How to Finish Things

In my experience working with clients, I have found that the coaching/consulting time I spend with them is usually inversely proportional to their effectiveness. That means the less time I spend with them, the better their results. Not to mention, we are both better off — they can move on with their work and I can move on with helping others, thus saving us both valuable time and energy. In other words, the less time I spend working with them, the higher the impact, greater the improvement, and the happier they are because of it. Of course, if you’re being cheeky, you might say that if that’s the case, why spend any time with them at all.

The other thing is I don’t believe they get results because of me necessarily, but because of themselves. They are already motivated to change. I am just there to help facilitate that process. For me, part of the challenge is to work with the right clients because that will take care of the bulk of the work and will lead to a Win-Win for both the client and myself.

I’ve found the same to be true in my creative work. The less time I work on a draft, the better it turns out, all things considered. The more time I spend on it, the more I feel I am losing sight of the main idea at some point. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For instance, there have been times I’ve worked on a draft which took me more hours to finish than I would care to admit. I didn’t feel like doing the work, so I would occasionally find myself in some rabbit hole learning about something else. I wasn’t focused enough, and I didn’t give myself any deadlines to finish the work. I wasn’t following a creative process. I jumped between doing research and writing rather than writing first (what I knew), and then doing the research (to learn what others thought), or starting with the research to figure out a hypothesis for my draft, and then writing a rough first draft based on that. As you can probably tell, this is a non-linear process.

This is true for me, but also for many people. This includes some of my friends who are now married and find themselves more productive in getting the right work done in far less time than when they were by themselves and had a lot more time on their hands. I don’t find this surprising at all. When we have less time on our hands, we become more resourceful and find a way to get things done quickly.

Here are some ideas for getting results quickly.

Get familiar with Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, the more time you have to do something, the longer you’ll take to finish it. Conversely, the less time you give yourself to do something, chances are the quicker you’ll be able to do it.

Let me illustrate that with an example. I was talking to a friend who was preparing himself to give a TED Talk. I was shocked to hear he had given himself a couple of months to prepare for it because he wanted to do it right. Because of this commitment, he had kept his legacy project on hold, which I believed was far more important. Although he had a few ideas in mind, he wasn’t ready to commit just yet. In my mind, if you knew what you wanted to talk about, it should have taken you no more than a week to prepare for it from conception to finish. I would have given him the same timeframe even if he didn’t know what he was going to talk about.

Avoid giving yourself deadlines and focus on finishing the work quickly. Part of the problem with setting goals or having self-imposed deadlines is that we may give ourselves more time than it should have taken us to do the work. For instance, telling yourself you’re going to write two drafts this week might be self-limiting, when in practice, you could have written three or even four — who really knows. I doubt the inverse is equally true, which is when you might err on the side of giving yourself less time than you need.

The point is, you have to be able to expect yourself to do things quickly before you can do them. I cannot overstate this enough. If I don’t think I can finish the draft in the next 90 minutes, then I can’t. But, if I think I can do it, I probably will. Either way, I’d be right.

Do the work sincerely. Remember, as a Pro, your job is to show up every day and do the work regardless of whether you “feel” like it or not. As Chuck Close would say, and I paraphrase, motivation is for amateurs, while the rest of us simply show up and do the work, which inspires you to keep going, and not the other way round. Stick to the process, and let that determine the outcome of your work.

Always have some idea as to where you are in the creative process because it’s easy to get immersed and lost in it. For instance, you could easily get lost in doing research ad infinitum. You have to know when to stop. One of the things you can do is ask yourself at any point if you’re diverging or converging. For instance, if you’re in divergent state, you might be looking to do more research or you might want to simply write freely without having to think about how it will all fit in. In the latter case, you just want the creative juices to flow without worrying about outlines or any form of structure. Another instance could be when you’ve done your research, you’re probably ready to synthesize and you need to work on bringing those ideas together. Knowing where you are in the creative process can help you do the work quickly.

There are times when I’ve found myself procrastinating when I wasn’t clear on the next steps or didn’t feel “motivated”. In my case, if it was research I needed to do, I was probably doing something else. If I had all the research I needed, I needed to write the rough draft and get it out the door in the shortest time possible.

Give yourself just 25 minutes to get started on a project, take a break for 5 minutes, then wash, rinse, and repeat for the next 90 minutes. You’ll accomplish far more than you ever thought possible.

Stop doing the work when you think you’re 80% done. No one cares about the final 20%. The thing is that the final 20% of the work normally takes 80% of the effort to complete (with none of the return on investment). 80% done is better than 100% perfect. In my case, when I think the draft is about 80% done, I stop working because I know I’ve got the main idea down. Of course, I could carry on to fine-tune it so it reads better, but that wouldn’t really add much value beyond a certain point. Plus, it would likely go unnoticed, so what’s the point? In other words, focus on telling your story more than getting caught up in trying to say it in a better way, of which the former is more important, and there is no end to doing the latter. You can continue working on it forever, but real artists ship.

I wrote in a recent piece about how I was able to write more drafts in less time, thereby creating some buffer for myself, and how momentum had a huge role to play in it:

Well, one thing that changed between now and then was the fact that I showed up every day and did the creative work sincerely without distractions or interruptions. I was focused in terms of what I needed to achieve (write two drafts a week), so I worked with that in mind. Once I knew my weekly outcome, I stepped back and focused on the process of showing up and doing the work every day. In other words, I did what I said I was going to do — I was consistent. Once I had some momentum, it was easy for me to continue building that buffer. In many ways, it’s like compound interest. You start out small and then you get significant returns over time as a result.

You can probably finish your projects sooner than you think. This is not just true for someone with a business, but equally true for those working in organizations. The quality of the work goes way up, plus you spend fewer hours working. There is no downside here. Doing the work quickly helps you add greater value to your clients and helps you ship more consistently. You just need to raise your expectations and do things quickly without losing the quality of your work.

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