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Why Can’t I Finish?

Having difficulty completing a bold, creative project? We look at how to diagnose and conquer your fear of finishing…

They can only hide it from me for so long: Sometimes it takes a day, a week, or maybe a month—but eventually it comes out. The Fear of Finishing.

As a time management life coach, I’ve found that many of my clients have a dread of finishing that they keep hidden away—hoping that no one will ever notice that they get a lot of little things done while never quite completing the really important stuff.Whether it’s due to a rabid perfectionism, an aversion to criticism, or just an inability to maintain enthusiasm for the long haul, we all have challenges and fears we must overcome to produce work that matters. But pretending they don’t exist won’t get us anywhere.

Here’s a guide to diagnosing and treating what I’ve found to be four of the most common barriers to completion:

1. If You Believe Nothing Can Ever Really Be Good Enough to Be Finished

The mental battle: When you’re convinced that “settling” for anything less than a perfect-quality product is unacceptable, you tend to unconsciously lower your standards in many other areas. This could include missing deadlines, falling behind on other responsibilities and feeling stressed all the time.

What to do: Evaluate your overall performance. To clarify the cost of trying to do everything “ideally,” make a list of what else could suffer (sleep, relationships, emotional state?). Then, when you feel tempted to push closure off in the relentless pursuit of perfection, look at this list for a reminder to stop.

Here’s the kind of thought process that breaks the tunnel vision: I could stay up until 4 a.m. doing tweaks that no one else will notice, but then I’ll be useless for the next two days. Instead, I’m going to get the entire project to good enough and then give myself permission to obsess over the kerning of the characters in the logo until 8 p.m. (I want to be really proud of my typography.) Then, I’m stopping. Pushing myself to work later isn’t worth the cost to my health and overall productivity.

Perfectionism can cause you to unconsciously lower your standards in other areas.

2. If Finishing Seems Like You’re Closing Off Options

The mental battle: When you feel constrained instead of liberated by the idea of finishing, crossing an item off your list can feel terrifying: What if you want to change your mind later? What if some new alternative arises? Unfortunately if you allow your fear of commitment to keep you from wrapping up your current work, you keep yourself from moving forward on new options by default.

What to do: Write a post-game plan. As soon as hesitation to finish starts to set in, you need to clarify the exact steps to complete the project and to pass seamlessly through to new opportunities. Brainstorming all of the possibilities that will open up once you move on from your current work will help you see that finishing actually creates new beginnings.  For instance, an entrepreneur could start a list of investors to show his finished business plan. A writer could research agents who could pitch her completed book proposal to publishers. And an artist could find out the call for entry deadlines for exhibitions that could feature his latest series.

As soon as hesitation to finish starts to set in, clarify the exact steps to complete the project.

3. If You Lose Excitement Before Finishing A Project

The mental battle: Abandoning projects at 20%, 75%, or even 99U done adds up to 0% benefit. When you feel like giving up on a project because you’ve lost your enthusiasm, think about all of the effort that you’ve already put into it that you would have to exert again if you started fresh. Then imagine the (relatively) small amount of work required to drive your existing creative effort into the end zone.

What to do: Partner with persistent people. If you struggle with maintaining the energy to finish, individuals who insist (sometimes to the point of annoying you) on pushing through can be your greatest allies. Scheduled accountability and transparency gives you positive peer pressure to keep at it when your initial energy wanes.

Here’s how to make it a part of your routine: Break down your project into actionable, written goals such as: read the requirements, make note of important points, ask the client questions, etc. Then tell someone who prides themselves on follow through exactly what you will do and when.This could look like you having a daily or weekly accountability meeting where you list off your progress, or it could look like you making a commitment to call or send an email with a status report when you hit a deadline.

For instance: On August 16, I will email my extremely detail-oriented friend to let him know that I’ve completed the rendering of the first architectural model. Because he’s super reliable, he’ll follow up with me if I don’t give him an update.

Scheduled accountability and transparency gives you positive peer pressure to keep at it when your initial energy wanes.

4. If Finishing Feels Like Submitting Yourself to Criticism

The mental battle: Fear of judgment can keep you from turning in an assignment. But if you hide your work for too long, you deprive yourself of receiving valuable feedback and open yourself up to criticism for not delivering on time or for veering off track.

What to do: Reframe the situation or conversation. If you feel like your external success determines your internal worth, you will see the results of each new project as a judgment of your value as a human being. To help you overcome that mindset, you can say to yourself: I am a good______(graphic designer, writer, etc.). If they don’t like the first draft I submit, I am not a failure. I need to step back from the situation, clarify what they want changed, think about how I can implement their suggestions, make the adjustments, turn it in again and move on.

Or if you don’t mind receiving feedback but need it communicated in a certain way, consider talking with your boss, co-workers, or even clients about how to constructively give their input. For instance, you could request that you initially receive comments via -mail before a meeting so you have the opportunity to process them before responding. Or you could say something like: I really appreciate it when you let me know you feel unsatisfied with a presentation. But it would help me to meet your needs if you could clarify what specific changes you want me to make instead of just telling me that you’re unhappy with what I showed you.


Victory shall be yours: With the right approach, you can push through to 100%.

How About You?

Do you have a fear of finishing?

Have you identified the root cause? How have you overcome it?

More Posts by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at

Comments (91)
  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent self awareness Marc-

    You’ve discovered the value of strategy number 3–consistent accountability and encouragement.

    Simply knowing that someone will ask about what we’ve done is a huge motivation–positive peer pressure to help us do what we want to do.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Mal Williamson

    That has really helped me instantly! Brilliant.

    I have found it very effective with media & creative students to say that excellence is the enemy of the good.  Because an excellent project depends on an excellent client!  And a good budget, some happy accidents, industry acceptance, route to market…. a host of factors which are all out of your control. Be good – good is good enough.  Thanks, Mal – Creator Coach

  • Dennyengster

    Amazing Article!!! This whole time I thought I was just a lazy ass! Every single point made was so true. I have been struggling with getting things done but now I know why. Thank you so much for this post!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Yes-great work is still important, but not at the neglect of everything else…

    Each project gives you the opportunity to decide what’s “perfect enough” now.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    So glad that my post helped you uncover some of your hidden obstacles to success!

    To your  brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Guest

    Yes I do.
    No I haven’t.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Hi David-
    Hopefully my descriptions of the “mental battles” will help you start to uncover what’s going on below the surface.

    If you’re still struggling for answers, feel free to reach out to me.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Bad Spoon

    Thanks for this great article, Elizabeth!

    Do you have any cross-concepts to help deal with combinations of these different points? I face a mix of #1, #2, #4 & a bit of #3 too, and I really don’t feel like I’m the only one.

  • Krista Stryker

    Wow, great article, Elizabeth!

    I think this is something that most people can relate to in some way – including myself! 

    I really liked how you broke down the barriers into the four steps, and gave specific actions to get over those barriers and actually finish. Very helpful!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    You’re welcome! Thanks for the positive feedback!

    I definitely know that you’re not the only one facing challenges in multiple areas. The struggles are the same world over 🙂

    As to cross-concepts, what I’ve found is that you need to experiment with implementing different combinations of strategies until you get the desired results.

    For you, that could mean practicing the mental affirmations, writing up a game plan and then having someone follow up with you for encouragement and accountability.

    As an expert time coach, I help with direction, tools and accountability that clients then test until they find just the right formula for success.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Dan Peck

    Focus on finnishing by having some DigitalSilence! detech for 3 hours and get stuff done!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Thanks Krista!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    If you can engage in digital silence and still complete your work, it’s a great way to get projects finished.

    I find that I definitely get the most reading done of complete books instead of just online content when I’m “unplugged.”

    Have an awesome weekend!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Bad Spoon

    Thanks for your answer, Elizabeth!

    I’ll definitely try to combine different strategies, and let you know about how it goes.

    Have a beautiful week-end

  • Aaron Evans

    These are all symptoms, not the actual problem. I guess I’m just a quitter.

  • Cale Barnett

    Thanks for this! I’ve known for ages that I suffer from nearly all of the above but it’s helpful even just to know that I’m not the only one.

    One technique I use to overcome procrastination is constantly keep in mind my end goal (and I dont just mean for my current project but my whole creative life ‘dream’ I guess). Once that becomes a priority in my mind, it’s easier to put away distractions such as internet, video games or just general time wasting. 

    I also find it MUCH easier to stay creative, rather than try to be creative from time to time. What I mean is once I have gotten involved in something I make it a constant (at least daily) thing. Almost like turning my creativity into a habit, rather than singular projects.

  • Bad Spoon

    Interesting tips, Cale, I use the 2nd for production flow, but never tried it for creative ones. Can’t wait trying to adapt the concept. Thanks!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Hi Aaron-

    Just to clarify, the premise was that the problem was finishing and then each point was a specific reason that finishing was such a problem.

    Does that make more sense?

    All the best,
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent points Cale!

    It is very motivating to think about how this little (possibly uncomfortable) activity fits into the giant compelling vision for your future.

    Yes! Daily habits are great for incorporating the important into your life.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Jill Christ

    Elizabeth, thank you for your great insight in this area. Lately I’ve been asking myself, “Why can’t I get to bed early?”  Would you say that if someone consistently has trouble getting to bed early, they may have a fear of “finishing their day?”

    Here’s my theory:  As a marathon runner, I need to wake up early to get
    my runs in before work. This means I *should* go to bed early. I keep wanting to stay up late to blog, read
    articles, catch up on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I only get 5-6
    hours of sleep, and then wake up feeling groggy. My workouts feel terrible too! However, your post helped me see this in a new light. Instead of focusing on having a “perfect day,” we should set ourselves up for a perfect *start to our day*.  At 10pm, if I let go of everything else I wanted to do that day, I have seen tremendous benefits:

    …waking up on time
    …feeling refreshed
    …having great runs
    …getting to work on time
    …getting more done at work

    Thank you again for your insight! I’d love to know what you think!

  • sportslive
  • SiegfriedSchell

    Perfect is the enemy of done.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Great thoughts Jill! Thank you for sharing.

    Yes-many people have a “fear” of ending their day because they haven’t accomplished everything they would like to have done.

    Here are some of the methods that have been most effective for helping my clients get to bed earlier:

    -Having realistic expectations of how much you can do in a day/fit in an evening: We take time to estimate how long each activity will take and often times discover that people felt like they “should” fit in 20 hours of activity into 16-17 hours of awake time. Adjusting their expectations to fit reality helps with feeling comfortable and accomplished at the end of the evening.

    -Making time for fun activities: Often times things like blogging, reading articles or updating social media can seem like “low priorities.” But if they are activities you really enjoy or want to do, it’s important to make time for them. Instead of assuming you can fit in these tasks at the end of the day, schedule some time before 10 pm to indulge in social media–without guilt.

    -Developing a custom bedtime routine: Just like children, adults do best with a bedtime routine! Here’s a blog post with a sample routine that I developed for a client who also wanted to get up earlier to exercise:

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • azroberts


    Like most people here, I can really relate to this.

    Struggling to train for my next marathon while trying to manage a
    fulltime job + have some sort of life outside of this. There’s never
    enough hours in the day to do everything, yet despite my best efforts to
    be efficient and productive, there’s always that feeling of digging a
    hole in sand – there’s always more work to do. And I’m never satisfied with the result.

    Setting realistic expectations of good enough vs perfect &  what I can do in a one day without
    repeatedly hitting burn-out is a big part of the learning curve I’m on
    right now.

    Thanks for the article,

  • Cathy Presland

    I’m definitely in #3 – but I know this, I’ve known it for years. It’s taken me at least some of those years to accept that this is how I am instead of battling with it. And I do exactly as you suggest – usually I try and delegate or have a team around me who can take my brilliant ( 😉 ) ideas and turn them into reality.

    Great tips Elizabeth, thanks for the article.


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