I am in two minds about Jon Acuff’s ‘Finish – Give yourself the gift of done‘ (no affiliate link). On the one hand, I find the writing style a little bit off-putting (dad jokes galore… it is a bit too much). I also think that, at £13.96 (price on Amazon, at the time of writing) this book is really over-priced given the quality of the paper it is printed, the unhelpful endnotes, and so on. Having said that, the book does contain some useful nuggets of advice for getting that big project finished. Moreover, this is the type of advice that you don’t always find in a book about writing. So, it is worth reading.
Before I start, one note. The book is about big tasks in general, and includes varied examples such as writing a book, to dieting, starting a business, reading a certain number of books per year, and so on. This review, however, is focused on academic writing (papers, books, reports…); and I have either created or adapted examples to fit that scenario. Here we go.
The basis of the book is that the key challenge to finishing a big project is perfectionism. The author does not actually define perfectionism, so let’s go with Wikipedia’s definition* (Yes, I use Wikipedia…). Perfectionism is…
… a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.
According to the author, Jon Acuff, perfectionism creates two problems.
The first problem is that it leads us to giving up on the project early on because our performance on those early days fails to live up to our own high expectations. For instance, we might give up on our determination to establish a daily writing habit when we break our writing streak. Acuff call this the ‘day after perfect’ effect.
The other problem is that it leads us to delaying the conclusion of our big project because we fear that the final product is not good enough (yet). For instance, we might abandon work on paper even though we have spent many hours working on it, or we might keep making edits to our book or PhD manuscript instead of submitting it. The author calls this the ‘day before done’ effect.
The book proposes a number of ways to tackle the problems created by perfectionism and, thus, to help us finish that big project. The proposed solutions may be broadly divided in two categories: manage what we are trying to achieve and manage how we are trying to achieve it (this is my categorisation, not the author’s).
The solution – manage your goal
For many of us, the problem is that we set a goal that is too ambitious – either in its purpose (e.g., write an encyclopaedia about topic A), or in terms of the deadline that we gave ourselves to achieve it (e.g., do a dissertation in 2 months).
We all supersize our goals at the beginning (…) In the middle of a goal, perfectionism gets really chatty. The first thing it says is that you won’t be able to do something perfectly and you shouldn’t even start. Far better to give up now than waste all that time and fail (…) If you ignore this initial barrage and start something, perfectionism changes its tune completely. Now it says that you have to do it perfectly. It’s the only possibility that is acceptable. (page 20).
Acuff, then, proposes that we cut your goals in half. So, instead of aiming to write 2 hours every day, aim for 1 hour per day. Or 45 minutes (I like even-odd goals).
Alternatively, you should double the estimated time that you set to achieve it. For instance, you think that it’s going to take you one week to write up the results of your study but, really, with everything else going on in your life, it is likely to take you closer to (or even longer than) two weeks.
[Side note: Here, I would add another problem: goals that are too loosely defined. If your goal is, simply, to write every day, with no target time, word count or objective, you could easily slip into meaningless activity. So, don’t just set realistic goals, also formulate them in a way that is specific and measurable.]
The solution – manage your approach
If aiming too high is counter-productive, the flip-side of this is that, when we take on a new project, we will need to drop something off, or lower our standards temporarily – or, as the author calls it, we need to ‘choose what to bomb’. For instance, if I am going to write for 45 minutes every day, I need to shave those 45 minutes off somewhere else – and it shouldn’t be sleep. It could be about settling for ‘good enough slides’ instead of highly polished ones for that week’s class. Or it could be giving up on linen trousers because they are a nightmare for ironing! [On this theme, you may want to check Laura Vanderkam’s post ‘Every yes is a no, every no is a yes’].
Another technique proposed by Acuff to keep us focused on the project, is to engender rewards (or penalties) that keep us engaged with the project. For instance, writing this blog post was, for me, a reward for making progress on a paper that I am working on at the moment, and I only allowed myself to write it after I had finished a particular section and had sent off the file to my co-author. At the same time, I had promised my co-author that I would send her the file by a certain date. I know that she had made time in her diary to work on it and, so, the thought of missing the deadline and wasting her time kept me ploughing at the paper, even though the sun is shining outside.
Another important recommendation is to look out for excuses– i.e., tasks that seem extremely important or urgent – but which are distracting you from your goal. The typical one when it comes to writing is reading. Yes, we need to read in order to learn and in order to situate our argument (e.g., my paper builds on A and B in this way; and it is different from C and D because…). The problem is that we can always read a bit more, look for a better source, try to find a different angle… and we will end up never writing that paper or book. I felt this very painfully with a paper that I had planned about Social Media and Insight – I kept trying to learn more about the technology and to find better examples… and now, 10 years later, the paper is not written, yet, and frankly I may have missed the window of opportunity.
A related tip is to question your assumptions about what is right / desirable, and what is wrong / to be avoided. For instance, yes, I should write for 2 hours in order to get in the flow, etc, but most days I can only do 45 minutes… or I can only snatch 20 minutes here and there. And, yes, I should read a paper from beginning to end to really ‘get it’, but
sometimes many times I only read the abstract, introduction and conclusion before deciding whether or not it is relevant for my work.
And, last but not least, Acuff advises us to track progress – not just in terms of checking how close we are to our goal, but also how far we have come:
That’s the funny thing about failure. It’s loud (…) Progress, on the other hand, is quiet. It whispers. Perfectionism screams failure and hides progress.
That’s the reason a little data can make a big difference. It helps you see through perfectionism’s claims that you’re not getting anywhere and helps you celebrate your achievements. (page 124).
As you may know, I am a big fan of daily journaling and monthly round-ups, and I can’t tell you how many times I started my monthly round-ups feeling dejected because I had failed to ship one thing, only to be comforted by the awareness that I had made progress on various others (though I do recognise that, at times, progressing on those numerous things was an excuse not to finish THE thing that I had to).
What have you been reading lately?