The Real Reason You Haven’t Finished That Project

We’ve all had experiences, particularly over the last few weeks, when we attempted to start a new project but struggled to make progress and complete it. However, the reason we haven’t completed that project isn’t because we are lazy, unmotivated, or didn’t have the time. The real reason is because of a sneaky little affliction called perfectionism.

Over the last few weeks, I had two different friends, both of whom are entrepreneurs, decide to use this time to finally get a new website launched for their business. The problem is, each of them had been kicking around this idea for months and still had nothing to show for it. The problem wasn’t their motivation, their abilities, or that they were too busy. Rather, perfectionism was preventing them from making progress. Perfectionism was causing them to get distracted by all the potential details and decisions that could be made in the process of creating a website. In the end this lack of focus prevented them from making the progress they needed to reach their goal, which was to simply launch a website.

In order to combat the sneaky effects of perfectionism, we can use two main techniques that will turn that perfectionism into progress. The first approach is to clarify your goals and redefine what “success” looks like. The second technique is to break down the project into smaller stages.

Gaining Clarity

Often we try to create overly complicated solutions that actually prevent us from reaching our goal. We lose sight of why we are undertaking the project and what we are trying to achieve. This causes us to build out features or solutions that do not actually help us achieve our goals and actively prolong the timeline of our projects.

In the case of my friends working on their respective websites, each was trying to build out an extremely comprehensive website. When I asked them why they actually needed the website, they said they just needed something to show prospective clients to prove they were a real business. At this stage, they were not trying to build a website to attract or convert strangers to do business with them. I pushed my friends a bit further with my coaching questions by asking them, “Given your clarified goal, what is the minimum information you need to provide to meet that goal?”

The first question is about clarifying (and re-clarifying) your goals. We often create beautiful and clever solutions to problems we weren’t trying to solve. Solve the right problems! For my friends, they wanted a website so that they could convert warm leads into paying clients. Given that goal, all they really needed was some basic information, that looked professional, and without major grammatical mistakes and spelling errors. In the future, as their business expands they may need additional pages and information to convert cold leads, but that isn’t necessarily the case right now.

This leads us to the second question. Given what you just said are your goals, can you re-evaluate your requirements for completion and your definition of success? What does the most basic version of the product look like? In the startup and engineering worlds, they refer to this as the MVP, or Minimum Viable Product. The idea is to get some version of the product, a version that is functional and without obvious flaws, out to market as quickly as possible.

The MVP also implies that there will be future updates. This means you do not need to stress about getting every feature in there immediately. What can be completed later, once the product is actually launched? What information can we collect in the early stages that will help us build a better version in the later stages? This leads us into our second technique to combat perfectionism, which is to break down the project into phases.

Breaking It Down

Sometimes even when we are clear on the goal, we still struggle to make progress because we find the end goal so daunting. We start to get overwhelmed with all the details and decisions that need to be made or we start to criticize our ideas before we even act on them. The end result is the same in that we become paralyzed by our anxiety and we continue to spin our wheels without ever declaring the project as complete. In order to overcome that anxiety and prevent ourselves from trying to go from start to finish in one shot, you need to create mini-goals and a phased approach.

One benefit of breaking down the project into smaller phases is the ability to collect feedback that may influence a later phase. This process, similar to the action-research model used in change management theory, enables us to easily incorporate newly learned information which then influences and changes the approach in the next stage. Once the product is out there, you can then evaluate in real-time what is working, what isn’t working, and what is really needed next. You will often find that the end solution you were going to build is no longer the right solution.

For instance, say you launch a small beta program for a new product instead of waiting a few more months until the final bells and whistles are completed. Through this beta program you may learn that features you originally thought were important and were planning to build are not actually valued by the customer. As a result, you can eliminate those features from the next phase and replace them with a new feature. This information only becomes apparent through the actual testing of the product with real customers.

Another interesting application of this approach is detailed in an article about overcoming writer’s block. Written by Professor Betty S. Flowers, the article is called “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge”. Writer’s block is usually caused not by a lack of ideas, but by criticizing your pages before they are even written. To combat this, you break the writing process into four distinct stages as outlined by Flowers. Stage 1 is the Madman phase where you just get words down on paper. Next, the Architect starts to create sense out of the Madman by moving the best ideas into organized sections. Then the Carpenter comes in and starts to create coherent sentences. The last stage is the Judge which is when you correct grammatical mistakes and details. Usually, we start to jump into the Carpenter or Judge stage at the same time we are trying to get our ideas down. These phases compete with each other and that conflict results in shutting down our thinking and creativity.

This idea that we criticize our ideas before we’ve even written them applies to all types of work and helps explain why we can’t get our project off the ground. The other day I even used this approach with a client to help them write an important email they had been pushing off. We started by just writing down their thoughts as I assured them we would edit it before we sent the email. Then once the thoughts were written, they were then organized more effectively, sentences were restructured to be more clear and concise, and then we finally checked for any grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and added some formatting as needed. By breaking down the process and not allowing my client to critique themself as they attempted to write, they were able to finally complete the task.

So what does this mean for you? Is there a project you have been working on that you just haven’t had a chance to complete? If so, ask yourself whether you need to redefine what “complete” means. See if redefining what success looks like or breaking down the project into multiple phases will enable you to move towards the finish line. This new approach can apply both to personal projects, such as building a vegetable garden, and work projects, such as launching a new service offering. If you break the project down into various phases and evolutions, you can get the project off the ground a lot quicker and learn a lot more along the way.

If you need some assistance staying organized and focused on your key tasks to complete your project, try using The Daily Planner I created. It’s free to download the digital version of the planner. Get your copy here.

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Jess Wass

Jess Wass

Jess Wass is a Career Coach & OD Consultant with a Masters in Org Psych focused on helping people achieve with intention. Check me out at www.jesswass.com.