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) 


Quick Decisions Create Regret, Even When They’re Good Decisions

Why do we sometimes regret the choices we make?  The obvious answer is that we sometimes make bad choices, with unforeseen (though not necessarily unforeseeable) negative consequences.  But that’s not the only time we experience the pain of regret.   In fact, we routinely regret perfectly good choices – not because of the outcome, but because of our experience of choosing.

In his excellent book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the quick decision – the “snap” judgment – is much maligned.  He cites many studies showing that human beings are remarkably good at “thin-slicing” – making a speedy assessment of situations and acting on conclusions based on very little information.  Haste doesn’t always make waste, and Gladwell’s got plenty of scientific evidence to prove it. 

But even if speedy decisions aren’t necessarily bad ones, they still have a significant downside – they feel wrong. The popularity of Blink notwithstanding, people seem to implicitly believe that a quick choice is always a bad choice.  In fact, new research reveals that when people feel they were rushed while deciding, or that they rushed themselves, they regret the decisions they make even when they turn out well.

Two other interesting insights emerged from these studies that are worth noting.  When we make a choice from among many options, we naturally feel more rushed because there is so much more information to consider.  For example, in one study, people who chose a DVD from a set of 30 felt significantly more rushed – and regretted their choice twice as much - as those who chose from a set of 5, even when they could take as much time as they needed.

The second, related insight is that regret comes from feeling rushed, not from being rushed.  In other words, it’s not how much time you take to make your decision – it’s whether or not you felt you took enough time.

In the end, if you don’t give yourself the time you feel you need to make a judgment or choice, you will undermine your satisfaction and your subsequent experience.  You will regret you decision, even when it is completely unwarranted. 

So when someone tries to pressure you into deciding right now - whether it’s a colleague, a friend, or the guy waiting to take your drink order - get used to saying, “I’m going to need a little more time.”  You won’t regret it.


I Set A Harvard Business Review Record!!!

Just found out that my post, Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, set the record at HBR.org for most pageviews ever!  I'm so grateful to everyone who recommended it to their friends and colleagues.  Is it too late to go back and rename my book?


The 3 Biggest Myths About Motivation That Won’t Go Away

People can have remarkably keen insights into their own behavior.  Then again, people can also be remarkably wrong about why they, and everyone else, do the things that they do.  And some of those people turn out to be motivational speakers and authors.

No doubt their intentions are very admirable – many genuinely want to help others to reach a higher level of success.  But too often, they simply end up reinforcing false notions (albeit intuitively appealing ones) about how motivation works.   Here are three of the most firmly entrenched motivational myths:

Just Write Down Your Goals, and Success is Guaranteed!

There is a story that motivational speakers/authors love to tell about the Yale Class of 1953.  (Google it.  It’s everywhere.) Researchers, so the story goes, asked graduating Yale seniors if they had specific goals they wanted to achieve in the future that they had written down.  Twenty years later, the researchers found that the mere 3% of students who had specific, written goals were wealthier than the other 97% combined.  Isn’t that amazing?  It would be if it were true, which it isn’t.  (See the 1996 Fast Company article that debunked the story here.)

I wish it were that simple.  To be fair, there is evidence that getting specific about what you want to achieve is really important. (Not a guaranteed road to fabulous wealth, but still important.)  In other words, specificity is necessary, but it’s not nearly sufficient.  Writing goals down is actually neither – it can’t hurt, but there’s also no hard evidence that writing per se does anything to help.

Just Try to Do Your Best!

Telling someone, or yourself, to just “do your best” is believed to be a great motivator. It isn’t. Theoretically, it encourages without putting on too much pressure.  In reality, and rather ironically, it is more-or-less permission to be mediocre.  

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, two renown organizational psychologists, have spent several decades studying the difference between “do your best” goals and their antithesis: specific and difficult goals.  Evidence from more than 1,000 studies conducted by researchers across the globe shows that goals that not only spell out exactly what needs to be accomplished, but that also set the bar for achievement high, result in far superior performance than simply trying to “do your best.”  That’s because more difficult goals cause you to, often unconsciously, increase your effort, focus and commitment to the goal, persist longer, and make better use of the most effective strategies.  

Just Visualize Success!

Advocates of “positive thinking” are particularly fond of this piece of advice. But visualizing success, particularly effortless success, is not just unhelpful – it’s a great way to set yourself up for failure.

Few motivational gurus understand that there’s an awfully big difference between believing you will succeed, and believing you will succeed easily.   Realistic optimists believe they will succeed, but also believe they have to make success happen – through things like effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies.  They don’t shy away from thinking “negative” thoughts, like what obstacles will I face?  and  how will I deal with them? 

Unrealistic optimists, on the other hand, believe that success will happen to them, if they do lots and lots of visualizing.  Recent research shows that this actually (and once again, ironically) serves to drain the very energy we need to reach our goals.  People who spend too much time fantasizing about the wonderful future that awaits them don’t have enough gas left in the tank to actually get there.
You can cultivate a more realistically optimistic outlook by combining confidence in  your ability to succeed with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you.  Don’t visualize success - visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.