Move your goalposts to get around an inability to finish projects

I hardly ever finish projects. I start them with a burst of enthusiasm, and then I trail off when something else catches my attention. I’ve learned to work with this instead of beating myself up about it. On some days, I might even consider it a good thing. Here’s one of the things I’ve learned:

You can trick your brain by moving the goalposts.

Let’s say that you’re working on a project. Toward the end of the project, you catch yourself losing steam. You’ve gotten 80% of the way there, and the remaining 20% of the work will take four times as much time. The itch to start a different project is pulling you away.

Don’t think of yourself as nearly done. Think of yourself as getting started on another new project that just happens to overlap with the previous one.

 

In fact, mentally set the beginning of that project to include some of the work you’ve just completed, to take advantage of the Endowed Progress effect (research PDF).

moving-the-goalposts

Tada! Goalposts moved. You might find that the newly-reframed project is now novel enough to be included in the list of new projects you enjoy working on, and it might even tempt you away from other distractions.

Moving the goalposts is usually a bad thing. It’s why many people never feel rich, because whenever they reach what used to be unimaginable wealth, they find that the amount of money needed for them to feel happy has gone up. (Solution: don’t anchor happiness to amounts of money.) Moving the goalposts has led to many a logical fallacy in heated arguments. But if you don’t like playing a close-quarters game, moving the goalposts further away can help.

I often use this technique for life-long learning, especially for things that you can’t really declare finished. Can one ever finish learning how to write or draw or program? No, but you can keep moving your targets a little forward as you learn.

You might think, “I won’t be able to celebrate achieving my original goal!” You can still celebrate milestones. Better yet, celebrate even the tiny, tiny steps that you take towards your (constantly-moving) goal. Look behind you once in a while and celebrate the progress you’ve made.

It can be hard to see progress if you don’t have anything tangible. Invest time in looking for useful chunks that you can extract even from work in progress. It’s surprising how few projects are truly all or nothing. If you can share drafts, prototypes, alpha or beta versions, or even blog posts about the journey, you don’t have to worry about the whole thing being a complete waste of time if you get distracted from the project before you finish it. If you always wait until you’ve finished something, you might end up leaving a mess of incomplete projects around.

Worried that your mind will see through this technique and lose interest even earlier in the process? Try being playful about it instead of being too serious. Yes, it’s a mental trick (and not even a particularly complex one), but if your mind likes novelty and beginnings, it can hardly fault you for giving it what it likes.

This technique doesn’t solve everything – I haven’t been able to write a 200-page Emacs book yet, and our couch still doesn’t have a slipcover. But it helps me from time to time, and maybe it will help you too!