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How to Start Finishing Your Most Important Projects

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As entrepreneurs, as business owners, and as people, distractions and interruptions get in the way of doing our best work every single day.


There are fires to be put out, emails to be answered, and dozens of other obligations to be managed in our business and personal lives. At the end of the day, it’s far too easy to have gone another workday just skimming along the surface instead of diving deep into the work that makes us thrive.


Showing up and pushing important work through to completion is hard.


As a coach, I have the privilege of seeing the to-do lists of a lot of entrepreneurs and leaders. I’ve noticed a trend: many of the items on those to-do lists don’t actually tie into the things that matter most to people. And the ones that do? They stay on that to-do list week after week.


Doing your best work – and finishing your projects – is what creates value and revenue in your business. It’s what creates meaning in your life.


Are you ready to start finishing? It requires a few mindset shifts.


Rethink your priorities


As a business owner or entrepreneur, you should have the freedom to do the work that matters most, right? But there’s a problem. Along with the demands of running a business comes outside pressures that can pull you away from your best work.


On one hand, it can feel selfish to block out distractions when your employees, customers, and family are asking things of you. On the other, market demands and outside expectations can clash with your strategic vision.


It’s like Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said they wanted faster horses.” Instead of letting his priorities be set by other people’s imaginations, he went about solving people’s transportation problem with his own version of success: the Ford Model T.


When we let other people and expectations set our priorities, we rob the world of our own unique contributions. When we do the work that makes us come alive – that’s tied to our identities and dreams and strengths – we’re planting a tree that feeds ourselves as well as others.


Rethink your relationship with time


We all constantly underestimate how long projects will take, which means we overestimate our capacity to take on work.


This leads to a few common scenarios. When you underestimate projects time and time again, you become prone to cascades (where late projects push the next project off its timeline) and log jams (where piled-up deadlines halt forward progress). When you overcommit to projects, you can get stuck in a tar pit, where you feel like you can’t let go of a project but can’t seem to find the momentum to get it done.


The reality is that time is finite. We can’t change how much time we have, but we can change how we use that time.


I recommend using my Five Project Rule to keep commitments under control. In any given slice of time – whether you’re talking about month-sized projects, week-sized projects, or quarter-sized projects – you can do only do up to five.


If you have too many projects (and don’t we all), I recommend putting them through what I call a “project cage match.” Really evaluate the strength and pull of each project and be honest with yourself about which should come out on top. Those are the projects you should pursue.


In a world that is so focused on how much we do and how busy we are, we often miss these truly important projects. When it comes down to it, finishing fewer things – especially those that matter most and help us thrive – is where true success lies.


Rethink how you approach your work


Once you know your priorities and have a realistic idea of what you can accomplish, you need to approach doing your best work in the best way possible.


Distractions and interruptions are a constant battle we have to fight. With smartphones, tablets, the Internet, and social media we are constantly interrupted or distracted – and there’s a big difference between the two.


  • Interruptions happen to Your kid comes running in and jumps on your lap, or you get an urgent phone call, or someone knocks on your office door.
  • Distractions are things we allow ourselves to do. YouTube doesn’t walk into your office and tug on your shirt. Facebook doesn’t knock on your door. We choose those distractions over our work.


Every time you leave the zone of your best work to deal with something else, it takes a while to get back to what you were doing. The good news is you have the control to eliminate the source of distraction or block the entry point of interruptions. You can unplug the Wi-Fi or go to a coffee shop. You can turn off your notifications so that only urgent ones get through.


You can choose to treat your best work with the respect it deserves.


Only you can do this work


Your business idea, your book, your art, your invention – you are here to make a contribution that will benefit everyone around you.


Your work and your contributions are unique, but one thing I often see holding people back is the head trash around their being uniquely defective. They think, “This strategy might work for someone else, but it won’t work for me because I’ve got this unique disadvantage. I’m not a planner, I’m not a creative person or a salesperson, or an extrovert.”


I’m not, I’m not, I’m not.


Once we dislodge the idea that we can’t do the work, we can step into our unique contributions. Our unique values. Our unique successes.


Remember: you don’t create remarkable businesses by doing okay work. You create remarkable businesses by doing your best work, showing up, and creating something that is worth talking about.


Now go and start finishing.


About This Author
Charlie Gilkey is the founder of Productive Flourishing, a company that helps professional creatives, leaders, and changemakers take meaningful action on work that matters. He is the author of The Small Business Life Cycle and Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done, and is widely cited in outlets such as Inc., Time, Forbes, the Guardian, Lifehacker, and more. He’s also an Army veteran and near-PhD in philosophy. He lives with his wife, Angela, in Portland, Oregon.