in Development

The Psychology Behind Not Finishing Projects


Shiny new projects hold such promise, so why do they often fade into oblivion? No matter what the task — a programming project, a new diet, a simple chore — it can be vexing when not finishing projects become a pattern.  In fact,  it’s downright harmful.

In research settings, people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being. There’s no question our attachment to the constant stream of stimuli from computers and phones play a major role in distracting us from tasks at hand, but procrastination runs much deeper than distractions.  True procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation, and it has much less to do with time management than it does your emotional management.

To tell a chronic procrastinator to just do it, would be like telling a clinically depressed person “cheer up”.  We have to first understand what underlying issues are causing work to go unfinished, and learn to remedy these appropriately.

Why Your Projects Go Unfinished

The disconnect is between intention and action;  new ideas are exciting and novelty is motivating, but most of us are wired to look at the big picture before considering the steps it will take to complete a task.  When the tedium of a project sets in and becomes more difficult than expected, we turn on the brakes.  It’s discouraging to get into a project and realize you’re in over your head, and embedded into that discouragement is a larger fear of failure. We know what we ought to do, and are not able to bring ourselves to do it, we’ve created a fear driven-mental block due to lack of foresight.

The ‘perfectionist’ problem: Perhaps for some of us (especially type A personalities) the problem is not that the intrinsic details are too laborious to handle. Instead, we focus on every tiny detail to the point of inhibiting the big picture.  We are scared that if every bit of the minutia is not impeccable, we will fail ourselves or our critics. In turn, we run the risk of missing deadlines, falling behind on other moving parts, and increasing our overall stress.

Success is scary: Success and failure are not so different.  With the completion of a successful project, you may be set to higher levels of expectation.  No one wants to fall off the wave of success, and that pressure can be difficult to manage.  For some, it may subconsciously create major roadblocks to finishing.

Evaluate & Stay in Motion!

First thing’s first: take a personal survey to evaluate the reason you’re having trouble finishing.  Is it just one thing, or a combination of reasons?  It’s entirely possible to be a mixed bag off procrastinatory issues, but don’t worry, there is a cure.

You wouldn’t go out and run a marathon without training first. Treat a completed project like a marathon; even Olympians set small attainable goals for each workout, apply this to your task in order to avoid getting stuck.  Plan, research, and break down daily and weekly goals,  and write them down to keep yourself accountable.  This will allow you to create a timeline and action steps, and free yourself from the tedium by making a large project manageable.


Get a Buddy

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was built under the eye of a powerful dictator!  No, we’re not suggesting everyone have their own Ceasar, however, having a friend or colleague to keep you accountable can be an effectual tool for your mental perseverance.  A persistent partner with follow through can keep you honest and help you stay motivated throughout a project.  

If you’re getting too wrapped up in the details, remind yourself that you could be missing out on other important pieces.  It’s a major misconception that working under pressure can produce better results, and if you get stuck on one piece of the puzzle, you are injecting unnecessary time and pressure stressors into your work.  If you know prioritizing is a problem for you, only allow yourself allotted amounts of time to work on a piece, and then move to the next.  Maintaining fluidity is important for building an upward trajectory.  If there are issues with the project once it is technically ‘complete’, know that you can always go back and make improvements, and without the stress!

Getting something done — and done right — is no simple feat, but once you understand where your roadblocks are coming from, you have the opportunity to make a change. No matter what the source of your hesitation, realize that stressing about not working only makes your task more difficult. Finishing ultimately relies on your ability to regulate emotions in a productive way.  Project yourself into the future, imagine the good feelings you receive from finished work, and go forth!

  • Wes

    This was helpful to me! Thank you for writing this artcile.

  • Korede Akinleye

    Wow, you got it right exactly the issue I have

  • Kim E

    A good friend of mine has this motto of “don’t think about it, just do it” and I find that if I start to think about a project, it becomes overwhelming. I have started doing the not-thinking part and it has helped; I just jump-in and next thing that I know, I have accomplished a task! Now, if I could do this on a regular basis…

    • Flash_ZA

      I’m going to try this from now on. It sounds like a nice ideologie to have

  • Summer313

    I have only set aside something I started twice in my life. One was because I landed in a wheelchair. The other was so long ago I cannot remember why I didn’t finish it. I hate it when I get daily promises about what the other is going to do. To date, 14 years later, I have not seen him complete a single project. The hundreds he promises, my needs are not important, what he wants is all he does. It does not matter if it hurts me, even physically, he will do what he wants. I wish I could get out but being bedridden raises many issues and creates a laundry list of impossibilities. There is no way he would ever even try to learn anything new, he is so dead set in his head he knows it all that there is nobody that even has a friendship with him left. Even his kids don’t see him since they graduated high school. It is a horrible place to be.