Why We Rarely Finish What We Start

Ever notice how many of us start things but don’t follow through on them?

We join the gym but never go.

We buy a book but don’t read it.

We outline a book but never write it.

We sign up for a class but don’t attend it.

We start to renovate our home but don’t finish it.

You get the idea.

Why do we do this? Here’s my guess…

The “first step” in almost every process provides a psychological high that is literally addictive.

Most of us can’t get ourselves to take action until we’re utterly miserable. We can think about taking action. We can know we should take action. We can even want to take action. But until we’re miserable, we won’t.

But the moment our misery becomes too much for us, we’ll do anything to relieve it.

We join a gym. We buy a book. We buy some sandpaper and paint. Whatever. And, as a result, we suddenly feel fantastic!


Because that first step lifts us out of total misery and gives us hope. It literally takes us from darkness to light. And that trip – between the two extremes of misery and hope – is a rush.

We find ourselves wondering why it took us so long to act in the first place. And then we pat ourselves on the back. We tell our friends what we’ve done. And we suggest they make the same change in their lives. Come on in. The water feels great!

But then, something terrible happens. The high begins to wear off and we realize we must do something to stop the slide. But what?

We ponder the prospect of taking the second step toward our goal but are met with the sobering realization that it will never provide the psychological payoff that the first step did.

At best, the second step will inch us a little further toward our goal. At worst, it will inch us a little closer back toward misery since it reminds us how much work we still have to do. You mean there’s more to it than just the first step?

Now we have a problem.

We want to continue working toward our goal, but we also want to retain the high the first step gave us. What are we to do?

It depends.

If we really want to meet our goals, we suck it up and work toward them. But if we’re just junkies looking for our next psychological high, we turn our attention toward something else we’ve been miserable about and take the first step toward solving that problem.

Instead of going for our first workout at the gym, we go to the home improvement store and buy some paint. Instead of breaking out the paintbrush, we go to the store to buy a book. Instead of reading the book we just bought, we go to another gym and sign up for a membership.

And after a few decades of this we find ourselves on our deathbeds wondering why we never accomplished anything worthwhile.

Of course, we can always turn away from our lack of accomplishment and think about all the “great times” (i.e. highs) we experienced along the way. But that’s just another way of turning away from the real problem and doing another line off the mirror.

We’re all junkies in this regard. It’s hard for us to admit this because we know that doing so would make us miserable. But the good news is, the first step toward ending that misery is just as easy as taking the first step. Any first step. Go ahead. Try it and see for yourself.

Don’t ask me what the second step is, though. I haven’t gotten that far. You see, I’m as addicted to this high as everyone else.

I routinely start things and fail to finish them.

I buy books but don’t read them.

I sign up for the gym but don’t go.

I start writing blog posts but don’t

Originally published March 17, 2008