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Why We Don’t Finish What We Start - a Psychological Exploration

Nov 2, 2020

“Finish what you start” sounds more like an admonition to many of us. We all, at least some of the time, are guilty of not finishing a project or an assignment or a task on time despite our best intention. Whereas to finish is quite simple: start > sit with the task and grind > Finish > Go back to step one. 

Broadly, we face two challenges. One, starting. Often starting something is not easy. If it is an important endeavor, it is more so. Fear and lethargy, our two primal enemies, make starting anything difficult. Fear says you can’t do it. It is hard. You will fail. You will embarrass yourself. So on and so forth. Lethargy doesn't go there. It simply cajoles. You are tired, sleep a little more today. You look weak, you should rest more often. Stay a little longer under this comfy blanket. 

These two seducers make it difficult for us to start. Starting appears to be an act beyond us. To that end, starting something of value is an act of will. You have to be willing to fail, be embarrassed, and embrace hard work. 

The second challenge is finishing. While many of us eventually manage to get over our inertia to start, we tend to give up in the middle. Finishing remains a far more difficult art to master. And then eventually we give up. Fear and lethargy, our two primal enemies, are equally active in this realm as well. We procrastinate. We delay. We leave things half done. 

Not finishing or not finishing on time is one of the major reasons behind our failure. It is expensive. Because when you are not finishing something on time, it means you are wasting both time and resources. You are also wasting the opportunity to do something else that you could have done within that time frame had you finished your earlier task on time. If you do your today’s job tomorrow, when would you be doing your tomorrow’s job? 

Finishing something is about patience and mindfulness. Take, for example, this article. It is tempting to take a break before I finish writing this. I did take breaks. I wasted time in between. But what I simply needed to do is sit with these empty pages and write and finish it up. Finishing is that simple. You start. You sit patiently with the task as long as it takes. And you finish. That’s all it takes. 

But what is so hard about sitting patiently? 

Why don’t we finish - a psychological exploration 

1/ Because finishing is difficult. The way our mind works is that it needs constant stimulation. While starting something is exciting, finishing something is boring. You need to grind. You need to sit still. Often progress is slow in the early days. There seems to be little progress and apparent results after a long day of labor. Our mind is not used to this. It needs excitement and stimulation. As a result, it looks for the excitement that eventually leads to distractions. We move from one thing to another. While slow progress often makes us feel that we don’t have control of things, giving in to distractions such as browsing social media and so on offer a sense of control and accomplishment although we are not accomplishing anything in reality. 

2/ Four enemies of finishing are distractions, addictions, fear, and lethargy. These play a critical role in taking us off the path. The source of all these enemies appears to be the same. When faced with a difficult task, our general response is taking resort to distraction. You may ask, why so? Because it is easier and comfortable. We are always seeking comfort. 

3/ If we go a bit deeper, our need for a sense of control plays an equally important role. When we are dealing with a difficult task and our progress is not visible right away, we don’t feel that we are in control. We feel a sense of helplessness. Helplessness is a feeling that a human child is aware of since childhood. Over the years, we develop defense mechanisms to deal with this sense of helplessness. These defenses are the actions that take our attention off of the feeling of helplessness. Sometimes they are mere distractions. At other times, it becomes a common pattern and ends up becoming an addiction. When we are tasked with a difficult project, we feel a sense of lack of control that reenacts our feeling of helplessness that eventually leads us to distractions. We don’t like the feeling when we are not in control. It makes us uncomfortable. As a result, we resort to distractions because it gives us a sense of control. 


If you are to solve your finishing problem, you have to do some self-work where you try to figure out your quirks and understand your defensive behavior against a difficult event. You try to look for what sends the signal of helplessness, how it feels when it happens, and find ways to resolve them with more direct actions and patience. 

For example, while doing a difficult task, if you feel stuck and helpless, and if you sense that a feeling of discomfort is growing, you should find ways to address it right away. You can divide your task into small bits and do them accordingly to gain a sense of control. The most important task here is being able to pay attention to your feelings and discomfort and being able to catch yourself at the right moment. Mindfulness practices such as prayers and meditation can help you in developing greater awareness regarding how you operate. 

Once you learn to find an approach that helps you effectively deal with your sense of lack of control and helplessness, it will be easier for you to deal with your distractions. You will be able to sit with your difficult job for a long time and thus finish it.  

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Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at

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