If you don’t finish then you’re just busy, not productive

One of the biggest realisations I’ve come to as part of my PhD, is how little people care about how I spend my time, they only care about what I am able to deliver. Yet in order to deliver, you need to finish. I was recently reading an article on this topic, and I think the advice can be best summed up as:

If you’re always starting interesting projects and not finishing, then no matter how hard you work, you’re just busy, not productive.

I find this message extremely compelling, because I frequently find myself starting new programming projects in my spare time. In a lot of ways they are not a waste – I definitely learn a lot from these projects and gain a new skill. Yet at the same time, because I move on to something else that interests me before I can finish my current side-projects, when I tell people about these projects, all I can say is:

This was an interesting project that I learned a lot from.

Instead of:

This was something really awesome I spent my spare time building. I learned a lot along the way, and you can see the tangible results of my project right now.

Which is more impressive?

I used to try and use the Pomodoro Technique to track my time working on different projects, but it just resulted in me focusing on how much time I was working, not on getting things done. Under that system, things like polishing and refactoring my code (which can be a valuable use of your time, but I would frequently use them to procrastinate), counted equally towards my goals for the day, even if I wasn’t actually making any real progress.

Think about it – do you actually care if it took me an hour or a year to write this post? No! You only care about the fact that you are (hopefully) finding this an interesting read. Yet if I wrote 99% of this article, then allowed it to remain an unpublished draft, then I might as well have never written it in the first place. The same applies to the projects we work on: even if you dedicate many hours to a task and it’s 80% of the way there, if you never finish then no-one will care.

Now I have written out a list of every one of my projects, and broken them down into steps I can attack piece-by-piece, and I focus on making sure that every day I cross-off at least one item, so I’m getting closer to moving a project from my ‘to-do’ list, and into my ‘finished’ list.

New projects

I am terrible at saying “no” to people when they suggest new projects (especially when that person is myself). I get genuinely excited about new ideas and opportunities, and it can be flattering when someone approaches you to be involved in a new project. I’m slowly starting to realise that the best strategy to deal with these situations is to ask yourself:

What is the minimal state of completion this project needs to reach for me to consider it a success and having been worth my time? If I cannot realistically commit to the amount of time required to bring the project to that state, am I better off putting my energy into finishing projects that I am currently working on?

Taking on a project that you do not have the time to finish is going to burn more bridges than telling people you don’t have the time to contribute.

Worst of all, you’ll gain a reputation for being someone who can’t deliver.

For me, my plan for 2017 is to finish. I have a list of projects that every day I am whittling down, and I intend to follow up this post at the end of the year with a list of my projects that are finally complete.

I’ve just written a new article to expand upon a few points: What does it mean to finish a project?

The following two tabs change content below.
Computational biology PhD candidate at the Australian National University. I love writing (both articles and software), learning more about the world around us, and beekeeping. I also write for BioSky.co

Latest posts by Jack Simpson (see all)

76 thoughts on “If you don’t finish then you’re just busy, not productive

  1. When I got my first android phone, I was super excited to start building my own apps. After a couple of months almost finishing the most amazing app ever with my own 3d engine and everything, I came to the same conclusion as you. This thing will never finish. In the mean time I made a fun little app that did almost nothing and which I completed in one afternoon. This app got more than 100k downloads. From then on I decided to only create apps that I (believed I) could finish and publish (v0.1) in one afternoon.

    In my experience an app that will take one afternoon to get working will take about two weeks to build. An app that takes two weeks to get working, will be a great learning experience.

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I agree with you, the important thing is to finish(deliver) and not only spend time in the project. Because after all the only thing that matters is a finished project.

    xoxo !

    1. Finishing a project is not the objective. Getting something in return for the work (knowledge/$/helping others) is what is important. Imagine working hard for years to finish a project that nobody use for anything. And gaining no new knowledge or happiness from the work. What’s the point? You have just wasted years of your life for nothing. You would have been better off relaxing and enjoying time with your family or working on another project with a better payoff.

      1. Finishing doesn’t necessarily mean dedicating years of your life to something. If you start a project hoping for it to become a startup, invest hundreds of hours in programming and then give up with nothing to show, maybe its worth at least releasing an minimal viable product, or open sourcing the code so at least you get some form of closure for the project.

        1. Well said, Jack. If you are developing a product, get a working version out (it doesn’t have to be perfect) and then release better versions later.

          Do not look at the overall picture and get overwhelmed. Break your work into byte-sized components and work on them individually. Complete them task by task.

          And most important do not set lofty schedules.

          You know how much you can accomplish in a day. Only do that much.

          Otherwise, it leads to anxiety and subsequently stress.

          Another thing Jack, the world measures you by what you deliver (like you said) but you are always a winner in God’s eyes. Thanks for the insight Jack.

  3. An interesting read on the same lines as this and some addition thoughts is the article “art of the finish” by cal Newport, you will find it if you google it. It’s a very simple productivity system based on finishing things, basically a table with projects and a completion criteria and each day asking what’s the biggest way you can move forward to completion my this task.

    1. I got on intimidated, and my insecurities set in. I can do this. I have my head on straight today. I am confident and I will prove it.

  4. Interesting… in the world of work, it seems people care more about how you spend your time working than what the outputs are. At least, that’s my experience.

  5. I am 70 now. I had a lot of projects, usually programming or robotics, that I started but never finished. Actually I just did enough to know what I needed to know to finish. The reason I could not finish them is because I needed to be productive in the frame that my employers lived in. I was productive to them. But I was not learning enough and advancing myself enough. Now I am retired and am jumping between projects. Oh, need to learn R. Oh, need to learn OpenCV. Oh, need to learn TensorFlow…. So I am not finishing much, but I feel productive in the sense that within my frame I am advancing and learning like crazy.

    I am saying that my frame of reference for productivity has moved from before retirement – an external one where it was measured by a paycheck and job continuation and now, after retirement, to a frame of reference where I feel I am finally able to escape the ticking clock of a schedule which defines “finished.”

    Maybe I just changed the definition of finished from completing a project, to learning or honing skills. I have no regrets at going from finishing stuff to flitting about.

    1. You are doing the right thing. You are creating happiness and knowledge by doing the work. Kudos.

    2. I think that’s a fair point, and I guess it comes down to what the ultimate goals are when undertaking something. Are you starting a project that you hope will be released publicly, or is it an experiment to learn more about a topic that you have no intention of becoming something more than a learning exercise.

  6. thank you for crystallizing the solution. That this has gone viral on hacker news bespeaks of a problem that everyone has but less of us work our way around.
    I am wondering if the ability to keep working on a task, of ignoring shiny other options to deliver what you have started, is like a muscle? Does practicing delivery, mean your more capable of delivering. Or to out it another way is this a matter of self-confidence?
    Do we abort a project to head for sunny climbs because we fear that the deeper we get into the depths of the project, the more unlikely it is that we will actually complete it.
    That our need to get the project “right”, will become a cycle of perfectionism and procrastination! That it will become a rule to measure ourselves by and to beat ourselves with!
    If the issue is self confidence then and I can get better at completing a task. Then challenging ones cycle of perfectionism and procrastination becomes a huge win in of itself. And there we have the paradox that to take on this new task is to break from the old, when not breaking from the old is the goal! As ever the real truth comes from being able to resolve the paradox
    As i said thanks for crystallizing this for me – I will be pondering this further

    1. Thanks a lot for your thoughts – I was talking to a researcher at my uni who was much more experienced with this than me and he was saying how he’s been gradually getting better and finishing and saying no to projects over time.

  7. What do you mean by finishing something? Finishing a Prototype? Finishing a Product? Finishing that last feature your Projects needs? Finishing an MVP? Most ppl would call an MVP more a start than a finish…

    1. Fair point, I think that the value of a project can change over time – a startup that once looked like a billion-dollar idea now feels like a waste of time, yet you’ve already invested hundreds of hours with nothing to show.

      In cases like that, I think its fair to reevaluate what ‘finished’ looks like. For some of my projects it may mean releasing an MVP and open sourcing some code, for others it may mean going through and finishing the original goal.

  8. I must say, I wholeheartedly disagree. I used to start projects and never finish when I was young. That obviously doesn’t work. But merely just taking on projects which I plan to finish is an equally wrong strategy as well.

    You learn a lot by starting projects. The first 10% of many projects gets you 90% of the learning (or of the fun), without the hard (but mindless) work needed to get it over the line. The first 10% of many projects is also enough to figure what’s involved — how much time, cost, and benefit the project will have. That’s exploratory work. That’s important too. Sometimes, I’ll start a half dozen projects in some field before I even understand enough to know what a good project is. Finishing those would be a waste of time, since the ROI is so low before I know what I’m doing. After the half-starts, I understand the space, and I can do a serious project which contributes real value (which I do finish).

    Instead, try to be deliberate about which projects you plan to finish, which ones you merely plan to start, and which ones you’re unsure about. At this point, I finish maybe 80% of the projects I intend to. But I intend to finish maybe only half of the projects I spend time working on (which, by numbers, is a majority of the projects, since unfinished projects take so much less time). The other half of my projects are for learning, fun, or exploration. All three, coincidentally, are part of why you’re doing a Ph.D. I wouldn’t discount them. If one focused on thesis and publication, one could finish a Ph.D in half the time of a normal student, but that would completely miss the point of the education.

    I don’t take on a bad reputation either. I tell people: “I’m working on making a video about spiders. I don’t think I’ll ever finish, but it’s a fun way to pass the time, and I’m learning a lot about video editing.” Or I tell people: “I’m making a video about spiders. Look for it on my Youtube channel next month.” People understand that.

    1. I think you have a fair point. I guess in terms of reputation I’m talking more about projects that you talk up to a lot of people. I regret telling a lot of people about a startup idea I had a year ago because now if I don’t at least release an MVP then I will look like I’m all talk.

      I’m completely fine with the objective of a project being just to learn – I do that all the time! My point is more to do with projects that were about more than just learning along the way.

  9. That’s true for solo projects, but most projects these days are not solo efforts.

    “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” — Nelson Henderson

    Of all the important projects I can think of, big and small, from the past 100 years, the person starting it was only rarely the person who completed it. JFK kicked off the moon race, but was dead years before any Apollo mission flew.

    Often, providing a spark to someone else is the most important part of a project, and ends up being much more valuable than “finishing” it in the sense it was originally conceived.

    1. “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Right. Like what the slaves used to do? Working hard to “create shade” for somebody else? How fulfilling they must have felt. Not.

      1. You missed the point of that quote. We plant trees knowing that they take years to mature, and we will never see them at their grandest. It’s an unselfish and hopeful act to plant a slow-growing maple tree that our great- grandchildren will sit under. Here in Vermont, many of the oldest and biggest maples were planted by the families of Union soldiers.

      2. Oh dear, Morton, don’t be nasty, this was as much an analogy as anything – meaning that we should do good things even when we personally will not beneift

  10. Yes, this. Everything you said is true. This was my favorite quote: “I am terrible at saying “no” to people …especially when that person is myself”

  11. This reminds me of “the goal”by Goldratt and other books by him on the theory of constraints.

    He points out that a part (in manufacturing) that has already been through multiple expensive processes has far more value invested in it than some new piece fresh cut from raw materials. Yet often factories prefer to run machines at full capacity even though there is a stoppage further down the process that will creat a stockpile of unfinished items.

    Worse – if QA/QC then rejects a nearly finished part they are throwing away a lot more value than if the defect had been found earlier on.

    All obvious points – but relevant to our personal work as well. Too often we run at 100% on parts of the job that we enjoy and feel productive, heedless of the pile of unfinished projects and reports piling up. Or we realize much too late that the project we spent so much time on has no real value!

  12. I don’t agree with your conclusion. If your objective is to learn something then you are done the moment you have learned whatever it is. Any additional time spent on it will be a waste of time. You are mixing up “internal objectives” (what benefits your happiness) with “external objectives” (what benefits other people). Think about it as a “Knowledge Project” more than an “End Product Project” where the deliverable is new knowledge not new products.

    1. And of course if your internal happiness is truly driven by creating software to help others then you will be compelled and highly motivated to do exactly that: finish projects that help people. However if your internal happiness is driven by the thrill of discovery and gaining new knowledge, then finishing projects just to finish is a waste of time and might even lead to depression. Know yourself 🙂

    2. السلام عليكم نشكركم كثير علي الاهتمام بي اريد المطلوب ان افعل ذالك شكرا الرد

    3. “If your objective is to learn something then you are done the moment you have learned whatever it is”

      I think that learning is a perfectly fine objective! I do it all he time, I have a bunch of self-learning projects going on.

  13. Pingback: FG Newsletter #306
  14. Interesting take on an issue I clearly have as well! But from what I get, a significant part of the motivation you’d have to finish project would be so that other people are “more impressed”. Of course peer acknowledgement is always great to have, but I’m sure you can be proud of your projects and find the reason to finish them, or not, coming from your guts and regardless of how impressive the project may look to others! Just a thought 😉

    1. That’s a fair point, I guess the problem I find is that I tell people the projects I’m working on, feel the praise wash over me, work hard at it for a while and then too often I never finish.

  15. Thank you, Jack! This article is like a piece of advice created for me. Like you have mentioned in the article, I would take up more projects and I did not care to finish. At last what we deliver counts, not how we spend our time.

  16. I was interested in he title because it reminded me of the story of my life. I often jump from one project to another and am much more excited about starting a new project than finishing any current one. I started noticing many of my friends that I talk to asking when I’m going to finish a project as I an telling them about my next project. I never considered how useless unfinished projects are as time wasters.

  17. I can appreciate the article’s message but the different sides of the equation have become balanced after reading people’s comments here. Personally I do not attach much significance to finishing things. Some things are better not finished. That way you remain open to new ways to finish! The reputation argument doesn’t hold well with me either. I guess it depends on where your locus of control is.

    1. I guess it also depends on what you’ve publicly told other people and what your expectations from the project is. Learning can be its own reward in a lot of cases, but there are projects I know that if I never finish then the work will have been for nothing and I will have publicly announced something that I was unable to deliver.

  18. The article is excellent! Readers may also enjoy “Do the Work” by Steven Pressfield and Seth Godin’s writing on Delver.

    I have no affiliation with either author, other than enjoying their work along with this nice article

  19. Excellent article Jack. A lot of truth in what you say. When you do a PhD, it is a big learning exercise about yourself. The freedom to direct your study into whatever area seems appropriate is both empowering and a trap in that it is very easy to get into the position you describe of trying lots of things but finishing very little. These ‘experiments’ are a major source of learning, but you need to get back into focusing on your top priority; completing your PhD. To that end, I found the book “How to get a PhD” very useful, it helped me complete mine (in Computer Science over 20 years ago now) and I subsequently recommended to all my PhD students.

  20. Jack – I was led to this by the title and at first did not realise it was about computing. Made very interesting reading because I am always starting jobs which sit around not being finished – not sure you could call them projects. I always believed that men tend to finish things as they are able to be more focused on one thing at a time. I am not “at work” although my life is very full with numerous interests. I find I am perpetually spinning plates, rushing from one to the other to keep them all going. I also find I am constantly dragged away by something else which – for that moment – is of more importance.

    Thanks anyway – I read all the way through despite the fact that the text was such a pale grey I had great difficulty seeing it.

    1. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about computing, I guess those are just the projects that have meant the most to me lately. A project could easily be writing something for instance 🙂

        1. I guess it depends on how much you value putting your book out in the world. Maybe if you don’t think it’s worth it anymore you can release some chapters as essays for magazines, or guest posts for a site if you end up deciding to not finish.

  21. This is a good article. I have learnt a lot from it. But I think we need not to finish everything. Some things we do for learning. After a one learn from it, that’s the gain. No need to finish. But we should have a list of goals with priorities. Those priorities should be finished to achieve that goal.

  22. I think a lot of why we end up on this treadmill is about justifying the time/effort we’ve already invested.

    Psychology calls this the “sunk costs” theory, and it basically means we as humans find it harder to stop the longer we’ve spent doing it already. It’s easier to stop at the beginning of a project, because the more energy we put into a thing, the more our brains want to protect us from facing the possibility we made a bad decision to start it. In business terms this also explains the idea of ‘throwing good money after bad’.

    1. That’s a fair point, I’ve come across the concept of ‘sunk costs’ a few times in an economics context. I agree that there are times where it is worth reevaluating the value of a project. A great example of this would be a startup idea I’ve worked on. I’m planning to try and release at least a minimal viable product because after investing a huge amount of my spare time it is very close to being at that stage. Releasing an MVP makes perfect sense because a) it is a great way to advertise my programming ability (looks good on my CV) and b) maybe it does take off.

      I am not going to spend years chasing after a project that is going no-where, but I will at least release an MVP and move on. That is what I was alluding to when I said in the article “What is the minimal state of completion this project needs to reach for me to consider it a success and having been worth my time?”

      1. I think it’s a great way to get around the sunk cost mentality-you’re deciding in advance how much you want to invest, so you’ve got a line in the sand.

        I’m planning to apply this to my website I’m launching. I could spend forever making it perfect, or just decide how good it needs to be and get it done. Yay for MVPs!

    2. Fascinating point Lauren . . . that “sunk costs” theory helps explains a lot of human behaviors I’ve recently witnessed amongst my friends and family too.

      However, it runs contrary to Jack’s (old) habit of leaving a variety of projects unfinished . . . so perhaps he can keep it top-of-mind as yet another motivation for finishing things he starts in 2017.

      PS – Great post Jack Simpson – did you realize your essay has also been featured on the front page of Google (9:30p EST).

      1. Oh really? I didn’t realise – thanks for the heads up 🙂 Also you’re completely right, my point was about the projects I have which I know are worth completing, its just that I get distracted by new things.

    1. So you pick a task to do for 25 minutes, then you have a 5 minute break. People try to get 8 or so done. For some people I know this system can work well, the problem for me is that if I define my productivity purely by the time I spend working, then I don’t have the discipline in my side-projects to tackle things that are valuable to work on, but not particularly enjoyable.

  23. My word for 2017 is FINISH. This was a great post. I am the queen of starting projects but never finishing them. I have great ideas and get 50% through and something more important is put on my plate. Thanks for completing your post!

  24. Hey Jack!

    Your write up really came up as a tool to analyze my own ways of leaving things midway and switching to a different task without having completed the first one. It is certainly a bad habit which needs to be replaced asap.
    Thanks for such article. Keep sharing your thoughts

Comments are closed.