How to Become A Great Finisher

The road to hell may or may not be paved with good intentions, but the road to failure surely is.   Take a good look at the people you work with, and you’ll find lots of Good Starters – individuals who want to succeed, and have promising ideas for how to make that happen.  They begin each new pursuit with enthusiasm, or at the very least, a commitment to getting the job done.

And then something happens.  Somewhere along the way, they lose steam.  They get bogged down with other projects.  They start procrastinating and miss deadlines.  Their projects take forever to finish, if they get finished at all.

Does all this sound familiar?  Maybe a little too familiar?  If you are guilty of being a Good Starter, but a lousy finisher – at work or in your personal life – you have a very common problem.  After all, David Allen’s Getting Things Done wouldn’t be a huge bestseller if people could easily figure out how to get things done on their own.

More than anything else, becoming a Great Finisher is about staying motivated from a project’s beginning to its end.   Recent research has uncovered the reason why that can be so difficult, and a simple and effective strategy you can use to keep motivation high.

In their studies, University of Chicago psychologists Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach examined how people pursuing goals were affected by focusing on either how far they had already come (to-date thinking) or what was left to be accomplished (to-go thinking).  People routinely use both kinds of thinking to motivated themselves.   A marathon runner may choose to think about the miles already traveled or the ones that lie ahead.  A dieter who wants to lose 30 pounds may try to fight temptation by reminding themselves of the 20 pounds already lost, or the 10 left to go.

Intuitively, both approaches have their appeal.  But too much to-date thinking, focusing on what you’ve accomplished so far, will actually undermine your motivation to finish rather than sustain it. 
Koo and Fishbach’s studies consistently show that when we are pursuing a goal and consider how far we’ve already come, we feel a premature sense of accomplishment and begin to slack off.  For instance, in one study, college students studying for an exam in an important course were significantly more motivated to study after being told that they had 52% of the material left to cover, compared to being told that they had already completed 48%. 

When we focus on progress made, we’re also more likely to try to achieve a sense of “balance” by making progress on other important goals.   This is classic Good Starter behavior – lots of pots on the stove, but nothing is ever ready to eat.

If, instead, we focus on how far we have left to go (to-go thinking), motivation is not only sustained, it’s heightened.   Fundamentally, this has to do with the way our brains are wired.  We are tuned in (below our awareness) to the presence of a discrepancy between where we are now and where we want to be.   When your brain detects a discrepancy, it reacts by throwing resources at it:  attention, effort, deeper processing of information, and willpower.

In fact, it’s the discrepancy that signals that an action is needed - to–date thinking masks that signal.   You might feel good about the ground you’ve covered, but you probably won’t cover much more.
Great Finishers force themselves to stay focused on the goal, and never congratulate themselves on a job half-done.   Great managers create Great Finishers by reminding their employees to keep their eyes on the prize, and are careful to avoid giving effusive praise or rewards for hitting milestones “along the way.”  Encouragement is important, but to keep your team motivated, save the accolades for a job well – and completely – done.

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review (HBR.org) 


  1. Hi Heidi,

    Thank you for your post. I believe it is important to finish projects and that you need to collaborate with your team to co-inspire and keep engaged in the task at hand. Although I believe we all need to strive for goals and want to be successful, do you think being successful should be the primary focus? Kathryn Schulz in her book, Being Wrong, argues that by always being focused on success this can create a fear of failure. This fear can cause people to be static and they will potentially play it safe and not push their limits. Does not the best learning come from our failures? According to Schulz, we need to shift the way our culture views failure (with shame and detachment), and start validating and embracing it as an opportunity to learn. Success is good but by focusing on it can it not create fear of failure, and potentially create missed opportunities to learn?
    Robert Kennedy stated, "Risk to fail greatly - to find and succeed greatly."

    Thanks for helping to think more on this topic.

    -Kent Williams
    Vancouver, BC

  2. Hi Kent - thanks for your comment! I think it's important to distinguish between success in the sense of reaching a goal you've set for yourself, and "Success" as in being recognized and admired by others as a successful person. You are absolutely right that worrying about the latter can interfere with our ability to learn and grow as individuals, and create a fear of failure. So in general, when I talk or write about success, I mean the "reaching a goal" sense of it.

    Also, goals are really best thought of in terms of making progress toward some end point - as a journey that will have ups and downs. To-go thinking keeps our vision forward-looking. I don't think it's incompatible with the healthy acceptance of setbacks and mistakes that you are describing. It certainly doesn't have to be.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking comment!


  3. Hi Heidi,

    I do see observe a "slacking off" tendency in my work with my clients as well as sometimes with myself. So this view is familiar.

    After reading this blog article(on HBR) couple of thoughts came to my mind. First being that "progressed achieved so far" seems to give that a bit of breathing break to the starter. I wonder without it how many of us can go on, especially goals which needs years to achieve. I see some of my clients had challenges, as their favorite approach was to keep looking forward and not take that moment. They almost tell themselves, "So what I have reached so far, I ain't taking a moment until I get there". Which resembles more to pessimistic thinking approach(Glass half empty).

    Now, this may be an "effective" method to accomplish goals, but it also seems to be a method that holds danger of enslaving us to "Goals". This may also create a risk that the person may end up adopting "over critical self-parenting". It may be healthier to be driven by goals, but to become slave to goals doesn't seems to be a good choice.

    On a risk of sounding someone from the perfect world, how about a balanced approach? that says "well, I have come a long way. Yeah, sure there is a long way to go. While I can take a short break, if I don't finish rest, then what I finished so far would be a great sacrifice for nothing"

    Thank you,
    Ash Mhatre

  4. Hi Heidi -

    This post really spoke to me, as I feel I am a "lousy finisher"! Part of the reason for this is because I do not always clearly define the goal. I have just purchased your book, "Succeed How We Can Reach Our Goals"; I look forward to FINISHING it and learning more!

    Thank you,

    Liz Chalmers

  5. I'm sorry, but this study is totally useless. At least regarding the topic of good starters. It might be slightly more motivating to look what you still have to get acomplished instead of looking behind, but that's just slightly, slightly different. Like the impact on motivation is just slightly different.

    Good starters seem to have a different problem. People often neither look at what they've already done nor at what they still need to do. Just what they gotta do today scares them enough to not do it. There simply are tasks, which you procrastinate on, because you just hate them. You'd do lots of things rather than doing just this tasks you actually need to do.

    That's the reason why people get their houses cleaned up very nicely, when they were actually supposed to work or learn or whatever. It's got nothing to do whether they are looking at what they have done or what they need to do: they just HATE what they gotta do next.

    Any solution for this? ;-)