DRMacIver's Notebook

Difficulty finishing things

Difficulty finishing things

There's a psychological quirk of mine that I've never really got to the bottom of. I've occasionally noticed it in others, and I wonder how common it is.

It's this: Some part of me clearly rebels at finishing things.

This isn't slacking. I do also slack on some things, granted, but that's not what I mean. I mean I do something like 90-99% of the work and then just... stop. I don't want to take the final step and complete it.

This shows up across a variety of areas. I'm not quite sure what the common thread is - there needs to be some sense in which it's a "task", but it happens for both enjoyable ones and unenjoyable ones.

A trivial example of this is that often I'll fail to wash up everything. I'll do almost all of it but I'll leave one or two items on the side because I can't be bothered to do those right now.

It also shows up on large writing projects - I'm the worst at large writing projects. I know I write a lot, but virtually all my successful writing happens in one sitting.

Games, too. There are a number of games I've played something like 90% of the game and then "got bored of". Sometimes this is because the game got too hard towards the end, but I don't think that's all of it. I definitely stopped playing before I plateaued.

I've also noticed this in what projects I'm attracted to. I really like problems where it's impossible to solve them optimally and there is always room for improvement. I still stop before the end, of course, but that's now because there is no end. My recent adventures in Wordle solving are an example of this.

Some things the source of the aversion to finishing is pretty clear: If I finish the project, I have to act on it. If I finish writing a paper, I have to go through the publication process. If I finish a blog post or newsletter issue I've spent ages on, I have to deal with the fact that it might not succeed, etc.

But this doesn't actually feel like a central example of the problem. As I've shown every day this month, it's not that hard for me to publish writing for the public. I do sometimes procrastinate a little on finishing it, but not much.

It feels like this is because the action of writing it is atomic in some way - the writing I do is generally something that is short enough that I can do it in one sitting (although I do often take breaks) and so it's just "one" task. The things that are hard to finish are composite, often done over many sittings.

Why does this happen? I honestly don't know. The best I can describe it is that there's a sort of ugh reaction as the finish approaches. It feels a bit like being tired of the task, but as I've noted before, I think tiredness responses like this are often fake.

Maybe this is a difficulty with transitions. The sharp end of a task is something to fear, in a way that a gradual drifting away from it is not.

I wonder if there's something comforting to a part of me about an unfinished task. As long as there are things to do, I don't have to confront the real choice of what I do next. I'm always able, in principle, to return to an unfinished task, and that anchors me against having to make broader and scarier choices. I don't return of course. That would require finishing them, and abandoning the comfort of having something concrete to do.

I don't really know if this is it though. There's a sharp and unpleasant feeling to the idea of a completion that I can't really articulate at the moment, and whatever the reason the result is myriad unfinished and half-completed tasks around me at any given time.

All I really know is what I said at the beginning: Some part of me rebels at the notion of completing a task. I can feel it even now - it's insisting that I shouldn't publish this piece until I've got to the bottom of why. I shall resist its demands.