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

Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik (photo from

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.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    June 2, 2015 at 11:01 am

    Interesting post! I’m definitely a finisher, although I’m okay with certain things taking a while to finish, and having to interrupt it because of other stuff. Our youngest (8th grader) is definitely a finisher. All his life, it has driven him crazy when the teachers won’t let him finish something, because it’s time to move on to the next thing. He’s also very slow and methodical, which exacerbates the issue in the public school setting. Our oldest, on the other hand, is not a finisher, but I don’t see it as avoidance in his case. My impression is that it simply slides off his radar because he’s on to the next new “shiny.” The thing he started before is no longer important to him.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    June 2, 2015 at 11:11 am

    Sounds like you’re one of those sane people in between, Kathy. 😀

    Also sounds like your youngest son and I would get along great. But I’ve actually tried to do more of what your older son does, give myself permission to let the project go if I’m not interested anymore.

  • Reply
    Jami Gold
    June 2, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Fascinating! I wouldn’t say that I’m a compulsive finisher. Some things that I care about I *do* push through and finish (no matter how big or complicated), and other things I decide aren’t that important and let them hang out on the side. So my non-finished projects are more about prioritization than of avoidance (I think 🙂 ).

    I don’t have a terribly strong achievement motivation in that I tend not to bask in the glow of completed projects too much, as my brain all-too-quickly reminds me of the next thing on the list. That missing sense of gratification from most tasks might be part of the reason why I’m not compulsive. I’m not finishing things to *get* to that glow, as it doesn’t exist very much for me. (That’s kind of sad in a way, and I wish I could enjoy my accomplishments more. LOL!)

    I agree completely about the weight of unfinished things. When I’m feeling stressed, the number one best thing I can do is write down my to-do list. That way, although I still feel the weight of needing to finish them, at least I’m not also carrying the weight of the mental list and worrying that I’m going to forget something. And like you, I’ve learned to focus only on the to-do list for today, and having that long-term list written down helps me set those aside until relevant. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 2, 2015 at 2:59 pm

      Definitely, those written to-do lists are great for getting some of the clutter out of your brain. And then I sometimes look at something on the long-term list and think, “That’s not important. I’m not doing that.”

      You might try Vinnie’s idea (see below) to list three things each day for which you’re grateful. As a matter of fact, I may try that myself. Doesn’t hurt to feel the afterglow twice, and it might help me feel better if I didn’t get everything from that day’s list done.

      • Reply
        Jami Gold
        June 2, 2015 at 3:39 pm

        Yes! That’s a good idea. 🙂

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    June 2, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Kathy, I’m much more like your younger son–methodically working away to complete things, but I’m also like Jami in that I don’t bask long in the sense of accomplishment. I’m on to the next item on my list. Still, I’m learning to slow down, to take stock, to not be so driven. I actively practice appreciating all I have and all I’ve done. It’s a difficult practice, but I do it every day, in yoga meditation and in the simple practice my husband and I have of listing three things from the day for which we are grateful.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 2, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      Learning to slow down and “not be so driven…” Yeah, I’m definitely still working on that one too, Vinnie. I’m going to try that list three things you’re grateful for idea. That sounds like a very good way to end the day!

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      June 3, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      I think that’s a super idea, Vinnie. When I’m feeling stressed or pouty, I’m going to give that a whirl. 🙂

  • Reply
    Pirkko Rytkonen
    June 4, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    I’m a mixture of both finisher and non-finisher. The reason I don’t like to take on too many projects at once is that I fear I won’t get them done. I like the feel of finishing something, but most often things don’t get done….ex. housework, filing, bookkeeping, etc. What am I? Clutter in my mind stresses me out and I don’t get to even starting a new project. Someone once pointed out that it’s better to have a general list of few things to accomplish each day, rather than a specific goals. This works better for me. I hate to see the day wasted in unaccomplished chores or projects, but it happens more than I like.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    June 5, 2015 at 12:53 am

    If you don’t like the clutter in your mind from unfinished tasks and you feel like the day has been “wasted” if you don’t finish things, then I’d say you are more a finisher, Pirkko.

    My problem is that I often underestimate how long things are going to take, so I start too many things in one day and can’t possibly finish them all. That’s why I’ve had to work on giving myself permission to move things to the next day’s to-do list if they don’t get finished. That usually makes me feel better, because then I know they will get finished soon.

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    June 8, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    I’m a compulsive finisher. No doubt about it. Yet, in saying this, I live in constant frustration because I either don’t feel well enough to finish, as in, it takes me so long to finish things these days because of my CFS. Or, things have to wait until there are funds to finish the project. So I’ve learned to live in the moment because things don’t necessarily happen exactly when we think they should Kassandra.

    By the way, the house looks fantastic. What a feat! Congrats! You did it! 🙂

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    June 8, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Oh, that is definitely got to be frustrating, Karen, when other things stop you from finishing. I’ve been there at times in my life and it made me pull my hair out.

    Glad you like the way the house turned out. It was a feat of sheer stubbornness toward the end there.

  • Reply
    May 24, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    I was looking for an article like this because I’ve always been someone who needs to finish things or do tasks once they’re assigned to me. My fiance can put something off for weeks, but for me.. as soon as I know about it I need to drop everything and do it.

    This drives my fiance crazy sometimes. Because she will need to leave for work in 5mins and I’ll be distracted because an important work related email or a text from our realtor shows up and my compulsion is to immediately solve the issue being brought up.

    I think reading this will help her understand I’m not the only one out there.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 24, 2019 at 5:18 pm

      So glad you found the article helpful, Langdon!

      I’ve learned the hard way not to look at my e-mail if I have to leave the house soon. Inevitably there will be something in there that will haunt me until I can get back to it.

      It’s so tricky, finding that middle ground where we are still being responsible and getting things done, but without driving ourselves and those around us nuts! 🙂

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