The art of the finish

Ah, productivity - the holy grail of our modern lives. In 2016 we spent $9.9 billion on products and services to help us improve ourselves, and the market is forecast to post 5.6% average yearly gains from 2016 to 2022, when the market should be worth $13.2 billion. We work harder, longer, take less vacations and jump on the next tool or fad to help us improve what and how we do.

But productivity on its own is not enough.

All the productivity in the world won't help if you don't actually finish what you started.

If you take a look around you at highly accomplished people - within your own circle or further out at the famous entrepreneurs - the one trait common to all of them is a focus on getting stuff done. But not just doing stuff - actually finishing a product, project or assignment.

This bias towards finishing is probably one of the most important traits you can develop yourself.

If you write articles, having a dozen in draft doesn't count - it's the number that you've published that matters. If you develop info products (like I do), half-developed products don't count - finished ones you can sell is what brings in the revenue (I speak from experience here). And if you're building a business, a half-decent website is not good enough - it has to be "good enough" so you can move on and focus on other stuff.

It turns out that there is one technique you can use to get to finish, and it's called The Power of One.

The Power of One

We all have a multitude of projects and tasks we have to complete. The way to get more of them done - actually finished - is to focus on just one at a time.

Focus on less so you can get more done.

Whenever you jump from one project to the next, you're making small, incremental progress in each project or task. But every time you switch you pay a penalty - actually a couple of penalties:

  • First, when you switch from one project or task to another, it takes time to get back up to speed with where you were and what need to be done next. If you stick to one project or task at a time, you don't pay this penalty.
  • Secondly, when you jump from one project or task to the next, you make slower progress on each of them. As a result, it takes longer and longer to complete the project, and over time your enthusiasm for the project wanes. Working on it becomes a chore, a shlep, and you start finding excuses for not working on it.

I must admit that I've done this to myself - started a project but not completed it and eventually lost interest. Even now I have a couple of projects on hold that I will get to when I'm done with this guide - but I know I will have trouble getting back up to speed.

The way around this is to focus on just one project and finish it before you start anything else.

This technique works especially well for larger projects. Each large project will take substantial time and effort to complete, and the faster you get it done the sooner you can move on to the next.

How to choose "the one"

Sometimes picking one project or task to finish is easy - there's a deadline or something else obvious that pushes the project to the top of the heap.

But sometimes it can be a bit more difficult to choose, so here are some tools to help you pick "the one".

Important versus Urgent

You're probably familiar with this diagram - four quadrants with an "Urgent" axis along the bottom and an "Important" axis running from bottom to top.


Place each of the projects on your project list in one of the four quadrants according to their relative urgency and importance:

  • Projects that are both important and urgent (top right) should get done first.
  • Eliminate projects or tasks that are neither important nor urgent (bottom left).
  • Try to get projects that are urgent, but not important (bottom right), off your plate by delegating or even eliminating them.
  • Projects that are important, but not urgent (top left) is usually where long-term value lies. These should take priority after the urgent / important tasks or projects.

Your mileage using this tool may differ - experiment with it and see if and how it helps.

Value versus effort

A variation on the Important versus Urgent matrix is the Value versus Effort matrix. In this case, we map projects based on their value (preferably revenue-generating) versus the amount of effort required to complete them.

Here's what it looks like:


To use this tool, start with a list of projects or tasks. Then place each project or task on the matrix based on its relative value and effort.

  • Projects with high value and low effort should get top priority.
  • Projects with low value (irrespective of effort) should get lowest priority or even eliminated altogether.

Note that in this tool, projects towards the upper left are the most bang for your buck in the shortest amount of time.

Develop a "must finish" mindset

Irrespective of the tools you use to prioritise your projects, the key to the ultimate productivity - getting lots of stuff done and finished in the shortest possible time - is to focus relentlessly on finishing the current project.

Focus relentlessly on finishing the current project.

One way to help you focus is to keep your list of projects - and their relative priorities - in a place where you will see it regularly. Some people go as far as to keep a printed list in their pocket; I am reminded of my focus daily and weekly in my Bullet Journal (more about that later).

It may also help you to list the "completion criteria" next to each project. That way, you will be reminded what "finished" looks like, which also serves as inspiration to get things done.

And if you have to work on more than one project at a time…

With the best will in the world, you can't always afford to work on just one project at a time. Sometimes you have to wait for someone else to complete a step before you can proceed, and sometimes you just need a break away from one great big lump of work.

If this is you, you will find that it helps to have one major and a number of smaller projects running simultaneously. Your priority is still on the main project, but when necessary you can divert your attention to another project.

However, be careful that you don't fall into the trap of letting your major project become less attractive. In the end, getting your projects completed is what counts, so use this technique with care.

What to do now

This article is an excerpt from Have a Life 2019, a self-study guide to help you plan your business and your life in 2019 so you can enjoy the journey, have a calmer life and get more done while working less.

For more information on Have a Life 2019, check out the details here.

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