that could have happened, you showed up and made a difference to yourself and other people, even if the differences seem small. A bunch of small steps taken add up to a great journey traveled.
How you celebrate your wins doesn’t have to be big – you don’t have to schedule a day at the spa because you finished an hour’s work. It can be something as small as giving yourself a quarter of fun money for every project you complete. As a general rule, though, the bigger and more important the win, the more you should give yourself leeway to really treat yourself.
Aside: Though I agree with Dan Pink’s assessment in Drive that reward-based motivation has its limitations, it’s still incredibly important in earlier stages of momentum-building to celebrate and reward yourself for progress made – it’s too easy for even passion-based work to become another grind that leads to burnout. The ideal case is when work is its own reward, but we sometimes need tangible and specific reminders of this, too.
If you have to think hard about the last time you celebrated anything related to the work you do, it’s time to celebrate. I’ve never met someone who didn’t get anything noteworthy done in a month, but the majority of people I’ve met haven’t taken the time to reflect, acknowledge, and celebrate what they’ve done. (Now you know why I talk about this all the time!)
What it’s like when you celebrate: No matter the outcome of your work, you get a chance to pat yourself on the back for showing up and working through the stages of completion. You feel appreciation in your bones for manifesting new possibilities, and you can smile at a job well done. The positive orientation to completing this thing spills over to the next thing you do, making it easier to complete the next thing, too.
What happens if you don’t celebrate: Even when you finish something, it doesn’t feel like you’re any better off. Your language around your work is largely about “buckling down,” “plowing through,” and force – your work is something you have to to do rather than get to do.
The 5 C’s and the Planners
If you’ve been using my planners for a while, you can probably see the 5 C’s at play in the design. By prompting you to think at different levels of perspective, the planners get you the Clarity about the things you need to do. The planners also require you to make your actions Concrete, and by constraining the number of objectives, projects, and tasks you can write down, it creates a structure for Commitment.
Since you’re committed and have gotten things down to a level at which you can harness your resources, you can Concentrate and complete them. Lastly, many people have commented that the checkbox gives them a chance to Celebrate getting something done – in prototype designs I’ll often forget a checkbox, only to have reviewers comment that they want one.
The planner designs, then, are a crystallization of this model. As with most of the stuff I create, the framework and applications are created reflectively; the framework guides the application and the application refines the framework. Real-world use (my own, my friends’, and my clients’) informs the process as well.
Not Completing Something Is Okay, Too
Though this post talks about the stages of completion and thus stresses completion, it’s important to remember that our work – much like our lives – is a process. It’s okay to have things at different stages of completion; more than that, it’s probably a good thing that you’ve got some uncompleted projects.
Sometimes our work isn’t competed because we need more time to incubate possibilities. Other times, it’s a signal that maybe we shouldn’t be completing what we started in the first place; we often start things because we’re distracted that we never should’ve started in the first place, and just because you started something doesn’t mean you need to finish it.
For the things that do need to be finished, though, understanding the stages of completion gives us a framework for asking questions about what components we need to get finish it. Do you need clarity? If you’ve got that, do you need concreteness? Once you find what you need, you can focus your efforts there rather than hoping to pull an answer out of the ether.
Over to you: what steps in the stages of completion trip you up?
If I got paid for every task started, I’d be rich! I joke that my home is the house of 17 unfinished paint jobs…
I get stuck with commitment, and I tend to go from beginning a task to (premature) celebration.
Okay, time to make that small to-do list…
Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist says
Great post, Charlie! The 5Cs really can serve as a guideline when working on things… and I especially like that you included the part of “celebration” – totally underrated by most productivity posts!
Ohh, good one. I get stuck right in the middle, with commitment. Not because I don’t want to do anything, but because I want to do everything. Getting much better at this though, putting stuff on a list I refer to throughout the day (instead of just at the end) is a simple, obvious thing that appears to be making the diff…
Denny Coates says
Lots of good wisdom. And good practical advice!
Previous comments ring true. Without enough commitment, you’re dead in the water. And that’s a question many people don’t deal with in an honest way before beginning. Are they willing to do what will be required? Invest, pay the price? A realistic assessment is needed to find out ahead of time. Don’t want to undertake a difficult goal for the wrong reasons. Don’t to fail simple because I was unwilling to follow through.
Eric Phillips says
Having a smaller “To Do” list is something that I really need to focus on. It seems like I keep pushing items from day to day and week to week. Good post, thanks!
Mike Ward says
Thank you, Charlie, this is great advice. It can be hard staying on track and not getting derailed by the many distractions, but the payoff does feel so good when a project is complete.