Everybody loves finishing tasks and putting a big check mark next to completed to-dos. When it’s a bigger project or a longer-term task, sometimes that check mark seems impossibly far away. So how do you get to the finish line?
A few strategies work no matter what it is you’re trying to finish. Most importantly, set goals, pace yourself, and find the motivation to get past whatever obstacle is hindering your progress.
Here are specific tips and tricks to pass the tough spot and finish different kinds of tasks.
Reading a book
What happens: You’re a few pages in, and so far you’re into it. But then life happens. Life might take the form of TV, Facebook, a new app, or actual work. Whatever the reason, next thing you know, the book has been sitting on your bedside table for weeks. It just has so many pages.
Try this: Get out of the mindset where you’re counting down how many pages you have left. Focus on what you like about the book: what about the story or the argument made you pick it up in the first place? Try reading five or ten pages a day—if you get into it and read more than what you’ve assigned yourself, even better. Before you know it, you’ll be wondering how all those pages flew by.
Writing a book
What happens: You have a great idea, a stunning outline, and a handful of pages. Some authors get stuck on page ten, some get stuck on page one hundred. A book is no small task, and it’s easy to get discouraged. You say “I’ll finish one day…” but that “one day” never seems to roll around.
Try this: Pick a precise date that will be your “one day.” Set small goals leading up to that day. If you don’t have many pages yet, set a goal for how much you’ll write each day. If you have way too many pages, create a strategy for how you’ll edit and organize what you have. Make an outline, set deadlines for yourself, rally some friends and editors, and keep going.
Need more specifics? Dive into our article on tips and tricks for long-form writers.
Shorter writing assignments
What happens: You have to write a story, article, report, you name it. It’s no novel, but it can feel just as daunting. You have pages of notes, but no introduction or conclusion. The argument just isn’t coming together, or you just feel like writing a single sentence is more than your brain can handle right now, so you’ll do it later.
Try this: The usual advice will help you out—break down your project into smaller tasks, set yourself deadlines for each mini-task, fill out an outline section-by-section, and so on.
On top of those tried-and-true strategies, adjusting your mindset can be a useful way to get the words on paper. For example, pick a different spot from where you normally work. It could be a coffee shop, your office’s common space, or your favorite comfy chair—as long as it’s not so comfy you’ll be tempted to take a nap. Sometimes a change of scenery is enough to transform the vague ideas floating around your head into perfect prose.
What happens: You signed up for a project that sounded interesting, but then a higher-priority project came along and this one slipped onto the back burner. Alternately, you have to address a big-deal effort, but it’s one of those projects that has “too many moving parts.” Either way, it’s lurking at the back of your mind, occasionally giving you a stab of guilt and demanding to return to the front burner.
Try this: Block off a chunk of time on your calendar to dedicate to the problem project. Don’t let anyone or anything else take that time away. During that time, ask yourself: what’s the core of the problem you’re trying to solve, and what steps can you take to get to a solution? Write down those steps to break down your project into manageable components. Address the components one at a time, but as you work, keep the overall problem in mind. The separate steps will both organize your work process and ensure an organized final product that directly and accurately addresses the problem at hand.
Podcasts, shows, and entertainment
What happens: That true-crime podcast episode was really exciting…but your commute ended halfway through and finding time for the rest would be too much effort. Or maybe you started watching a TV show that had a good first few episodes…but who has time for seven seasons?
Try this: Again, the problem is getting intimidated by what seems like too much to handle. Entertainment is meant to be entertaining. If you’re just not into it, let yourself off the hook. Some things don’t need to be finished.
But if you do want to invest time in a piece of media, plan times to do so. Listen to the second half of your podcast on the commute home or at the gym. Watch one episode a week of that show your boss always talks about—after all, “catching up” is halfway there.
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What happens: In hobbies like learning a new language or instrument, you often get to a plateau point. At first, you were flooded with new knowledge and the patterns seemed to make sense, but then you reach the stage when a new set of rules show up and the amount of effort to figure them out starts to seem insurmountable.
Try this: Harsh as it may sound, lower your expectations. Mastering the violin isn’t like solving a sudoku puzzle—it takes time and dedication. If you have that dedication, stick with it. Make small goals—in the violin example, learning to read music or playing a simple tune. Reward yourself for those achievements, and when the work seems too hard, remind yourself why you got interested in your hobby in the first place.
The main takeaways you can apply to pretty much any project you want to finish:
- Set goals to stay on task.
- Set smaller goals to keep them manageable.
- Discipline yourself to keep moving forward and don’t procrastinate. (Need some motivation? Read this article.)
- Reward yourself for your achievements.
Now you’ve finished reading this article. There’s one thing you can check off your to-do list!