There is one strategy that can, above all others, help you to be more successful. Some people adopt this strategy early, for others it is learned as they go through life. But the people who never learn it don’t become successful at all.
If you were to look at a cross-section of young adults, you could tell, by how well they were integrating the strategy into their lives, which ones would go on to become highly successful, which would lead average lives, and which would struggle just to make ends meet.
This strategy is to finish what you start. Some call it grit or tenacity or stick-to-it-iveness. But calling it by those names makes it seem like it is a trait that you either have or don’t, and not like a skill that you can develop.
Even if you are not already good at finishing what you start, you can learn. Here are five tips to help you toward completing your tasks:
1. Don’t worry if you didn’t exhibit this trait as a child
The 1972 Stanford marshmallow experiment tested children on their ability to delay gratification by choosing to eat one marshmallow now, or waiting and being rewarded with two marshmallows later. Follow up studies showed that the children who were able to delay gratification were more successful in their school careers.
You might worry if you were not particularly good at delaying gratification when you were a child, “Am I doomed to have a mediocre life?” Children and teenagers need to try many things and gain lots of experiences. If they seem flighty, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will fail later in life. They may be learning a lot that will come in handy later.
It is in young adulthood or later that the skill of finishing what you start becomes so important. As you begin to get an idea of what is really important to you, you can start to focus more and actually make progress. So don’t worry if you have typically abandoned projects to date. It is never too late to learn to finish what you start.
2. Build up your ability to complete things
Each time you carry a task through to completion your “complete it” muscle becomes a little stronger. Practice with small tasks first. Start the task, stick to it, and complete it. Mark the completion in some manner like dusting off your hands or by crossing the item off your list. Let your brain know that now you are the type of person who completes tasks.
By practicing completing small tasks, even as short as ten minutes in duration, you are building your “complete it” muscle. And the stronger that it gets, the longer you are able to stick with a task to complete it. Become the type of person who can complete small tasks, and soon you will become the type of person who completes large projects.
“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” – Neil Gaiman
3. Break large projects down into smaller tasks
As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Most major projects can’t be completed in a day, or even a week. Break large projects down into small tasks, so that you can continue to complete tasks on a daily basis. If you haven’t built up your “complete it” muscle enough yet, break the task down even further, so that you can complete things on an hourly basis. Or, if that is still too difficult, look for a task that you can complete in just ten minutes.
You will be surprised at what you can accomplish in evenings after work if you set yourself small tasks that you complete. The small tasks will add up, until you eventually have a completed project.
If you look at highly successful people you will see that their lives are made up of a succession of completed projects. And those projects were made up of a string of completed tasks.
4. Don’t try to multitask
One problem that affects many people is trying to multitask. When you split your attention between two activities you don’t do either one justice. You will just find yourself jumping from one to the other, wasting time as you try to pick up where you left off.
Instead, focus on one task at a time. When you bring that task to completion, you can let it out of your mind. You will no longer be stressed trying to remember to get that task done, while working on another task.
It helps to write down your tasks so that you can focus clearly on one at a time. Otherwise you waste a lot of brainpower remembering the list of what needs to be done next. Focus on the one task and get it done.
“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” -Confucius, Philosopher
5. Set goals, but be flexible
It is important to work on projects that take you towards your ultimate dreams. Make a goal that is small enough to be achievable, but takes you in the right direction. If you get started on your goal, then realize that it is beyond your current abilities, don’t give it up! Instead, find a smaller scope that you can complete successfully.
You may well find that the projects you complete don’t lead in a straight line to anything in particular. Perhaps your interests take you one way, and then another. Don’t despair. You will eventually find a way to bring together your disparate interests to create something that is uniquely you.
Occasionally there may be times when it is better to change course rather than finish something that you started. For example, Mark Zuckerberg quit college to build Facebook. If you have a real opportunity to make forward progress, it is okay to switch tracks and not complete your original activity.
Just be sure that you do complete something. Don’t allow yourself to jump from goal to goal without anything to show for it. When in doubt, stay the course. Once you understand how important it is to complete projects, you will start to build your string of completed projects. You will choose projects that interest you, and gradually build toward a highly successful life that has great meaning to you.