Jon Acuff’s book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done is one of the great productivity books we’ve read. It addresses many of the productivity tropes we’ve been told, but do not work. Below are book notes we compiled to be actionable for starting and sticking with a goal.
The first lie perfectionism tells you about goals: Quit if it isn’t perfect. The problem is that perfectionism magnifies your mistakes and minimizes your progress. However, the less that people aimed for perfect, the more productive they became. Developing tolerance for imperfection is the key factor in turning chronic starters into consistent finishers.
Day 2 is when Jon and his researchers saw the largest drop-off of people who started then quit, i.e. "I ate a crazy dinner last night, might as well eat a crazy breakfast, lunch, and dinner today, too. You were too busy to write one morning and so you put your unfinished book back on the shelf. You lost one receipt and then gave up on your entire budget for the month."
That’s why the day after perfect is so important. This is the make-or-break day for every goal. This is the day after you skipped the jog. This is the day after you failed to get up early. This is the day after you decided the serving size for a whole box of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is one.
GOAL SETTING - Cut your goal in half or double the timeline
The second lie of perfectionism: Your goal should be bigger. There is the common saying, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” The problem is, in most cases, a big hairy audacious goal actually makes you less likely to accomplish it. The remedy? Cut your goal in half or double the timeline.
GOALS ARE A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT: You are more likely to reach your goal if you do a little bit one month and win and continue building up.
Psychologist Roger Buehler asked the students to predict how long it would take to finish their theses, with both best-case and worst-case scenarios. On average, the students guessed it would take thirty-four days to finish. In reality, it took them fifty-six days, almost twice as long. What’s really interesting is that not even half the students finished by their worst-case estimate. Even estimating that everything that could go wrong did, the students didn’t guess correctly.
Those who cut their goal in half increased their performance from past similar goal-related challenges on average by over 63 percent.
IF YOU CAN’T CUT A GOAL IN HALF - What if you have to pay down $50,000 in credit card debt? What if that’s your goal and the thought of cutting that number in half and only paying $25,000 makes you want to throw up a little? Or a lot. Some goals are difficult to cut in half. For those, don’t cut them in half; give yourself more time. If you doubled the amount of time you gave yourself to pay off the debt, what’s the worst thing that would happen? You’d pay a little more in interest but you’d still pay off the whole debt. Remember, we’re up against quitting.
ACTIONS: Think back to other goals you’ve attempted. Were they too big? Write down what happened. Write down a number associated with your goal. (It’s difficult to cut a feeling in half.) Will you read ten books? Declutter four rooms? Lose twenty pounds? Make five thousand dollars? Decide whether you can cut your goal in half or double the timeline. Share your goal with someone you trust and ask him if it’s too extreme.
If you’re uncomfortable with cutting your goal in half, spend a few minutes answering the question “What’s the worst that could happen?”
PRIORITIZING: Creating an avoid list / dealing with too many choices
Perfectionism’s third lie is: You can do it all. The only way to accomplish a new goal is to feed it your most valuable resource: time. And what we never like to admit is that you don’t just give time to something, you take it from something else. To be good at one thing you have to be bad at something else.
WHAT DOING IT ALL SOUNDS LIKE: “Yes, I’ve added a new goal to my life that I care about. Yes, I’m trying to put a new daily action into an already crowded calendar, but I should be able to handle it all. Yes, I moved to Atlanta to take care of my ill father-in-law, but I should be able to carry on like nothing has changed.” Our attempts to do too much feel noble and honorable. Look at us, tirelessly working toward burnout, reducing the quality of everything because we insisted we can do everything. We can share that approach with honor on Instagram. That’s the grind. That’s the hustle.”
A NOT-DO LIST: In his book Two Awesome Hours, Josh Davis calls this strategic incompetence. Strategic incompetence is the act of deciding ahead of time that you don’t care about your yard. It’s admitting you don’t have time to do everything and something will deliberately go by the wayside during this season of your life.
No podcast until the book is done. No other diet until you’ve finished the one you already committed to. No other small business idea until you’ve completed the original one.
What if that new thing that came out of seemingly nowhere is actually something you should definitely do? What if that’s the best idea you’ve ever had and it got stirred up by all your hard work? Fighting it is a waste of time and energy. Instead, embrace it. Admit that it might indeed be awesome. Explore it AFTER you finish your CURRENT goal.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of popular shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, doesn’t worry about what she can’t get done. When Fast Company asked her what she lets slide, she said, “Right now, I don’t feel guilty that I’m not working out. I’ll feel guilty about it at another time.” When she’s in the middle of running a show, actual running falls by the wayside temporarily.
When I was writing my first book, my wife pointed out that the only free time I had was on Monday. There was a two-hour window between work and a nighttime meeting I had weekly. She said, “I’ll put the kids down, you write for those two hours.” I didn’t see my kids on Monday for twelve weeks as I worked on the book. As a dad, that wasn’t easy, but I knew it was temporary and I knew it would result in a finished book. Am I telling you to ignore your family? Yes, that’s exactly what I am suggesting, because I am a monster. No, I’m just offering up a real-life example of what it takes to finish things and an explanation of why I spent two hours every Monday writing a book inside a Burger King.
ACTIONS: Make a list of three things you could bomb during your goal. Use the red light, green light approach. For time drains you can’t bomb, figure out a way you could simplify them. Write down, in a secret place no one will see, three relationships you might need to pause in order to finish your goal.
MAKING YOUR GOAL FUN
The fourth lie of Perfectionism is it thinks fun is a waste of time and holds no value. What’s the point of joy? What’s the value of fun? There’s no measurable ROI on it, and it doesn’t seem helpful. As a result, we never ask ourselves, “Is this fun?” We never ask that question, assuming that if we don’t like doing something it’s our fault. Even as we hate the exercise each morning, we tie on our shoes, grimacing the whole time. Perfectionism and fun are like oil and water.
We think if we have fun, the goal doesn’t really count. A dance class isn’t real exercise. Walking with a friend is too enjoyable to be valuable. Frisbee is for hippies. Those things aren’t hard enough.
THE SOLUTION: Ask this question: “How could this goal be more fun?” If you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution, did you make sure it was fun? Was that a prerequisite? Was that something you planned for?
You perform better when you pick something you think is fun. Study after study has confirmed this. The common myth about high-level performance is that it must be grueling, painful, and difficult. But the scientists researching elite swimmers found to their surprise that even at the 5:30 A.M. practices, the swimmers “were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves.” They continued, “It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”
USING THE RIGHT MOTIVATION
When you use the wrong form of motivation, you’ll never get the car to move. A doctor tells you that if you don’t lose weight, you’ll increase your chances of serious health issues. That’s a fear motivation, but if you’re motivated by reward, all the warnings in the world will roll right off your back. A better approach might be to find a reward, like being healthy enough to finally hike Cinque Terre in Italy, a coastal trail that cascades through five brightly colored cities between Genoa and Pisa.
Most people are not either-or when it comes to reward and fear motivation. Fear motivates me to prepare my speeches but a reward encourages me to work hard at my writing.
ACTIONS:On a scale of 1 to 10, how fun is the goal you might be working on? Decide whether you’re motivated by fear or by reward. Fun is often weird. To flesh it out a little, finish this sentence: “This is weird, but I find ____________fun.” Pick three small points of fun you can add to your goal.
IDENTIFYING YOUR HIDING PLACES - What places cause you to procrastinate?
Once we embark on our goals, despite our best intentions, we will sabotage ourselves. Author Steven Pressfield calls this the resistance, Jon calls these hiding places. Below are some common examples:
WHAT HIDING DOES NOT LOOK LIKE: Your corporate job, for instance, might not be something you love, but it’s not a hiding place, it’s a commitment. Giving that time and energy is what you should do. Your kids are not distractions.
HIDING USING “WHAT’S NEXT: “What’s next” will always look more interesting than “what’s now.” See section 3 - creating your avoid list.
HIDING BY USING MONEY: If you can’t afford to go to the gym you really like because you don’t have the money, expensive vacations might be a hiding place.
HIDING USING “UNTIL”
“Until I had a deep purpose - a perfect mission for my business and really my whole life - I couldn’t figure out a way to make my taxes easier.” “Until” is just perfectionism wearing a Halloween costume.
Karen won’t start her blog UNTIL she’s checked in with a copyright lawyer first. She is concerned that her blog will become so successful that someone will steal the content. She wrote me an e-mail and expressed her concern that this thief will steal her royalties on T-shirts, foam hats, and the graphic novel adaptation.
UNTIL I pick the perfect goal I can’t work on anything. That’s what tripped up so many people during the 30 Days of Hustle. One participant remarked, “I honestly have so many ideas and can find justification for each of them being ‘the one.’ It leaves me pursuing several things at a level of mediocrity.”
UNTIL I get rid of distractions I can’t get anything done. If we believe we have to eliminate all distractions before we get work done, we will never work. There will always be one more amazing distraction. Our minds will do anything to avoid the challenge of focusing on something.
HIDING WITH FALSE ASSUMPTIONS
Speaking of heavy lifting, few things are as funny as the noble obstacles used by guys who tell me they don’t work out because they don’t want to get “too bulky.” They haven’t lifted a single weight and are already worried that they’ll have to start wearing those bodybuilder sweatpants from all the raw muscle they put on their frames. “I’d get fit right now but I can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe. I would be drinking so many protein drinks like Fight Milk that my fast-twitch muscles would be through the roof.”
Either you don’t start a business or you develop a wicked coke habit in order to stay up for twenty-two hours every day working.
ACTIONS:Ask the three questions to identify your hiding places. Share your hiding places with a friend. Give them the permission and power to tell you when they see you hiding. Start creating a list of “next goals” so that you have a home for any new ideas that come up. Admit and eliminate any side goals that you’ve taken on. Ask a close friend what he or she thinks your noble obstacles are.
WHAT ARE YOUR SECRET RULES?
Secret rules are the invisible scripts that also allows us to hide.
Kristi’s secret rule was that you must sell the things you create. Simply making them wasn’t enough.
Instead of narrowly thinking you must write a memoir because that’s your rule, when your goal is “share your art,” there are a thousand ways you can finish that.
ACTIONS:Listen for a few secret rules and write them down. (This will take longer than one sitting since you’re asking your head to Google something that might be hidden.) Write the truth next to each secret rule. To find it, ask “What does that mean” and “Who says?” Create a new rule to replace the old one. Enlist a friend to help you see when you’re living by a secret rule.
ADJUSTING THE COURSE BY USING DATA
Perfectionism hates data. Why? Because emotions lie, data doesn’t. When you ignore data, you embrace denial.
DENIAL: If you don’t check your bank account, you won’t see how low it is and won’t feel bad. So the solution to feeling good is to ignore your bank account. And the scale. And your doctor. And your crazy-crowded-with-junk garage. And the issues in your marriage.
When things aren’t going well, it’s not time to give up. It’s time to get your bearings and make adjustments. “Adjustments?!” perfectionism screams. “If you need to adjust, you might as well give up!” Don’t listen. It’s time to look at your GPS watch and see how your pace is. It’s time to read the course markers and make sure you’re still headed to the finish line. It’s time to adjust the next few miles based on what you learned about your pace from the first few miles.
DATA - A SHAME KILLER: That’s one of the great things about data. It’s a shame killer. At any point during his hustle, Steve could have felt bad about himself: At my age, I should have a better job. If I was a better dad, I wouldn’t have to work on weekends. It would all be perfect if I could take faster classes. It would all be perfect if I didn’t have to go at such a slow pace.
Perfectionism marched a parade down Steve’s street, but data blew up each float with the truth. Data told him his average job had a noble purpose—to meet his family’s needs. Data told him working four hours on a Saturday wasn’t the whole weekend and he was doing it to support his family, and was not ignoring them. Data told him taking classes an hour at a time during a lunch break was the only pace he could go at and was therefore ideal. Data won’t allow shame to take root. Steve is still on the job hunt, but he’s got something on his side that most people don’t have: data.
FOCUS ON PROCESS DRIVEN METRICS: If you are trying to lose weight, there is more than just the number on the scale. What about Pants size, Shirt size, BMI, Number of times you jogged, Number of miles you ran, Number of times you worked with the trainer, Food diary.
If you’re unhappy with your progress, you have three different dials you can adjust. The goal The timeline, The actions.
ACTIONS: Write down one to three things you can track concerning your goal. Review a goal from the past to see if you can learn anything. What’s the way you work best? If you’re already in the middle of a goal, decide if you need to adjust your goal, timeline, or actions.
THE HIDDEN BENEFITS FROM NOT FINISHING
What are some common benefits people receive from not finishing? Here are three different things that three people who have a hard time finishing told me:
Control over the outcome. Because if I try, I might fail. If I never try, I at least know the outcome.
Praise for being a martyr. If you are “sacrificing” your goals by focusing on other aspects of life (children, spouse’s goals, other life events, for example), you receive accolades from others who are impressed by that “selfless” act.
Lowered expectations from other people. If I try to succeed, then the expectations of perfection will be even higher next time. I’d rather occasionally surprise people with what I can do rather than build up a reputation of success.
EXAMPLE: I once told my wife that I wish I had better friends, and she said, “No you don’t.” I asked her what she meant and she replied, “You’re an extrovert with strangers and an introvert with people you know. You use your travel schedule as an excuse to hide from relationships.” You say mean things, Jenny. She was right. What I gained by avoiding relationships is the safety of thinking I couldn’t get hurt by other people if I didn’t connect with other people. That problem sounds exactly like the plot of a Lifetime channel movie. “Surrounded by people, alone at home, one man’s struggle to accept the risk of relationship.”
Perfectionism always offers us a distorted, thin version of the world. My friendships were “perfect” in that they didn’t hurt, but by never doing the work of being real with friends, my relationships were fake.
ACTIONS:Answer the question, “What am I getting out of not finishing?”
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Written by: Kevin Evans
Head of Growth and Marketing at Intelligent Change. I have my hands in all things from emails to product creation. Passionate about improving mental health education. Sucker for donuts. You can find me in sweet home Chicago.