Why You Can’t Finish What You Start (And How to Overcome it)

A woman stretches on a yoga mat in front of a window

When it comes to the goal-setting process, we love the beginning and the end. 

We have tons of energy and enthusiasm in the beginning. In a way, it almost feels like the early stages of a new romance. You can’t wait to work on your goal. You think about it every day. You even wake up bright and early to be with this goal.

But then, once the reality of hard work and commitment sets in, and the novelty fades away, our excitement begins to wane. 

On the flip side, we love the end of a goal. The end is the finish line. The victory. The new job promotion. The finished manuscript. The healthy meals on the table. The end is so alluring--it’s what inspires us to embark on the goal in the first place. 

But it’s the middle that’s tough. In the middle stage, we drag our heels, procrastinate, moan and groan, and make up excuses to avoid doing any of the work. I’ll get to it tomorrow. I can’t go for a run today because I’m tired. I don’t feel like writing today because writing is hard. 

The middle is when most people throw in the towel. We quit, and then we initiate new goals, only to quit halfway through again, and restart this vicious cycle. 

How can we push through the middle so that we can finally make it to the end on the things that matter most to us?

If you’ve been suffering from procrastination and you’re tired of moaning and groaning, don’t fret. There are real and practical ways to get through the middle. From blasting through mental blocks to outlining action steps, here are tried-and-true techniques you can use to move through the middle and finally make it across the finish line. 

Take a look at the middle

Before we set out to cross the finish line, we need to examine the landscape of our goal, and in particular, the middle stage. It’s kind of like when runners walk around a track before running a big race. We need to get the lay of the land before we can set out to win. 

According to writer Jude King, the lull in the middle stages of working on a goal happens because of the concept of near mode vs distant mode. When we’re in the early stages of our goal, we’re still in distant mode--the hard work seems so abstract and far away, and everything is full of promise and wonder.

But when we actually start putting in the work to write or work out, we’re now in near-mode--we see the blood, sweat, and tears up close. When we start going for a run or waking up early to write, we realize Wow this is hard and I do not like it! 

When we begin to feel the pain and labor of pursuing our goal, the finish line seems to recede, disappearing into the distance. 

According to King, the key to getting over the middle is to acknowledge that the hard part exists and that you need to make peace with it.  

So when you’re setting out to achieve a goal, make sure to take some time to reflect on the obstacles and challenges you may encounter. Tell yourself, “I know this might be hard. But it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

Stick with it and you'll be able to gain sight of the finish line once again.

Creative projects have a U Shape

If you’re struggling to finish a creative goal, you might take comfort in the concept of “The U shape.”

In her book Art Inc, a career guide for artists, illustrator and writer Lisa Congdon describes the creative process as having a U shape and that we need to push past the bottom of the U shape so that we can reach the top of the U. This concept really resonated with me and I think it definitely applies to the goal setting process as well. 

Congdon says: “Things look clean and wonderful in the beginning. But as you develop a piece of work, it often gets messier; that is the bottom of the painting curve...the point at which we think our work is horrible or awkward--is critical to making good work. Working through the complexities of a piece to the point where it looks and feels wonderful again--rising back up to the top of the U--helps develop your technique as well as your unique voice.”

Ironically, it is the very challenges that arise during the goal setting process that ultimately define us and make us better. If we can just keep going through the bottom of the U, we can eventually reach the top of the curve and be better for it.

Brainstorm solutions for possible challenges

Now that we know that the middle is tough and that we have to get through it, we also have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable obstacles and roadblocks. By measuring potential obstacles, we can then put plans in place to help us stay on track.  

Instead of being caught off guard by roadblocks and challenges, make a list of possible things that could derail your goal. Then, brainstorm possible solutions to these challenges. 

If you have a fitness goal, what are possible roadblocks you will face?

Acknowledge that there will be days when you won’t feel like working out. Maybe you can come up with a mantra to encourage yourself to get out there. Or maybe you can create a less intense version of your work out for those days when you’re not feeling 100 percent. 

If your goal is to eat more healthy meals, then have a plan in place for those days when you don’t feel like cooking or for stressful days when all you want is comfort food. Maybe it means having a healthy alternative for a comfort meal. Or maybe it means finding a way to encourage yourself to get back on track the next day.

By taking into account these potential challenges and setbacks in advance, you’ll be better prepared to face them head on should they arise. 

Make a list of people who inspire you 

If you’re finding it hard to get back on track with a goal, make a list of people who inspire you. These people could be relevant to your goal or just people who inspire you in general.

So if you’re trying to achieve a running goal, maybe it’s a list of marathon runners or Olympic athletes. Or if you’re trying to achieve a writing goal, make a list of your favorite writers. 

Later, read an article about them or watch an interview or read their memoir. Write down your favorite passages or quotes that strike a chord with you.

Then, the next time that you feel resistance to your goal, go back to the articles that you read or refer to your favorite quotes. Use these passages to motivate you to push through and keep going. 

Channel your inner athlete and focus on one point at a time

When a sports team is falling behind and losing a match, they don’t give up in the middle of the game and walk out of the field. Instead, they try to focus on one point at a time.

Our goals may not be televised and played in front of millions of spectators, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold ourselves accountable and follow through on our goals. 

So the next time you fear that you’ve fallen way off course with a goal or if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t quit. Instead, remind yourself to focus on one step at a time. 

What is one single task you can focus on? Don’t think about the mountain you have to climb, focus on putting one foot in front of the other. If it’s a fitness goal, just do five jumping jacks. Just run for five minutes. Take out your planner and write down little action steps that you can do today, right now to get closer to your goal. 

Even phenomenal athletes like Serena Williams encounter a string of bad days and matches. When she’s falling behind in a match, she reminds herself that she has nothing to lose and then she shifts her attitude to focus on one point at a time. 

Ironically, it is when we fall behind that we can give ourselves the mental push we need to persevere. You have nothing to lose, so you might as well keep going.

The challenges that we face and the setbacks that we experience actually make us stronger and better in the end. If we just have faith and keep going, not only will we persevere and accomplish our goal, but we’ll become better from the experience.

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