While juggling my many unfinished writing projects, I came up with another topic: Why We Don’t Finish What We Start. Inspiration sometimes just comes to writers, like that. I created a writing entry in my folder, shared that I was considering this topic on my personal social media, and mentally began my outline. It then went into my ironically-named Living List, which is where things go to die.
I’m not the only one who does this. You’re not the only one who does this. This is a common behavior that we are conditioned to have. But, how and why does this happen? More importantly, how do we change this? Well, that depends on just what it is you habitually delay.
Organizing your projects is a great way to put off finishing your projects.
We are designed to crave familiarity. This goes back to our hunting and gathering days where uncertainty wasn’t “What’s on TV, tonight?” but more along the lines of “Can something behind that bush kill me?” This makes us want to know what each minute of each day is going to hold. To encourage this, our bodies are designed to actually make us wish to have a life of repeating cycles. It is why people choose a familiar misery over an uncertainty that could lead to no longer being in misery.
Fear keeps us locked into our comfort zones. It served us well in our formative, tribal days. We were afraid to go against the norms because getting shunned was certain death. Women stayed in miserable partnerships because they were physically dependent on others for survival, especially if late in a pregnancy. Though being alone can be intimidating in today’s world, it isn’t the automatic death sentence that it used to be. But, fearing any change is still hardwired into our DNA.
D-N-A? more like B-I-T-C-H.
The formation of habits and reward systems are originally designed to make us productive through repetition. The habit cycle has three components: Cue, Routine, and the Reward. This applies to healthy and destructive habits.
The Cue is what gets the ball rolling. It can be an action, location, time, an emotion, virtually anything. The Routine is what you set yourself to do as an automatic response to a cue. The Reward is what reinforces this cycle as an option to repeat. Completion of a task results in a hit of dopamine, which works as a reinforcement reward.
An example of a good cycle could be brushing your teeth as a part of a morning activities. Waking up is the cue. The morning “getting ready process” is the routine. The reward is that you are clean and ready to go. An example of a bad cycle could be scrolling social media. The cue is boredom or downtime. The routine is to pull out your phone and hit your favorite social media app. The reward is that boredom is diverted.
We usually pick up habits by learning them from others or by stumbling upon something that happens to work for us. The majority of habits are picked up from the adults in a child’s life. Daily routines, decision making, even how to respond to emotions, all of these are habits that get picked up pretty early in life. If a child notices that an adult’s cue is not getting what they want, the routine is to act loud and aggressive, and the reward is that the adult winds up getting what they want, guess what the child just learned?
Gotta stick with what works.
This also applies to some of our worst possible habits to develop – procrastination and quitting. These habits usually form in youth due to a lack of good habits being followed through to fruition. If getting started on projects early is never rewarded, that habit will not form. If the cue to do an assignment is getting home from school, but doing the routine of working on the assignment does not lead to a reward, this cycle will be incomplete and will not form as a healthy habit. It can be made worse if putting off a project did have a perceived benefit, such as spending a lot less time on the task or someone else stepping in to finish.
Finishing something leads to change. This brings us back to fear – the fear of what could change. Fearing completion of a task is not uncommon as there is not always certainty as to what comes after the completion of the task. For example, do you know how many writers out there have never actually written anything? A lot. I used to be one. It was easier to be a writer-in-progress, or aspiring writer, than it was to face the possibility of being a failed writer. There are “chefs” who hardly cook, “artists” who hardly create, “designers” who can barely sew on a button, and “rappers” who don’t even do karaoke, all for similar reasons. You’re probably thinking of people right now and giggling.
Go ahead and take a moment to go through yours with a friend and laugh. You know you want to.
We are the sum of our habits. Most of our lives are lived on autopilot, so it’s the choices we make when we aren’t actively making choices that determine our quality of life. This makes understanding how the habit cycle works crucial. We must know our bad habits, understand how they were formed, and learn to replace them with better habits.
Developing good habit cycles are harder to do as adults because of how easy it is to cheat. Don’t want to make the bed in the morning? Nobody is going to make you. But, it can help a lot more than you think. It is a quick loop. Get up (cue), spend a few seconds flipping covers (routine), and the task is complete (reward). Earlier, it was mentioned that dopamine is released with the completion of a task. If you make the bed when you wake up, the day starts on a positive note with a dopamine hit and an accomplishment that promotes further productivity.
This is why large tasks tend to go unfinished. There is no biochemical reward for productivity when a task is viewed as incomplete, even if progress is made. This is why so many motivational speakers focus on deconstructing tasks. It can take a considerable amount of time to write a 50,000-word book, so writers prefer to focus on a manageable daily word count. Making lasagna from scratch can be intimidating, so a chef will view making the pasta, sauce, and filling as separate tasks to do that will wind up becoming a lasagna.
A talented writer can whip up a seven-layer lasagna with little effort when they’re supposed to be writing.
In order to replace a habit, we must recognize our cues. Our routines will require conscious effort to be displaced with something better. When forming new habit cycles, start small. You’re probably not going to go from getting up at 7:00 AM every day to getting up at 5:30 to go to the gym in one sudden shift. Your mind and body will fight you. Getting up at 6:45 for a week won’t greatly disrupt your established routine, though.
That 15 minutes doesn’t even have to be productive. You’re just training your body to get up a little earlier and NOT hit snooze. After a week or two, you can try for 6:30. After 6:30 is comfortable, we can add small actions such as implementing stretching. A few weeks in, and we’re already up a half hour earlier and doing stretches! It’s all about letting small victories build into larger ones and staying consistent. So many fitness resolutions fail because of trying to take on too much change at once.
Don’t beat yourself up over the times you’ve failed to finish something. Dwelling on that makes you more likely to quit on future projects (it’s a mean cycle). Cultivate small tasks that you can easily accomplish to begin creating the “habit” (addiction) to finishing what you start. Break down those large tasks into smaller ones that can be counted as completion. Keep it going!
Related journaling prompts: Do you have a cycle of quitting? What keeps you from finishing things? How can current projects be broken down to become more manageable?