“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” —Yogi Berra
By Tom Peterson
If you or your group have a past littered with unfinished efforts you’re not alone. Many of us face this challenge of starting things but never getting the benefits because we didn’t make it to the finish line. All that’s left is a half-cooked idea, frustration and self-doubt. Often the hardest part of any project is that last stretch.
On the other hand, you know that great feeling of putting the check mark next to a task that’s done, not to mention the benefit from the project itself. So how can you improve the odds of being one who finishes strong?
Is it worth it?
First, decide on the front end if what you want to accomplish is worth the effort. It turns out that many things we start are not. If you’re not passionate about it or don’t think it’s important, you may not want to start it. If you’re half committed, you’ll stop less than half-way in.
If you’re not sure, test your idea first as an experiment before committing to a larger effort. So, instead of setting the ambitious goal of reading the complete works of Shakespeare, first read Hamlet. Then read a second play. Then after a few more you can decide whether to read the rest. Maybe you’ll change your goal to the ten greatest hits. And at the very least you’ve read a few plays and learned from your experiment. For a higher completion rate test small adjust your goal upfront.
When you have determined that a project is worth finishing, how do you finish it? We start our projects with enthusiasm but after a while we may hit a snag, lose motivation, or a new idea comes along, some bright shiny object that distracts us. And we’re tempted to give up. How do we get back on track?
Organize for the last mile
That final stretch of the project is often the hardest; long-distance runners call it the last mile. So do delivery companies like FedEx and UPS, and those that wire the cables to your house. For them it’s the most labor intensive and most expensive. It’s also a challenge in global vaccination efforts to eradicate diseases like measles or polio, when almost everyone in a region is vaccinated except for the final few who are remote and hard-to-reach. Without reaching them the whole effort fails. To finish that last mile health professionals borrow a number of supply-chain tactics from the commercial distribution and cable companies, including empowering local groups to manage the final stretch. For example, they may take advantage of the Coca Cola distribution networks, after all, you can get a Coke in the most remote village on the planet. To reach that last mile, you may need some outside help, like using that Coca Cola infrastructure, maybe some professional expertise. This is often a great time to ask for help.
When you approach that daunting last mile, step back and review where you are and what still needs to happen. Outline a plan with time estimates and additional tools or resources will you need to add to finish. List the remaining tasks. Near the end of a construction project, the building owner walks through and makes a “punch list”—so called because the builders used to punch holes in the paper next to the items as they were completed—of every task still to be finished. When all those things are wrapped up, the contract is done and the final payment is made.
So create your punch list and hammer away persistently on those final tasks, eliminating distractions to help you stay on track, plodding away and checking each item until there are no more. And remember way back that enthusiasm you started with? As you run that last mile remind yourself of your original vision, what you’re trying to accomplish and why it’s important.
Starting a project is fun but it’s the accomplishment from the long slog and crossing the finish line that holds the great reward. That’s what changes the world—and what changes us. Besides the value the project brings, you or your team have strengthened those finisher’s muscles and can bring that experience to the next project. Completing things may come easy for some folks. The rest of us have to develop the skills and attitudes that help us move an idea to reality.
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