Tag Archives: compulsion to finish things

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.

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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How Smug Kass Got Her Comeuppance Re: New Year’s Resolutions

(Sorry, our hiatus ended up being a little longer than intended due to illness.)

Image © Nevit Dilmen (Wikimedia commons)

I used to secretly look down on people who made New Year’s resolutions. Obviously they weren’t as in control of their lives as I am.

I’ve always felt that if something needed changing, one should make said change ASAP, not wait until the first of the year. I’m a big believer in taking action and being in control of one’s own destiny. Of course I know that there’s stuff in life we can’t control, but I smugly believed I had a handle on that reality. It was one of my basic rules for life:

We can’t always control what happens to us; we can control how we respond to it.

A little over three years ago, I had one of those ‘life is what happens while you’re making other plans’ experiences. The writing bug that had been nibbling at the edges of my brain for years decided to really sink its teeth in. I went from being a semi-retired psychologist–teaching part-time and enjoying life the rest of the time–to being a full-time writer.

I was okay with that. Yes, writing had pretty much taken over my life, but I was having a blast.

There was one aspect of being a writer that I had put off dealing with, however. Promotion. Finally, I had to face it. So last summer, I did some homework, talked to some more experienced authors, and figured I had a handle on it. I was in control. (Do you see a trend here?)

Ha!!! I’ve never worked so hard in my life as I have this past fall, and at least half the time I was spinning my wheels. Now I’m not adverse to hard work and I understand about learning curves, but this was a lot more than I’d bargained for.

“What happened to being semi-retired?” I whined to my friends.

They all just looked at me as if to say, “You’ve got control over this. If you’re not happy, do something about it.”

But I felt like I had a tiger by the tail. If I stopped promoting then everything I’d accomplished would be for naught. After awhile the readership I’d established would dwindle away. Writing would just become a hobby.

That was not okay.  Which bring us to another of my rules for life:

If you don’t like a situation, you have three alternatives: get away from it, change it or change your attitude toward it.

I didn’t want to give up on my writing career in order to get away from the promoting aspect. So obviously I had to change my approach to promoting. Again and again, I vowed to spend only a limited amount of time on it each day, stop at a certain point, take the evening off to wind down so I’d get a good night’s sleep, etc. But day after day I would spend hours tweeting, facebooking, blogging, setting up giveaways, advertising, and have maybe an hour or two to write before falling exhausted into bed.

Okay, vowing to change the behavior wasn’t working. By mid-December I realized that I needed a more concrete plan (I know; sometimes I’m a little slow). So I started a long list of New Year’s resolutions that included concrete plans.

(1) I will spend no more than three hours a day on promotion. (Concrete plan: I will set a timer. When it buzzes, I stop.)

(2) I will never spend an entire day on promotion. (Concrete plan: By 2 p.m. at the latest, I will stop promoting and start writing.)

(3) I will not work or write late into the evening causing me to go to bed too late…

Wait, wait, wait!  I’d already tried setting a timer and vowing to stop the promoting at a certain point, and somehow, most days, it didn’t happen. Why not?

(public domain; copyright expired in U.S.)

I didn’t have a good answer for that, so I gave myself permission to think about it over the Christmas holiday, while taking a break from promoting. The answer finally came to me a few days ago. (Give me a break; I already admitted I can be slow.)

I’m a finisher. I feel compelled to finish things. Once I’ve started something, I cannot stop until I’m finished! This has mostly been a good character trait to have.

But now it’s getting in the way, because the promoting will never be finished. So I have to change my attitude toward finishing. I have to tell myself that I’m finished “for today” when the three hours are up, or at the very least, when 2 o’clock rolls around.

It won’t always be easy. I’ll have to fight my finishing compulsion, and some days it may win. But now I know what the real problem is.

Moral of the story: It isn’t enough to make a resolution to change. Sometimes we have to stop and figure out what’s getting in the way.

So tomorrow I’ll finish my revised list of New Year’s resolutions. Why am I waiting until tomorrow? Because it’s 2:01 p.m.

Time to write!

What are your New Year’s resolutions? What tends to get in your way when you want to change something in your life?

(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 a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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