The Art of Not Finishing

The Art of Not Finishing

I’ve been preoccupied with how unproductive I’ve been lately…until recently, when I realized that the road to productivity isn’t the same road that I’m on. The road to productivity is paved with clear steps leading to an act of completion; essentialy, it’s finish what you start. However, as I sit here contemplating the rather large list of difficult-to-break-down tasks I’ve given myself, I’m thinking that there might be another approach. That is to relax and not worry about finishing. Or, perhaps, restart constantly. This is a way of not worrying about the result you want, and focusing on what you are doing right now. When practiced with honest intent, it’s possible that this approach will lead to the same destination: a sense of accomplishment. It may not be so important that it is a specific accomplishment that I intended. I’m reminded of what I’ve read about agile software development, and more personally it reminds me of mastering my fighting style against best friend / arch nemesis Alen in the martial arts fighting game Tekken.

That Feeling of Accomplishment

The model of productivity I have for myself is not unlike the software development process I’m familiar with. The particular hacks I’ve applied to it are designed to ameliorate my particular foibles when it comes to motivation, definition, maintaining momentum, and reaping that feeling of fulfillment.

  • Motivation: A lot of my Printable CEO forms are designed around the idea creating tangible progress when it is otherwise intangible. For example, a lot of the forms count chunks of time, equating chunks accrued with actual accomplishment. The reason I did this is because long projects defer the sense of reward, and without some kind of sign that we’re actually making progress, our efforts will falter unless there is an overriding principle (e.g. duty, honor, love). Personally, I like to get feedback pretty instantly, because I’m an impatient person. Since I also work at home, I don’t get the low-level but constant stream of feedback that a team environment provides. People without managers (or with out-of-touch managers) are also in the same boat.

  • Definition: There are two kinds of projects that I have: projects with well-defined deliverables and expectations and those that, well, require definition. Project that require definition are almost always trouble, so when one of these bombs lands in your lap you actually need to spend a lot of time establishing assumptions and creating definitions that serve as the foundation of the project’s ultimate deliverable. If you know the deliverable and the desired result, so the reasoning goes, you can work backwards and figure out what to do to get there. This is a whole series of posts in itself because it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, but I think it’s safe to say that we never question the main supposition: there is a deliverable and an expected result. Otherwise, you’re just screwing around.

  • Momentum: In other words, getting it done. I was just scanning the Wikipedia entry on Agile Development and saw reference to the so-called Waterfall Model of software development, which on the surface is exactly what Management asked for: a sequential design-deploy-deliver process that is nice and tidy. I’m experienced enough to know that it’s difficult to predict exactly how it will come out or how long it will take. I make the best estimates I can, and discipline myself to push through the milestones so steady progress is made. If I’m smart, I also break down the steps into small-enough chunks so that a few can be done to completion every day, so theoretically I also have some way of measuring the rate of progress.

  • Fulfillment: This is what comes at the end of the process. You’re done! All that planning, working, slogging away every day to get to this point pays off. Or if it doesn’t, at least you’re no longer stuck doing it. You can count your chickens, collect your remaining marbles, and head home feeling like you’ve done something.

My education and work training has pretty much imprinted this approach on my brain, and it is second nature to me. However, I also have to admit that I really hate working this way. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a pretty impatient person, and for many years I suppressed this because the process works. Until I started blogging, I didn’t know that there was really another way of doing it. I enjoy free creation, which is probably why I like blogging and the ad-hoc projects that I come up with so much. It’s productive, but only in hindsight. Until now, this seemed acceptable to me only because I wasn’t doing “real work”; when the stakes are higher, productivity is supposed to produce results in the future. Actions are taken step-by-step, their results measured, assessed, and iterated through. While iteration is a built-in to the process, I think that there is still the stench of Waterfall embedded into it: we seek to optimize for minimum production time for maximum quality. This is a challenge, a burden, and a source of stress. What really matters to me is having that sense of fulfillment; in practical terms, it doesn’t matter how I get there. That’s what’s on my mind right now.

Walking The Path To an Unspecified Somewhere

Now, I’m not suggesting that we abandon professional conduct, especially while working within the bounds of established business expectations. Nevertheless, it’s occurring to me that for my personal business goals, I don’t need to adhere to the same standards. This is particularly true for me now, because I am open to all possibilities and am purposefully being vague about committing to any given path. Yes, I could very easily define a number of arbitrary business goals that would make perfect business sense given my demonstrated strengths and areas of expertise, but this is a trick that I don’t think will work without some kind of external moral commitment. In the absence of this, my natural values shape my activities:
  • I’m not driven by money, scale, or status.
  • I do, however, want respect, trust, a place in the community, and to be a contributor.
How to do this while retaining my independence (very important) and having enough money to create that situation is the challenge, and here’s where I get impatient again. The deliverable in this case is a state of being, not something tangible, concrete, or measurable. That’s because I’m measuring human values, and it’s hard to predict humans. Therefore, it’s difficult to optimize. Having said this, I’ve argued myself back into the corner: to achieve what I want, I do need to put in the effort to acquire money, scale, and status. Otherwise, it’s difficult to attract and to fund the situations where you can spend all your time meeting the right sort of people. The trick is to do it in a way that does not, as Tim Ferriss might say, make me a “life deferrer”, putting off the reward of being alive by trying to optimize for the future. Is there a way out?

Restart. A Lot. Maybe.

I am feeling a lot of internal resistance to this idea: don’t plan, do. I know I’ve seen this before. A lot. It bothers me. A lot. I don’t like not knowing what I’m going to do, but I have to admit that I don’t really know what I’m doing or exactly where I’m going. Therefore, there probably is no wrong way to do it. In a sense, my random path is already optimal :-) When Alen and I used to play Tekken back in the 90s, we noted that we had different approaches to learning the game. Tekken is a martial arts fighting game for the Playstation that has a lot of different attacks, defenses, and throws for each of 8 or more characters. There were over 50 distinct moves per character, and each character had strengths and weaknesses relative to each other, which means that mastering the game required a lot of practice. There are hundreds, of not thousands, of gameplay variables that could potentially affect the victory of one player over another. The main attraction of playing a game like Tekken is to beat your opponents like a drum so you can have bragging rights. It’s even better when you’re playing against your friend…unless you’re me. I tend not to play to “win” games. I’d rather understand them first. Alen had the opposite approach: he was in it to win. The way that this manifested in our playing styles was that Alen would find some button he could press over and over again as fast as possible–usually, this was the shin kick move–and he’d win the first 20 or 30 rounds. He would win because I would walk right into that shin kick, trying to find the counter to it, or find the hole in the timing of the move. It would take about 20-30 losses until I found it, and then the situation would reverse because by then I’d have formed a partial understanding of my character’s dynamics. Then I would win a bunch of games, until Alen adapted and found the next quick move. By then I’d have learned that there is a time for understanding how a game works, and then there’s a time when you just want to wipe the smug expression off Alen’s face, and then it was on. By the end of it all, hundreds of hours of play later, we’d both have arrived at something of the same level of play, having absorbed the lessons of the other’s playing styles by incorporating them into our own. The moral of this story is that there is the fast way and the slow way to learning, and that ultimately they may lead to the same level of mastery. However, if all you are counting are the first 20 rounds of play, then the lesson is play fast and cheap to kick the other guy down. Have no shame! It will get the job done. If you have time and can afford to lose a lot at first, then you can build toward a complete style of play by mastering the nuances of all game mechanics; indeed, this is the only way to reach the greatest heights of achievement. However, you’re going to get your ass beat a lot at first. Do you have the time?

Applying These Lessons

Let me paraphrase myself.
  • I want to wander into an interesting life where I achieve in hindsight. I think this might suit my impatient, spur-of-the-moment creative nature.
  • However, I’m worried that I’m being dumb, because I know that there’s a “right way” to start and finish a project. I also know that progress is made only by completing what you’ve started, and doing that over again.
  • So how can I complete things, but not on purpose?
Let me also consider those things that I’d like to create, which I think will help bring about the means by which I can create an interesting life:
  • Create the e-commerce side of the website, selling fancy productivity stationery.
  • Redesign the website to provide focused yet diverse categories of interest.
  • Create software products for time tracking.
  • Write some stories and some books.
Each one of those lines looks like a lot of work. There are dozens and dozens of smaller steps to plan, and it makes me sleepy just thinking about it. But that’s me thinking in terms of the distant future, when the work has been completed. I need to start enjoying the process now, shin-kicking my way to cheap victories while buying myself some time to learn what does and does not work. I think that the processes behind e-commerce, design, and creating software are deep enough that I should just focus on those quick moves; I will forced to learn how to counter the challenges I encounter by the nature of the challenge. I can structure my productive approach to ensure variety in the interaction, and perhaps that will make it more varied and therefore fun. It has just struck me that if Alen and I hadn’t had such different approaches to mastering Tekken, it would not have been nearly as interesting. If we had both played as shin-kickers, we’d have ended up being button-mashers and would not have mastered the game at all. If we had both been equally analytical, the game would have turned into work and would have ceased to be fun. That suggests that a good strategy for approaching one of those “big tasks” that you’ve just kept putting off is to take the opposite approach:
  • A big serious task, with lots of complexity, is going to make you want to curl up and take a nap. You’ll procrastinate. Instead, run up to the thing and give it a swift kick in the shin and run away. Then run back, and do it again for as long as you can get away with it. Who knows, you might just start to win.

  • A very simple task may become interesting if you put a lot of energy into making it complex. Or maybe the better way to think of this is by being mindful of what you’re doing, drawing that moment of simplicity out as long as possible. Through this, hidden meanings may be revealed. The example that comes to mind is the act of shooting a target with a handgun. Theoretically you just point the gun at the target and pull the trigger, but in reality there are dozens of interrelated micro-movements across the body that affect the accuracy of the shot. That moment of pulling the trigger can be an instant, which means you’ll shoot terribly. Or it will be a kind of timeless moment that fully occupies your mind and your body until the bullet leaves the barrel of the gun and marks that bull’s eye.


p>My next step is to incorporate more shin-kicking into my to-do list, and not think about the finished projects down the road. That will take care of itself as they come together. What I would like to focus on now is winning and being short-sighted about it. I’m pretty sure this is not the best way for every project, but it might be what I need right now to just get moving.


  1. Chris 16 years ago

    I don’t think I agree with you about the moral of your Tekken story. I think the moral is if you put the right people with their own different motivations together then you can go a long way. You pointed out that both being shin-kickers or both being analytic wouldn’t have been much fun for either of you. I bet Alen loved beating you and found it very rewarding while he did it. You loved that you were learning the system. So you both loved different sides of the same process. both of you were in a state of flow during the process, even though you were doing different things. How to translate this to a productivity arena? That is the question. I suspect that it was important to the process that each of you was engaged in a human-human interaction. I wonder whether that can be translated into a human-process situation? Whatever, I really like following your journey towards productivity. I find that your problems very much mirror my own experience with trying to improve my own productivity. I find that I can never quite believe the folks who are naturally productive, as their motivations are clearly different from my own, and what works for them doesn’t work for me. So it’s great to see a more reflective approach to improving productivity. Thank you.

  2. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Chris: That’s a great alternative moral. You know what the funny thing is, though: Alen and I have never figured out how to work together as what I’d describe as a “natural team”, so this moral would not have been obvious to me. Very cool that you see it. It reminds me of my original goal since high school: to find or build that “magic team”. I gave up on that sometime in 2004, or maybe it’s more accurate to say I forgot.

    I think for the magic team to work, the diversity has to be different, the people have to be “right”, and there also has to be a genuine shared interest. Since my interest has been all over the place, or I haven’t known, perhaps this is why.

  3. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Chris: On translation to human-process situation…that’s an interesting idea. I think I’m trying to edge toward it in suggesting that one figures out whether a given process demands either the quick or deep approach, but hmm. Throw out a process and let’s see how we can approach it. Maybe some ideas will come up. Thanks!

  4. matt s 16 years ago

    “restart constantly”

    … I like that!

  5. Chris 16 years ago

    David, I suppose the point of mentioning flow is that you don’t notice that you’re in the magic team while you’re in it. You’d need to track the effects of working in a given situation to know whether it was working for you. And I’m not sure that whether you enjoy it or not is relevant. Harking back to your ideas about a productivity heart-rate monitor, I don’t know whether there would be a team-effectiveness monitor that accurately reflected the effectiveness of working with someone in real time. So you would have to use an external, non-real-time, non-subjective measurement protocol. Doesn’t sound very much like the organic feeling one would like, does it?

  6. John Payne 16 years ago


    Thank you very much for being so open in sharing your struggles and frustrations in your current lack of productivity. As a person who is also stuck in an insanely idiotic rut, its great to be able to watch you mentally work through your problems to come to a solution, even if it is one you don’t really want to have to follow like “restart constantly.”  I am sure the path to productivity will be come much clearer to you soon.

  7. Rob 16 years ago

    Seems to me you are constantly moving between the 50.000 feet life goals and the ground daily-basis implementation. My suggestion, hire people to get you materialize your dreams. Hire a journalist to push you in your books/stories, hire a designer to push you on your web/e-comerce project, and so on. Yo can´t get things done when being at 50.000 feet nor can you get your focus right when at ground level. Labour is cheap, hire or team up with others to push things along, has worked for me.

  8. Jim 16 years ago

    Interesting post.  Reminds me of some discussions I’ve seen regarding martial arts, i.e. you can become effective relatively quickly, but to become efficiently effective takes time.  But, if you don’t focus on effectiveness (with reality checks) and focus entirely on efficiency, you may never become effective.

    Another things your example brings up is the power of playing.  You can get sucked into incredibly complex, engaging material as the result of game play that may comletely elude you during the work day.  I’m sure I would not be the only one to admit my geek background with D&D;and other games as a child and how that probably taught me more about math, application of rule sets, and problem solving than structured education.

    I’ve seen a couple of attempts to adopt a play ethic as a guide for productivity, but have yet to see a realistic application for, say, someone who needs to deliver a specific professional service.  Typically, the route these things go is designing a game for crowd solutions to big problems, not application to personal productivity.

  9. kadavy 16 years ago

    Great post, and so relevant to me right now. I was just listening to Seth Godin’s “The Dip” on audio book yesterday, and I really disagreed with the things he had to say in it. He was using the metaphor of switching lines at a grocery story to explain someone who constantly switches from project to project. What he failed to acknowledge is that when you don’t finish a project, you can use what you learned from that project to be more successful on your next – unlike switching lines in a supermarket.

    He also was a big advocate of becoming THE BEST in any particular thing, using the fact that Vanilla ice cream outsells Chocolate 4 to 1. The problem with Vanilla is that, well – it’s Vanilla.

    In processing this, and trying to relate it to how I feel about my path, I got a vision of a hill in the middle of a plain. The land around the hill is divided up amongst all of my interests. As I begin to drive around the hill in a spiral, I can only see one interest at a time. As I start to get higher, I can begin to see more of my interests and passions at a time, until I finally hit the top of the hill, where I can see all of my interests and finally be in my “place.”

    I think it’s okay to bounce around from project to unfinished project, because each of those projects integrates your skills more than the last, and each one gets closer to being complete. When you do finally complete a project, you can bet that completion was driven by true interest.