Tag Archives: eighty percenter

Are You a Compulsive Finisher or a Chronic NonFinisher?

by Kassandra Lamb

Are you an 80 percenter, otherwise known as a chronic nonfinisher? Do you have trouble finishing what you start? Do you get about 80% of the way to your goals and then stall out?

Or are you like me, someone who has a strong compulsion to finish things–to the point of being borderline neurotic? It drives me crazy to have something started but not finished (although I’m better than I used to be).

I’ve had this topic on my mind lately, ever since my brother and I finally finished the task of painting the outside of my house. He and I are both compulsive finishers, which was a very good thing in this case. The house painting project turned out to be way bigger than we thought it would be. It took several months of working on it two to three days a week until it was all done.

My brother in front of the house the day we finished!

My brother in front of the house the day we finished!

Most people would have compromised a little when they realized how big the task really was. Maybe they wouldn’t have painted all the trim, only that which was in the worst shape.

Not us! We’d paint something, decide the area next to it (that was deemed just fine a few minutes before) now looked funky next to the fresh paint, so we’d paint that too. (Did I mention that we tend to be a tad perfectionistic too?)

A nonfinisher would still have two unpainted walls a couple of years later. 🙂

So what makes people one or the other?

Bluma Zeigarnik (photo from http://www.feministvoices.com/bluma-zeigarnik/)

Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik (photo from http://www.feministvoices.com/bluma-zeigarnik/)

A Lithuanian cognitive psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, discovered that while a task remains incomplete, it stays on our minds, the memory of what is done and undone taking up a certain amount of space in our awareness. Once a task is complete, the details slip out of our memories, no longer cluttering our brains.

Later psychologists researched this Zeigarnik Effect and found it to be valid. One study discovered that it seems to be tied to our level of achievement motivation. How important is it to you to achieve things? How strong is your sense of accomplishment when you get a task done?

I get a pretty strong sense of accomplishment when I complete even the most mundane of tasks. Even cleaning the house (which I hate) gives me a warm glow when it’s done.

But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do I have a strong achievement motivation, which drives me to complete things so I can feel that sense of accomplishment? Or do I have a compulsion to complete things, which drives my achievement motivation?

Hubs grilled steaks for us to celebrate finishing. Behind us is the last section we painted.

My bro and I enjoying the afterglow! Hubs grilled steaks for us to celebrate finishing. Behind us is the last section we painted.

I do know that I sometimes procrastinate about starting tasks, because I know I won’t be able to rest until they’re done. (Bookkeeping and filing paperwork come to mind. 😀 )

Do nonfinishers lack achievement motivation? That seems a little harsh. Or do they just get distracted easily and don’t have the compulsion to get it done?

Are nonfinishers more likely to be random thinkers? I know my brother and I are both hardcore sequential thinkers. Does this fuel our desire to get the next step done, and the next and the next? (See my post of a couple weeks ago for more on random vs. sequential thinking.)

But my husband is very random, and he’s not a a nonfinisher. He’s not compulsive about finishing things like I am, but he gets the job done.

One theory that has been proposed to explain chronic nonfinishers is that they are using this as a defense mechanism to avoid dealing with other aspects of their lives.

By keeping their minds cluttered with all those unfinished tasks, there’s no room to think about what they should be doing next (which requires making decisions–something some people dread). Or they might be distracting themselves from their fears that they won’t be able to fulfill their dreams or avoiding some other unpleasant reality in their current lives (like a bad marriage).

I’m not sure this theory explains all nonfinishers, but it does resonate in my mind to explain a couple of the nonfinishers whom I know personally. As uncomfortable as it is to have their minds constantly cluttered with so much unfinished stuff, they’d be even more anxious if they had to decide what to do next with their lives.

But these same nonfinishers I’m thinking of are not very happy people. Juggling all those tasks is stressful; it takes up a lot of emotional and mental energy. And it keeps them from moving forward toward their goals in life (which again may be the point; they’re afraid to tackle those goals head-on.)

I think for other nonfinishers, this is more a habit. It’s a variation of procrastination perhaps. But like procrastination, it increases the stress of getting things done.

Psychologist, Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. offers this advice for nonfinishers:

 Notice what is incomplete, unfinished or unresolved in your life, and write it down to make it more concrete and real for you. You might even assign an emotional or energy weight to each item in terms of pounds. It is amazing how many hundreds of extra emotional pounds we are carrying around all the time! How wonderfully liberating it is to consciously choose to lose this excess baggage, and travel lighter.

I love this idea!!

On my extreme end of the continuum, I’ve worked on letting go a bit of the need to finish everything. This compulsion of mine was just as debilitating as nonfinishing in terms of enjoying life. I was always striving to get everything on my to-do list done, and then, I told myself, I would be able to relax and actually live my life.

Ha, that list never gets completely done!

So I’ve learned to do a mental to-do list for today only. These are the things I want to accomplish today. And when they are done, I’m done for the day! I’ve also gotten a lot better at giving myself permission to slide something from today’s list to tomorrow’s if it looks like I’m not going to finish.

How about you? Are you a compulsive finisher or a chronic nonfinisher, or somewhere in between?

And now I’m off to finish a couple of tasks I started yesterday and ran out of steam before they were done. 😀

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

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