Here’s something for you to try.
Run a mental check of all your deep work tasks in the last month. Deep work tasks mean those that need anywhere from three days to a week or more.
Maybe you wanted to dust off your CV to apply for a new job. Or learn a new skill which will help you climb the corporate ladder.
Maybe you wanted to work on a side project. Or set up a startup. Maybe you wanted to learn the guitar. Or go on a two-week vacation to your favorite destination. (Okay, the last one is not a ‘task’, but what the heck.)
You most probably have quite a few deep work tasks on that list. But most of them are half done.
Are you one of those types? Don’t worry, it’s not just you. So am I. In fact, every person on the face of God’s green earth is ‘one of those types.’
We joined the guitar class. We began working on the side project. Or, we signed up for classes with that prominent writer to become a better writer. Or, we applied at a couple of job openings because didn’t feel satisfied with our current one.
We planned extensively, crossing every ’t’ and dotting every ‘i’. And we started. In the beginning, it felt so good!
Then, we did something we hate. But we did it anyway.
We quit. After 3 guitar classes, after 2 weeks of hard work on the project. Maybe we never attended the writing class despite paying the fees upfront. And we stopped applying for more jobs when we didn’t hear from the recruiters at the two openings.
We set 10-mile goals in our minds. But we gave up even before walking a mile.
Why can’t we see an important and useful task through to a meaningful end?
There are three common reasons. How many of these apply to you?
a. We underestimate the time and effort.
About six months ago, I started working on a business modeling project with a client. To finish it, we had to complete nine in-depth steps. We moved fast to the third step. The client said, “This won’t take too long to finish.”
It’s been four months since, and we’ve just progressed to the fifth step.
What happened? The client turned optimistic about the time it would take to complete the task, and pessimistic about his own effort.
Most of us overestimate our abilities and underestimate the effort a task needs. We drag the task on and on with no visible progress.
The result? We quit out of sheer boredom or frustration.
b. We feel our work won't matter.
I’ve been dragging my feet on an eBook for over two months.
When I began, the eBook felt like a terrific idea. I thought readers would love it since was on a topic that many people struggle with.
But as time went by, I began to wonder whether people would want to read it. After all, there are better resources out there. And I almost quit.
Every day, millions of people abandon tasks which present tremendous possibilities.
The almost-finished novel, the almost-closed business deal, the almost-launched product. The guy who almost asked the girl on a third date.
Why? Because we’re afraid.
Of rejection, because others might not like what we offer.
Of what people will say if we fail.
Or ironically, of what they’ll expect if we succeed. What if we can’t do it again?
So we take the easy way out. We quit.
c. We don't track our progress.
I’m a proponent of process over goals. But focusing on just the process is like sprinting through marathon because you don’t know where the finish line is. You’re bound to fall by the wayside.
When you don’t have clear, specific goals, you feel uncertain.
When you don’t track where you stand against where you want to be, you feel uncertain.
Our mind hates uncertainty and craves clarity. We love advertisements which carry clear messages. We love talking to clear thinkers. We love buying creams that promise us clear skin. Clarity brings certainty.
When you don’t find clarity, you eventually quit. It’s your way of putting an end to the much-deplored uncertainty.
Why You Can't Afford to Quit
“Alright, Vishal. You’ve made your point. Now give me one good reason not to quit.”
How about three?
a. To move forward.
Sometimes, starting over is good. It makes you return to the roots to get better.
But other times, the sheer thought of starting over is exhausting. To have to do it all over again when it didn’t work the last time around.
Thank you, but no thank you.
To get better, you don’t need talent or hard work. You need momentum. And you can’t build momentum if keep quitting and starting over. You must move forward.
b. To stay unique.
The current educational system makes each of us feel like we’re just like everyone else. Like we’re all vehicles on an assembly line.
But you’re much more.
You’re a combination of eclectic skills, habits, thoughts, and beliefs. Your abilities are endless. There’s nobody like you. And that, my friend, is the truth!
If you’re unique, then what you offer is unique also. Maybe not the whole world, but at least a small part needs what you bring to the table. For that reason alone, it’s worth not giving up.
c. To die peacefully.
What do you want to remember on your deathbed?
That you were a ‘serial give-upper’? (h/t Kaylia Dunstan for the term)
Or that you tried, failed, tried again and succeeded?
You won’t live forever. In fact, with the myriad of distractions around, the time you have for doing what truly matters is even lesser.
So do your future self a favor. Stop giving up. Die in peace when the time comes.
How to Save Yourself From The Plague of Quitting
You know why you quit. You also know why you shouldn’t.
Now comes the next logical question.
What should you do to stop quitting? Here are four effective steps that are easy to follow.
a. Stop thinking "this is over."
I’ve found a pattern in my unfinished tasks. Most of them are half-done.
I have a theory to explain this.
Half-done tasks make me feel like it won’t take long to complete them (like the client I mentioned earlier). My subconscious mind sends the conscious mind a signal saying, “This is over. Don’t worry about it.”
The result? I put them in the ‘will-do-later’ list.
But ‘later’ never comes. Or it comes after so long that I don’t feel like working on the task anymore, which is a shame.
Here’s how I avoid this underestimation-overestimation bias.
When I realize that I’m ignoring an important task, I remind myself of the goal. I check how far I am from that goal and make a list of actions I must take to achieve it. Then I get to work, step by step.
When you find yourself ignoring an incomplete task, take a step back. Note down how much work remains and set deadlines for each of them. This brings clarity to your mind. And we’ve already discussed how much your mind loves clarity.
No task is ever really over. There’s always something more you can do, something more you can learn.
But this has a flip side.
Telling yourself that a task is never over can suck you into a dangerous trap — the trap of never putting your work out there.
How will you avoid that? By making sure you put your work out there.
b. Ship when you're almost satisfied.
I’ve been dragging my feet on an eBook for over two months. Each time I go through the draft, I feel tempted to add something. An interesting anecdote or statistic I found in the previous week, or a new concept which readers might find useful.
But here’s the thing.
I keep wanting to add something more because I want my work to be ‘perfect’. And perfection has one elementary flaw — it doesn’t exist.
If perfection doesn’t exist, you’re chasing a rainbow unicorn. The result? You’ll never put your work out there. It’ll always like half-done.
There’ll always be many others who’ve already done what you want to do. And they’ve done it better. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying and learning. Just like it shouldn’t stop me.
So I’ve made up my mind. I’ll publish my eBook when I’m 70 percent satisfied. The parts where I feel I can add more stuff? I’ll let them be as they are.
Ship your work when it’s almost perfect. Give it to people you’ve made it for. Then collect feedback from your audience and experts with skin in the game.
This feedback offers two life-changing advantages.
One, it highlights what you didn’t get right. Maybe you prioritized something that was petty for your audience. Maybe what you thought was petty actually resonated with them. Feedback makes you look at your work through the eyes of those who matter — your audience.
Two, it makes you want to try again. You never feel “done.” You want to give the action another shot. You try to improve. If you succeed, you feel on top of the world. If you don’t, you try to figure out another way.
Either way, you level up.
Feedback is important after you ship your work. And shipping your work is important if you want to complete it.
c. Go nuts about the process.
I’ve met people who wanted to lose twenty kilos in five months to look good at a relative’s wedding. Amazingly, they lost sixteen kilos. But in the following months, they put on ten kilos again.
I’ve also met people who showed tremendous improvement in test scores for a semester. But in the next sem, they were back to languishing at the bottom of the class.
Do you know why?
Because they never enjoyed the process. It was merely a means to an end which they achieved (or didn’t). Now, they don’t feel like carrying on.
Think about the last time you were hyper-productive in office. It probably was when a crucial deadline loomed overhead when everyone was ‘fire-fighting’ (God I hate that term). You focused hard. Distractions didn’t stand a chance. But when the deadline passed, you reverted to your old, distracted self in no time.
Because you focused only on the outcome — the task or the deadline.
Most people commit the same mistake. The focus on the outcome and not the process. Not just internal outcomes, but external too. What will people say if their work is not good? What’ll happen if they fail?
So they don’t even make it to the starting grid of the race. Or they retire after the first pit stop.
But achievers do the exact opposite. They fall in love with the process which, in turn, rewards them handsomely.
In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp shares her process of getting to the gym every day. She wakes up at 5:30, hails a taxi and tells the cabbie where she wants to go. For her, the process is to hail a cab. By the time she gets in one, it’s too late for her to choose between the gym and her cozy bed.
When I don’t feel like going to work, I just focus on reaching my motorbike. After that, I have no choice but to fire her up, drop a gear and get on my way.
Enjoy the process. You’ll keep improving at what you do without even knowing it. With time, what appears difficult today will turn into your warm up.
d. Quit while you're ahead.
Wait a minute, Vishal. Isn’t this article about not quitting. And here you are, saying I should quit when things are going well? I mean, jeez! Aren’t you a walking, talking contradiction!
Okay. Don’t take ‘quit’ literally here.
Sometimes people work so hard that they burn up their energy. They have nothing left in the tank when they must return to the task.
You know what happens next, right? Yup. They quit.
The key to finish tasks which require more than a few hours is to conserve your energy. Ernest Hemingway did it by stopping to write when he knew what he wanted to write next. He felt this was as good as making love to someone you love. It made him feel empty but never empty at the same time. He couldn’t wait to get back to his writing the next day.
Einstein would play his violin. Steve Reich would enjoy a cup of tea or run an errand. Ryan Holiday goes on long walks.
To conserve your energy, walk away from your task at a crucial junction the next time. Apply your mind elsewhere. This’ll make you look forward to working on the task again. The result is momentum. And with momentum on your side, no goal is out of reach.
As I write this part, I know what the conclusion will be. But I’ll stop and return to it tomorrow. Right now, I’ll get other work done and hit the gym after. In the meantime, I’ll toss the conclusion around in my head. Let’s see how it turns out.
Bringing it Home
I mentioned I want to publish an eBook. Yes, I haven’t stuck to it like clockwork, but I’ve made significant progress. Enough to publish it within a week or two. I’m much closer to my goal than I was three months ago.
Here’s what you can do to get closer to yours.
Simply set three goals for yourself to achieve in the next six months. Make your daily to-do lists revolve around them. Keep working on the process with your eyes on the prize, and ship when you’re 70 percent ready. Then collect feedback and improve the next time around.
This is how you level up each time you take action.
This is how you become familiar with the feeling of delight after achieving a goal. The feeling is like no other. It makes you believe in yourself. It brings out the best in you.
This is how you train yourself to keep going when you feel like giving up.
You are enough. And the only person who can prove it to you is yourself.
Thanks for reading.
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