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Ask HN: I can't seem to finish anything. Can I get some advice?
23 points by jwdunne on Aug 13, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 19 comments
I struggle a lot with procrastination. I'm not even sure if its that, laziness, a lack of discipline or all three.

From the age of 13, I distinctly remember not bring able to finish software/game projects, not out of difficulty but something I can barely describe. I just hit a block. If I try and force my way past it, I go at a snails pace and have no where near as much energy as when first starting the project. This is true even if its a trivial project longer than a couple of days.

This is true for almost everything in my life. Ill stick to a healthy eating regime for a couple if weeks, I'll exercise daily for 5 days and books and projects remain some percentage completed. The only things I can seem to finish are ones I can do in one sitting.

What's interesting to note is that this problem is more subtle. It is not as intense.

I was wondering if anyone has any advice? I do believe this problem is seriously getting in the way if my life.

I struggled with this for years. I solved this problem with one simple rule. I don't allow myself to talk about what I am planning, or doing, but only what I have done. It doesn't have to be a whole project finished, it could just be a part of it. So I could not say, "I'm working on this awesome RPG it's going to have blah blah", but I could say, "Last night I got this really cool feature working in my RPG map generator". etc..

That doesn't work for everyone, I know some people that are motivated by telling people what they are working on so they feel like there's pressure on them. But that's just what worked for me.

The other thing that helps me is to set artificial deadlines with "cooling off" periods. So I plan a demo or a release for, say, the end of next month with the self-impose rule that no matter how much, or how little I've completed, or even if I miss the deadline entirely, the day after the deadline I will set the project aside for six months.

You might consider practicing finishing. Select a book (preferably not a huge one) and read the whole thing. Then read another one. Then start and finish a small project. If you are presently able to finish something that is doable in one sitting, then expand to two sittings. Or whatever.

I'm a random stranger on the internet, and this might not help you at all. But it seems to help me.

Read The Motivation Hacker by Nick Winter. $2.99. I will personally guarantee you'll get a ton of value out of it. If you don't, I'll paypal you the cost of the book, just email me.


Thank you for this link - really great book. On nook it costs only 2 pounds. This helps me get stuff done - recommended.

What happens if you don't finish the project? Nothing?

If I don't finish a project I'm working on, I don't eat. Well, I'm not that bad off, but my projects do put the bread on the table.

Maybe that's a good test. I find I have a hard time finishing projects which are probably just a waste of my time. Then at some point I realize the project is a waste of my time and trash it. Now I try to guard my time more carefully. We only have so much time on this planet, we need to be careful where we spend it.

I think it's too easy for developers to waste time on some shiny new object or taking the time to build something for the sake of building something. They have some itch they want to scratch but ultimately it's not providing value to anyone. Instead, we need to think of our skills as just a tool to provide real value. For example, a developer starting a business will first think about code (should I build it in Rails!?) when that person should really be thinking about the market first (is anyone going to pay for this thing?.)

Scratching an itch or coding nothing important is okay for sharpening the saw, or putting in some "garage" time. My Dad spent years building cars in our garage after work. He never finished any of them, but I don't think that was important. I think more important was the process and the outlet. He provided value to customers at work, but then after work was his time to lose himself in his shop. If he finished a project, then he wouldn't have anything else to do!

Just do it.

No, really. I think that most of the people that say "I can't seem to finish this", "I don't have enough time for this", etc etc have fallen into a trap because we are the first to experience this such interconnected reality that gives us the chance to read about, study, tinker with a lot of information.

The solution I have found to this (not checked over years but working fine these last few weeks) is that I just make my mind and I just do what I decide. Do I say "I'll implement this feature this morning"? There is no facebook, twitter, email or anything else until I implement it. Do I say "I want to check what's happening in the world"? I set a goal for what I am currently working on - a goal that is short-term manageable, like "don't code the whole user profile for my app but at least write the skeleton" - and then I check what's happening in the world. Do I say "I'd like to study some physics"? I study physics. Do I want to procrastinate? I do so.

No guilt. No chasing myself. No pretending to do work. Just doing it.

This is not a conclusion I would jump to easily or quickly, but I have/had similar problems, and ended up being diagnosed with ADHD. I take medication now, and it makes a huuuuge difference with 'procrastination' and problems finishing things (and many other things too)

That being said, you describe this as a 'subtle' problem - in my case it was intense, and causing huge life problems for me.

I can't diagnose you no matter how much information you give me, but it might not be a bad idea to talk to a psychiatrist or a (properly qualified!) psychologist? You could also do some research on techniques for coping with ADHD - most of the techniques are common-sense, good practice, and if you don't have ADHD they'll be even more effective than they are for someone who does have ADHD.

When you were little you did something and was punished for that. It hurted. As a self-preservation instinct you setup an inner belief that says: "if you'll finish this - you will get hurt. You better stop now". Your creativity drives your actions. Your old erratic belief triggers the self-sabotaging fear.

You have to face your fear. Setup small, innocent project and complete it. Feel the fear arising in you while you close to completion. Do it. Just a tiny little project. Pat yourself on the back. Then do something like that again. Small. Simple. Rinse and repeat. The fear with melt and evaporate, self-destructed by the results of your actions that reinforces your inner power.

Probably because you don't have enough reason to finish it. If you had users clamoring for you to finish the project or a boss then you would probably finish. I would suggest doing something similar to agile. If you know you can't work on something more than a couple of days set a 3 day sprint only add features you think you can finish and add the rest to the backlog. complete your sprint. if you feel your upto another sprint start another one. Also, find others you can work with that depend on you(customers, teammates rtc.). Most people work harder for others that depend on them than for themselves.

This has really helped me. Seth Godin's excellent "Ship It" Journal:


We all struggle with this problem, to a greater or lesser degree. One solution is to keep your work in manageable chunks. Another is to develop a habit of completion. Another is using a task management system religiously. Another is to have structure imposed on you externally (the day job is a classic way to do that).

I often say "Finished is better than perfect, always." It's a reminder to me as well as to the people I try to help with it.

One of the biggest struggles is with multitasking. Don't do that, if you can avoid it. Work on one thing at a time. The Pomodoro technique helps in keeping focus, I think.

I find I suffer from a similar problem. For me I figure the reasoning is based in learning potential; at the beginning of a project or piece of software you have the most to learn. As the project continues you begin to do more and learn less, and since I enjoy learning new things a lot I find myself less motivated to continue and more enthused to start something else (which also will not get finished).

It's a vicious cycle of incomplete work and hyper-learning, but I'm mostly okay with that.

I would practice failing at things. It took a ton of pushing from a friend/co-founder to actually release a recent project. If I were on my own I would have never "finished" it. It wasn't done. People would mock me. People would find problems with it. People might even get angry because it wasn't perfect. Eventually, we released it and it felt good (even if it isn't the best product in the world, and I have plans for many improvements).

1. Don't tell anybody because it will give you a sense of achievement and you will loose your motivation.

2. Do one thing at a time, like next 20 days for x project/habit/task.

3. Do't just plan it will give you sense of relief that you have done enough instead identify risks like what I'll do if I spent time on Facebook instead of doing x task and take action for the same.

4. Choose small task

5. Do it daily even for 10 min.

I just wrote an article on the topic. It's my first blog post so excuse if the quality of writing is average, I hope the message is useful regardless: http://tinyurl.com/nyvp32j

At one point I would set up some sort of reward for myself for finishing or hitting some milestone in a project. Normally my reward was eating fast food you might want to choose something else something you want to do but don't do often.

See Pat Flynn's concept of "finish small batches to completion"


Jerry Seinfeld's "don't break the chain" calendar

Pramiracetam every other day. Brainwave Entrainment (search for Neuro-Programmer 3) with affirmations.

The most important thing to realize is:

This isn't happening to you. You are doing it to yourself.

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