On the Pain of Finishing a Project (and How to Stay Motivated Even When You Feel Defeated)

A Truly Exciting Thought

5267481266 848fac40e9 - On the Pain of Finishing a Project (and How to Stay Motivated Even When You Feel Defeated)

The initiation of any project is exciting.

There’s something about that moment – the moment you finally write your ideas on paper – that’s both invigorating and scary.

You’ve finally moved from day-dreaming to actualizing, and everything seems at once entirely possible and wholly reachable.

The goals you set not only excite you by their grandeur, but by the thought of you yourself reaching them.

The moment we write our ideas on paper and form coherent objectives, a shift occurs within us.  This shift brings about two important realizations:

  1. We’ve been ready to start this entire time
  2. Our future circumstances are entirely in our hands

And knowing these two things makes almost anything in this life possible.

And that thought truly is exciting.

Beyond Starting

It’s a good thing to enjoy and revel in this act of starting; it’s empowering, energizing, and satisfying.

But it doesn’t last forever.

After we begin our projects, the excitement of starting gives way to the pain of finishing.

This means working long, unforgiving hours to complete what we started; to hustle, grind, and create from scratch what we envisioned so easily at the outset; to do the hard, creative work of bringing into tangible form what began as letters on a page.

It’s this juxtaposition – the ease with which we started versus the excruciating difficulty of finishing – that delivers such a brutal blow to our psyches.

Moving beyond starting to finishing is anything but empowering, energizing, or satisfying.

Second Guessing

It’s bound to happen.

When we start getting into the thick of the creative fight, we second guess ourselves.

We question whether we can actually do this…

We question whether it’s even worthwhile…

We wonder if we were just kidding ourselves when we started – that maybe it was a brief moment of irrational dreaming that we can blame on the beer, or on being tired or…

And of course, when we ask questions like these, we answer the only way they CAN be answered – negatively and self-destructively.

This wondering and questioning leads to the only place it can: into the abyss of despair and despondency.

Two Courses of Action

When you’re caught up in this despondent line of thinking, there are only two possible decisions and corresponding outcomes.

1.     Give up.

You can very easily throw in the towel and walk away.  There’s no shame in this, and sometimes it can be the right choice.

All you need to do is discard the silly idea, goal, or project that’s causing you so much discomfort and get back to real life, where you know what to expect - where things are comfortable and certain and require little change.

Or you can choose the second option:

2.     Keep going.

You can, much less easily, stay in the fight and keep going.

You can work through the despair and the despondency, even if it seems hopeless.  You can move through the darkness, even if it seems never-ending.

All you need to do is hold onto that silly idea, the one that’s causing you so much discomfort, and keep moving forward in your journey - where things are uncomfortable and uncertain and full of possible failure.

On Choosing a Course

Option 1, often enough, will cure your despondency.

At least for a moment.

But then you’ll reflect, years later, and realize, had you kept going, things might be different now.  And you’ll experience that sinking feeling of regret known only to those who try half-heartedly or don’t try at all…

Option 2 will most certainly lead to more despondency.

But only momentarily.

Eventually, you will move through the darkness and find the light – you will find your finish point, complete your project, and reach your goal.

Years later, you’ll reflect and wonder how you ever did it.  And you’ll experience that warm feeling of satisfaction known only to those who strive valiantly and, win or lose, finish.

Worth the Falls

I was asked a question the other day:

“When there’s no extrinsic payoff for all the passion, energy, and long hours you put into your work...when you feel defeated...how do you stay motivated?”

The answer is simple: I don’t.

I wish the answer could be more rewarding than this – I really do.

I wish there were a magic pill to swallow, a transformative meditation to perform, or a book I could read that would extinguish, once and for all, the doubt, fear, shame, and anxiety that doing hard, personal work always brings.

But there isn’t.

There’s nothing you can do but keep going, even when you’re unmotivated, weary, and broken…

And, of course, hope, believe, and know it will all be worth it in the end.

And you will wake up realize the walk was worth a thousand falls. [Stepdad]



Let us know in the comments below where you find your motivation to keep going.

p.s. if you need help getting started, finishing your project, or shipping it to the world, you might want to try my FREE guide and workbook, The Gunslinger's Guide to Starting + The Gunslinger's Workbook, so you can start, finish, and ship your project in 30 days or less.  Subscribe below to have it sent to your inbox:

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4 comments on “On the Pain of Finishing a Project (and How to Stay Motivated Even When You Feel Defeated)”

  1. What a fantastic post, Tom. It's good to know I'm not alone. To stay motivated, I've found that staying true to the vision helps. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. Also, knowing the cost of staying where I am helps me to realize that I'm curing the pain, but I'm not removing the darkness. I'm still, essentially, in the tunnel. My position hasn't changed. I want to be out in the light, and the only way to do that is to keep going.

  2. Lehua, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment.

    That is awesome to hear that you're still going. It's normal to feel like giving up, but then we end up right where we started; discontent and hopeless...

    So good luck in your creative fight and keep going!!

    - Tom

  3. Hey Tom,
    Nice stuff today. I especially connected with "After we begin our projects, the excitement of starting gives way to the pain of finishing".
    I can't tell you how many times I find myself in this "Dip" as Seth Godin would say. The crash after the initial lightning strike of excitement and creative visioning can be debilitating. I also agree with you when you say it's "Worth the falls". When we fall, struggle, fail or bang our heads against the brick wall we always LEARN from that experience in fact we can't NOT learn from that experience. The challenge is to not make the same mistake twice but let that past learning propel you out of that dark place and creative pit into a new and better place. Keep up the fight.


    1. Alan, love your thoughts on this.

      The dip is hard...the hardest part though is the constant questioning of whether we're making the right choice or not.

      I want to quit every day, but I don't. I'm not sure if it's the right choice or not, but I simply commit and keep going.

      Thanks, and same to you!
      - Tom