133: The Neglected Secret to Finishing Any Writing Project On Time
The most difficult part of writing a book isn’t getting started. Resistance doesn’t push back on new ideas or even the first few chapters. No, the hardest part of any writing project is the end.
I like writing books because I like starting projects. It’s fun to tackle a new idea. The novelty and excitement of beginning with a clean slate is thrilling.
Mostly, I prefer writing books because they’re not ongoing. As hard as it is to complete tasks, it’s easier to work on projects with a defined end date rather than something that goes on indefinitely.
This week on The Portfolio Life, Andy and I talk about tactics to help creatives discipline themselves to complete the projects that matter. Listen in as we discuss the motivational power of negative and positive consequences and how to make your productivity practically inevitable.
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In this episode, Andy and I discuss:
- Creating a system where doing the work is easier than not doing it
- Why I’m bad at finishing and what I do to cope
- The parallels between writing a book and running a marathon
- When you know your book is done
- Why one successful author chooses not to self-publish even though he could make more money
- Which kind of tasks typically kill the creative soul
- Think of your work as a series of smaller projects.
- Any sort of project with a beginning, middle, and end is something you can begin and end with excellence.
- When there’s a deadline, you’re able to give your best.
- If you want to win, you have to finish. If you’re going to finish, you need consequences.
- Create the consequences that work with your personality.
What do you need to finish? How are you setting yourself up for success to actually complete it? Share in the comments
“JG: I also like books because they’re not ongoing projects and as hard as it is to finish things, I think it’s easier to work on something that has a defined ending than it is to work on something that doesn’t.”
[00:00:27.6] AT: Welcome to The Portfolio Life Podcast with Jeff Goins. I’m your host, Andy Traub. Jeff believes that every creative should live a portfolio life, a life full of pursuing work that matters, making the difference with your art and discovering your true voice. Jeff is committed to helping you find, develop and live out your unique world view so that you too can live a portfolio life. What is the secret to finishing? Most of us like to start, but few of us like to finish. So today, Jeff and I are going to answer that question, what’s the secret to finishing?
Here’s my conversation with Jeff Goins.
[00:01:08.7] AT: Jeff, how are you today my friend?
[00:01:10.8] JG: Doing great Andy, how are you doing?
[00:01:12.5] AT: I am excited to be with you. I am excited about today’s topic. Sometimes, I just come up with these ideas for the show because I want to know what you think for me personally and then thousands of other people benefit as well, and this is one of those. Because I think that you’re good at finishing things. You push through and I’m not just talking about Netflix series, though you are good at that as well. You’re one of the best, if I can say that, about finishing a Netflix series. But we’re going to talk today about finishing your work, is that something that we can really riff on for?
[00:01:45.7] JG: Yeah.
[00:01:46.5] AT: Yeah, I thought so because I know that you have written about this on recent months and that you’re living it, right? As their friend, I get to, “How are you doing?” “Oh I’m trying to finish this thing” “How are you doing?” “I’m trying to finish this thing”. So give me maybe some examples of in the last four or five years of your writing career of things that you have been forced to finish. What comes to mind?
[00:02:08.9] JG: Yeah, well I like writing books because I like starting things and it’s fun to tackle a new idea and the novelty and excitement of it. I mean it’s exciting for me, but I also like books because they’re not ongoing projects and as hard as it is to finish things, I think it’s easier to work on something that has the defined ending than it is to work on something that doesn’t and it can motivate you through any kind of slump. Whether you’re tackling something like NaNoWriMo, writing a novel in a month, or taking a class, attending an event, any sort of project that has a beginning, middle, and end is something that you can finish and you can do with excellence.
So I mean I like doing things that are fun for me but there’s a perfectionist part in me and I like doing things well. I like shipping excellent things into the world and because there’s a deadline, I feel like I am able to give my best. Whereas, anytime I have to do a slug, anytime somebody says, “Do this for the rest of your life.”
[00:03:26.4] AT: Sold.
[00:03:27.2] JG: I’m serious, yeah, exercise, diet, habitual things, I really struggle with those things. You know me well enough to know that probably one of my faults is inconsistency. I’m not the most consistent person. I was looking at my personality type in the Myers-Briggs and the description of me and I was looking at my wife’s and it talks about the things that you like and don’t like and the things that get on your nerves.
And so for me the things that get on my personality types nerves, the biggest thing that bothers me is complaining and the thing that I like the most, on the Myers-Briggs I’m an ENTJ, the thing that allows the ENTJ to thrive is change, right? Like if there’s an antithesis to consistency I think it’s change. So then you go over to my wife’s personality and the thing that annoys her personality the most is inconsistency. That’s like…
[00:04:27.0] AT: Ruh-row.
[00:04:27.9] JG: …you are in for a ride and we’re nine years into this.
[00:04:32.1] AT: For better or worse honey. Better or worse, yeah.
[00:04:34.4] JG: Yeah and this is on the worst for consistent or inconsistent. So I think if you have the creative temperament, if you’re like me and you like change, you like to start things and do lots of different things and not do the same thing over and over and over again but you also like to do things well. I think thinking of your work in terms of a series of projects, which is the idea of the portfolio life. You don’t have to do just one thing for the rest of your life.
You can do a series of different projects. Whether that’s a seasonal projects, I do a lot of seasonal projects, launches and things like I am all in for a certain period of time and then it’s over and I move onto the next thing. But in order to do that and to keep doing it, you’ve actually got to finish things, and I would say that for me, finishing is not something that I am necessarily good at. It’s something that I have disciplined myself to do because honestly Andy, I just want to get onto the next project.
[00:05:29.3] AT: Yes because it is more fun for a lot of people to start things than it is to finish things, but the only way you can start something else is to finish the last one, right? And so yeah, it’s almost like if you do a triathlon, why are you running so hard? Because I want to go on the bike. Why are you biking so hard? Because I want to swim. It’s not because you like what you’re doing necessarily. So what other areas of your business — because you know a lot of people listen to this show. They’re living this portfolio life.
And as I say in every intro of every show that you actually care — you Jeff, actually care about the person listening right now. You want them to live a portfolio life. How does this relate to when you are doing a course? I mean there are certain things like Tribe Writers that it is not open all the time. Is part of that is that you only have so much energy to open it for a period of time because otherwise, it would just be open all the time, you might get bored with it?
[00:06:21.7] JG: Yeah, I’m sure that is part of it. I had a friend who texted me the other day and he said, “Hey can I refer somebody to Tribe Writers? When is the next time that is launching?” I said April and he goes, “That’s a long time,” I go, “Yep.”
[00:06:38.7] AT: And you are thinking “breathing room”, right?
[00:06:41.6] JG: Honestly I am thinking, that’s what makes it special. That’s what makes people sign up when it’s time to sign up is that you can’t sign up for it all the time and because it’s an eight week course that we launch basically twice a year, and I’ve kicked around the possibility of having a version of it that you can sign up for it anytime. I mean my goal is to help the most people without making me miserable, which is a challenge anytime you run a business of course.
But if I just wanted the easy button and I just wanted to protect my time. I don’t know I’d do something else. I’d go work at Starbucks or something. If I just wanted defined hours and a paycheck, I’d go work at Starbucks. What I like about being an entrepreneur and about being a writer is I get to choose how stressful my job is. So if my schedule is stressful it’s because I chose that and I have to ask myself consistently, “Is this what you asked for? Is this what you wanted, or did you say yes to a bunch of things because you felt obligated and you don’t actually want this?”
And often the answer is, “No, this is actually what I asked for,” and either realized that I don’t really want this or I’m just going to deal with this for the season. But I can — going back to the question about Tribe Writers — I can endure anything for a certain period of time. I can see the end of it. So that’s why I like training for half marathons because there is this three month period where I am running a lot, and there is a goal, and then there’s a finish line. And then after that, I get to decide am I going to do another one of these? I’m not going to do this exactly the same way tomorrow but do I want to do another one of these with a different course, maybe a different training regimen or do I want to go do something else.
So Tribe Writers for me even though it’s a course that I have been teaching for almost five years, it is basically a series of projects. When I get bored with it or if it’s seems to not be working as well or the information gets outdated, I re-record the course. I invest my money into making a product better and that’s fun. That’s fun. When it’s time to launch it, I launch it and spend basically two weeks going all in on this thing, and then that’s fun and then I spend the next couple of months walking people through it and then I move onto the next thing and that’s why I like books because you write them, they’re done. You launch them, they’re out there.
And if you’ve done your job well, if you’ve created something, that’s good and you have done a good job of bringing it into the world then you basically get to move on and that thing continues to sell and impact people and there is a return on the investment of time that you put on that, I like that. I like that more than “I’ve got to go to make money today. I’ve got to think of something new to create today”, or whatever. I like projects because they are exciting to start, there’s a defined end point and if you do your job well, there’s some sort of reward like the reward of a half marathon is A, the enjoyment of saying, “Hey, I’ve finished this” and B, all the free food that you get to eat at the end.
[00:10:03.4] AT: I was going to say isn’t there a C, the bumper sticker. Do people do a bumper sticker?
[00:10:07.6] JG: Oh I don’t know.
[00:10:08.2] AT: I mean I thought that was the whole thing you did put a 13.1 or 26, whatever.
[00:10:12.3] JG: I’m sure that’s a thing but mostly it’s just the food for me.
[00:10:15.5] AT: Well okay, all right.
[00:10:16.6] JG: It costs about $100 to run the national marathon and then at the end, they give you a medal which is probably worth something but then there’s this endless smorgasbord of bagels.
[00:10:26.9] AT: All right, so you are eating about a buck and a quarter worth of food, right?
[00:10:30.3] JG: That’s right, I am netting a positive 25 bucks out of the thing.
[00:10:34.4] AT: Right.
[00:10:35.4] JG: Well you know they’ve got that protein bars and stuff and I know how much those things costs.
[00:10:42.5] AT: The fanny packs, those are in the fanny pack.
[00:10:44.7] JG: I’m shoving those things in my pocket, yeah but I mean you’ve got to have a reward I think in order for you to push through to get to the end.
[00:10:53.9] AT: So let’s talk about this for the last part, to talk about this in the context of, because I am talking to a publisher about the publishing a book of mine and the thing that I’m really excited about is — and this is funny, the thing that I am super excited about maybe most excited about is someone telling me what to do. Which is the exact opposite of like why people say you should self-publish because you can do whatever you want. I’m like, “That doesn’t go very well sometimes, because sometimes my boss is an idiot and I am him.”
So talk about this in the context of how we can set ourselves up as writers. How can we put ourselves in situations and maybe it’s just self-publishing versus traditional publishing and maybe just talk about why that is a good thing but I am excited about traditional publisher because I am going to be beholden to them, they’re not going to let it slide that I don’t finish this thing on time. So maybe let’s talk about, what are ways that we can put ourselves in situations with that lines that will helps us as artists, as people who are trying to live a portfolio life? Just maybe give some examples of that.
[00:11:59.0] JG: I am finishing up my latest book right now and I am in the throes of that right now and it’s easy to feel like the situation that you’re in is less than ideal. So it’s easy like when your publisher is pressuring you to go, “Man this sucks. I should just do this myself because they don’t understand.” Or it’s easy as a self-publish author to go, “Oh it would be so nice to have a publisher pay me money to do my job,” or whatever and I think the job there is to first of all know yourself.
Know what motivates you, know how you actually work not how other people work, not what other people are doing but how you work. Then secondly, to use that to do your work better in a way that works for you. So I was talking to a very successful author who could self-publish his books for the rest of his life and make more money than working with a publisher with who he’s got to split royalties and he said, “I don’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because I would never finish the book,” and he knows himself.
[00:12:58.6] AT: What an admission though. What a humble admission, “Because I wouldn’t do it.”
[00:13:03.9] JG: He goes, “I do it for the deadline” I’d never heard anybody say that. I’ve heard people say, “I do it for the advance because I’d rather make a couple hundred thousand dollars now and then not have to worry about selling X amount of copies,” and I mean that’s part of my motivation of going with a traditional publisher is can I make enough money upfront through an advance that I could take that money, invest it, pay off my house whatever.
That it’s worth it to me versus self-publishing and spending the next two or three years making the equivalent of that amount of money and then making more after that and I go, “Well, that’s a tough thing” like would you rather have $250,000 in the next five year, $50,000 a year or would you rather have $200,000 right now? And there is no right answer to that except that you need to know yourself and you need to know what’s going to motivate you. If somebody told me that, I might take the $200K because I go, “You know I know myself, five years from now I might be doing something completely different.”
[00:14:06.8] AT: Absolutely, it’s like if you won the lottery how would you take your money? It’s sort of just knowing that. Like it would ruin me if I had that much at once. So yeah, it’s good to know that about yourself. So what if someone isn’t in a position to be traditionally published? How can they or the person listening right now says, “Man, Jeff and Andy I’m not a great finisher okay? But we all know to win you’ve got to finish,” right?
And wining might be to publish your first book, it might be to be a consistent writer, it might be to make a course. It might be to do enough art to have it displayed somewhere. What are ways that people can make sure that they are finishing? Are they just creating completely arbitrary deadlines?
[00:14:50.5] JG: So I think that in order to finish something, you have to have some kind of consequence. So I talked about the bagels at the end of the marathon and that’s a positive consequence. That’s a good thing but there’s also negative consequence that’s motivating me. If I stop at mile 12 of a half marathon, you know a 13.1 mile race, how am I going to feel? Well basically I just spent a $100 to run around downtown Nashville, which I could have done on any day of the week for free and I get to go home with leg cramps and shame. Or I get to push through 1.1 more miles and there’s a pride in that and I get free bagels. I can’t emphasize this idea enough.
[00:15:32.4] AT: Let’s stay focus on the bagels, right.
[00:15:34.3] JG: Yeah like the last time I ran the national half marathon, I ran with a couple of friends. I was not in the best shape. We just had a baby and I had actually gotten hurt training and I just ran the race in poor shape, poor health, started at a ridiculous pace because I was running with some friends and then I had to fall back and then by the end of it, I was walking and that was really demotivating and frustrating.
But when I signed up I promised myself that I would finish this. And why was that motivating? Because I paid money to do it and I didn’t want to feel like I wasted that money and honestly if I stopped and I didn’t finished the race, it would take me longer to get to my car and get home and so I was like, “Well…”
[00:16:23.6] AT: “Well, I’m going to my car anyway,” yeah.
[00:16:25.2] JG: Yeah so I like what my friend, Tim Grahl says about this which is to paraphrase him and he’s great on this in terms of systems and motivation and productivity but he basically says that, “If you want to be productive, the secret to that is not willing yourself to be what you not. It is creating a life so that doing your work is something that becomes inevitable, making your productivity practically inevitable.”
So what I think what that means practically, is whatever you’re working on, it’s finishing a book, starting a business, whatever it is, finishing a race, make that the work like doing the work that should be easier than not doing the work. Find a way to create a system where, for example, finishing a 13 mile race is actually easier than stopping at mile 12 walking back to my car and driving home.
[00:17:23.0] AT: Right because essentially that would be 24 miles. No, seriously that’s not worth it. You would be stupid to not keep going and I love that and part of this is an emotional maturity. Like the person you’re talking about says “Listen, this is not a mathematical decision.” Because the mathematical decision says self-publish. It is an emotional decision, which says, “I want to finish,” right?
[00:17:51.0] JG: Right and I think the best way to do that, I think it’s Peter Drucker who said, “Past performance is the best indicator of future performance.” So you know yourself Andy, right? So it’s not a question of, “Do I launch another self-published book and make 50 grand in a couple of months?” The question is, “Have I done this on my own already?”
[00:18:13.0] AT: Yeah.
[00:18:13.9] JG: And I think this is an important question. I love it when — because it’s often like a sales or marketing strategy. People say, “If you could have done it on your own, you already would have done it.” But that’s true. Like, “Should I pay money to see a personal trainer?” Well if I really could have lost weight and gone into shape on my own, would I have already done that by now? Is it really a question of motivation or is it a question of setting up my life in such a way that I finish that things that I start.
So if that means, because you know yourself, you’re going to have to sign with a publisher and you have an opportunity to do that great. If not, you don’t have that opportunity but you still need a consequence, do what my friend Joe Bunting recently did where he was spending two years trying to finish his memoire, wasn’t happening. So he decided I’m going to create some negative consequences for me if I don’t hit my deadline, and Joe and I have been having an ongoing conversation about this.
He did a kick starter for this book and I said, “When is this going to be finished?” He’s like, “Well it’s just not there” and I said, “But didn’t people pay you money to write this book?” And he was like, “Yeah, you’re right,” and we had lots of conversations about this. “So shouldn’t you finish it and give them this book?” And he was like, “Well I might take it to a publisher, I might do this. I might do that,” and what he realized was honestly, the current motivational structure that he had in place was not enough because people weren’t complaining.
They were waiting, and so he knew that he could milk this a lot longer than he wanted to and so he said, “I’m going to create some very negative consequences for me that are going to force me to finish this book in the next 10 weeks,” and he had three deadlines and a word count for each deadline and if he missed the deadline, well I think the consequence one was he had to delete an app on his phone and he loves playing games on his phone.
Consequence two was he needed to give his iWatch to his wife, and really liked that one and consequence three was he had to write a $1,000 check to the presidential candidate — this was before the race is over — to the candidate that he hated the most and then he took that check, this is the genius part of this, he took that check put it in an addressed enveloped, sealed and put a stamp on it, gave it to a friend and said if you don’t hear from me on this date saying, “I finished my book you send that. Don’t give me a day, grace period, don’t give me anything. If you don’t get that, you send that,” and that was enough motivation for him to finish his book and to call his friend and have her tear it up.
That’s pretty extreme. Another person that used this kind of system was Sandy Kreps. She came to the Tribe Conference. The same kind of deal; she’d been writing a book for a couple of years. Was sitting in a group of writers and just mentioned that she wanted to finish her book. One person in the group said, “Well how are you going to do that?” And she says, “Well I don’t know,” and she goes, “Well I think you should finish your book in the next 90 days,” and they set up an accountability system where this person checked in with Sandy every week, “How’s it going?” Was just encouraging her, motivating her, just checking in.
I mean sometimes we just need somebody to go “Hey, how’s that going?” so whatever it is, whatever it needs to be, you create the consequences that work with your personality. Joe knew that not writing the book needed to be more painful than actually writing it. Sandy knew that if she’s just relying on herself to write another self-published book, because she had done this before, that she would keep putting it off. My friend who’s a successful published author knew that yeah, he could probably write more books and self-publish them and make more money, except that he wouldn’t. That he would actually finish it.
And I am working on this book right now and I was talking to a friend of mine who used to work in publishing business and I said, “Man, I’m really struggling. I’m right up my deadline, the publisher is getting a little bit nervous. I am getting a little bit nervous, but I don’t want to turn something in that isn’t ready. When do you know when a book is done?” He said, “You know when a book is done when the publisher is threatening to cancel your contract.” Because you either turn it in or you give the money back and that’s where, “Okay not writing this, not turning this in it’s all of a sudden more painful than turning this in.”
[00:22:32.2] AT: Yeah, “Hey motivation nice to see you. I’m glad you show up on my front door.”
[00:22:35.6] JG: Unless it’s not, right? Unless you go, “Actually I don’t care. This book isn’t ready, I’d rather give the money back than send this out into the world,” and only you know that but I really do think it comes down to the pain of the consequences of doing this or doing that and if you really want to do that and you don’t want to do this, whatever it might be, then create consequences for yourself if they don’t naturally exists there. And I have shared some examples and how I think that works. But again, I think that the idea is not doing this needs to be more painful than doing it.
[00:23:11.8] AT: Love that. Well time to go write some checks I guess.
[00:23:16.2] JG: You can send those to me.
[00:23:17.8] AT: Oh dang it. All right, I will. Thanks man.
“JG: You don’t have to do just one thing for the rest of your life. You can do a series of different projects.”