Finish What You Start

Last week I realized something: I've been playing piano consistently for more than one year. That's a feat considering that I've wanted to play for as far back as I can remember. I've started and stopped lessons countless times (since fourth grade), bought a few “10 steps to playing piano” type of books, and have had a piano in my house for more than eight years, yet I couldn't stick with it.

But last September, I heard a piano piece that reminded me once again that I longed to play. I wanted to sit down and play something beautiful, which looking back, was part of the problem. You see, when I didn't master a fairly complicated piece of music quickly enough, I got aggravated or disinterested in practicing. When I didn't practice, I didn't want to go to a lesson. After enough uncomfortable lessons where I'd try to fake my way through, I was ready to quit.

And piano isn't the only thing I've started and stopped. No, that's a very long list, I'm afraid. Knitting and sewing projects; countless books; 28-day meditation programs (It went something like this, and I forgot about it by day seven.); paintings; jewelry making — you get the picture.

I can't say for certain what finally clicked with piano, but what kept me on track is that I decided I wouldn't quit and I wouldn't cancel lessons. If I didn't practice enough (or, ahem, at all) that week, I was going to my lesson anyway. Maybe forcing myself to do it, despite feeling like a bad student, would motivate me to practice more the next week, I thought.

Lack of follow-through is costly
From a personal finance viewpoint, it's an expensive habit to start things and never finish! All of the examples I gave from my own life came with expenses — craft supplies, books, materials, lessons. These things cost money and weren't put to use. With piano, I had invested hours of lessons, then quit and soon forgot much of what I'd learned.

The costs of not finishing what you start are magnified when it comes to your personal finance goals. If your goal is to stop living paycheck to paycheck, you'll probably start by spending time organizing receipts or setting up your accounts in money management software. But if you let several months pass without reconciling accounts or reviewing your spending, you've wasted time and possibly money, and you're still not reaching your savings goals, which is the biggest cost of all.

The other cost of not following through isn't financial. In my experience (and this might be attributed to my type-A personality), leaving projects and goals unfinished is a knock to my self confidence. Maybe you're still living paycheck to paycheck, or maybe you're looking at unfinished projects all around your house. It doesn't feel good to be reminded that you've failed to follow through.

How to reach finish line
Let's say you have a few goals that you've never been able to reach. You get inspired, but life gets in the way and these goals fall by the wayside. How do you accomplish them, and if it hasn't happened by now, should you even try? Here are four questions to help you get started:

  1. Are you serious about this goal? I wasn't serious about making jewelry. I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe I was bored one day or saw something crafty online — who knows? Maybe you signed up for ballet lessons because you went to The Nutcracker. Maybe you read about the benefits of swimming and bought a gym membership, goggles, and a swim cap. If you think it's just a whim, then quit. Don't continue to pour time and money into something that's not deeply interesting or important. If you are serious about your goal, proceed to question two.
  2. When can you work on reaching it? I never used to do this. Countless articles and books tell you, “Be specific!” and “Write it down!” and I never listened. You literally need to take out a pen (or open your calendar app) and schedule the time. How often will you practice and for how long? When will you review your spending for the week? If it's not written down, you'll skip it or forget about it entirely.
  3. What does success look like? Maybe there's no end in sight, like with piano. There's always going to be more to learn, so establishing a consistent practice time is my goal. But maybe your goal is to save a $10,000 emergency fund, and you can attach figures and dates to your goal. Again, write it down.
  4. How will you track your progress? Unless you can see progress, you're going to lose interest. In piano, my progress is tracked in my assignments notebook where my teacher writes down my homework for the week. I can leaf through it and see how far I've come. With a savings goal, you can track your progress with charts and graphs provided by almost any personal finance software program or app. Many will let you define specific goals and track your progress for you.

It's not easy to stick with some goals. There are days that I come home from my piano lesson feeling deflated. There are months when I don't pay enough attention to my finances, too. But more and more I'm starting to have frank little conversations with myself before I quit something I've set out to do because it got difficult or boring: I ask myself if I'm going to talk about it, or if I'm going to actually do it.

How do you stick with your hard-to-reach goals — the ones that are difficult or tedious?

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bon
bon
8 years ago

Can we get back to personal finance please? I miss GRS circa 2009.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago
Reply to  bon

Did you and I read the same post? Hobbies are very much about time and money management.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  bon

@ bon here you go: http://www.archive.org/web/web.php please enjoy. — @ april not sure that lack of follow-through is costly. sunk costs are sunk costs and you can’t recover them. what is costly i think is to get started on something. the question is: will it be worth the cost or not? the money will be spent either way. and that’s why i think your questions 1 through 4 come handy– will the startup expense be justified in the end? because quitting will end the current expense– it just will not stop the next expense from starting (unless we learned something).… Read more »

TM @ My University Money
TM @ My University Money
8 years ago

I need to apply this line of thinking to learning a new language. As a Canadian I have been contemplating learning French and/or Spanish for a long time, but it is just so intimidating. I know I have the capability and access to materials, but it is always easy to come with reasons not to right? It would be cool to know, and may help me out in my career at some point as well. Thanks for the little extra motivation this morning.

Suze in CO
Suze in CO
8 years ago

Working on follow-through seems like an underpinning of good personal finance habits to me.

April’s 1 – 4 steps spell it out nicely. One of the times I actually achieved huge personal finance goal (coincidentally, a $10K emergency fund!) I followed those steps exactly, and it was a breeze. Since then, my “stick-to-it”-ness has fallen off. I thought this article was a nice reminder.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago

This post hit home for me because I’ve got several crafty projects on the go and I can feel the weight of obligation!

I find it helps to keep things manageable. For instance, I cross stitch Christmas tree ornaments, not big things that need framing. I knit socks more often than I commit to a sweater. I don’t have to buy a lot of materials or have a lot of time to feel a sense of accomplishment 🙂

PsychoMoney
PsychoMoney
8 years ago

This is so true, but there are times every once in a while when it is best to stop and jump ship. Sometimes we get in over our heads or we are doing something that just is not worth our time anymore. My train of thought is stuck on this right now because I just got done sticking through something that I should have stopped and walked away from. It is true I would have lost a lot of money, time, and effort if I walked away but it would have been a better move for me in the long… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

I have a different follow-through problem that has nothing to do with hobbies. It’s a real life-or-death need. I love self-employment but hate to do my books, and the bookkeeper charges too much for my DIY-or-DIE kind of operations. Yes, keeping the books is simple and “I could do it,” but my unmedicated ADHD gets on the way of receipt sorting and data entering and statement matching (yes, even with downloadable bank statements this is a nightmare for me). So instead of wasting time with useless guilt and negative ego, or pining for money I don’t have, I’ve arranged an… Read more »

Jenzer
Jenzer
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Along those lines, I think it’s helpful to insert another question between steps 1 & 2: “Am I the only one who can achieve the results I want?”

In my case, I enjoy handcrafted quilts, greeting cards, and jewelry, but I do not enjoy the process of making them. Fortunately, lots of other people do, and I’m happy to trade my money for their products.

However, those physiological results I want to get from a regular exercise routine (e.g. better sleep, reduced stress, more stamina, etc.)? Yeah, that work is all on me.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Jenzer

Right, but besides the benefits of trade, my point (perhaps obscured by my rambling style) is that you can barter hobbies or skills or favors instead of just using money to buy goods or services.

I’m calling this experimental arrangement of favor-trading with other money-deprived friends “the artist mafia.”

Sort of like this (it’s a long scene but it’s such a classic):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bB9cLr7OR-A

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I barter my bookkeeping skills with my MIL’s sewing skills. 😉

Threadbndr
Threadbndr
8 years ago

There have been a couple of posts lately about how hobbies impact personal finance. These articles have pushed me to take a look at my crafts and how I spend my time and money on them. I won’t stop knitting and stitching, but I’m trying to be more mindful of what I’ll use and what’s just ‘stash’ – a sunk cost that may not ever result in a finished object. THOSE purchases are what I want to eliminate. I have enough ‘inventory’ to make 20 pairs of socks. I don’t need more sock yarn right now. As far as the… Read more »

PB
PB
8 years ago
Reply to  Threadbndr

Knitting helped to keep me sane when my son was in Iraq. When he got back, I looked at my stash and realized that I was set for supplies for YEARS!!! I made a pact with myself not to buy any more yarn until I had used up everything I had on hand. This has not entirely worked — I needed more to finish a project and a few family babies came along where I needed specific colors — but by and large it has been a good discipline. Unused supplies, however much you love a hobby or craft, are… Read more »

Threadbndr
Threadbndr
8 years ago
Reply to  PB

PB, *I* started knitting again when my son was in Iraq, too! The stitches on the needles got me through a double deployment, my mom’s hospitalization, hospice and settling her estate. I find that the act of creating something is very soothing and an instant ‘calm’ in stressful times/places. I’m not even worried with travel delays or ‘down’ times – as long as I have water/tea, my knitting and an audio book, I’m set for hours!

Isitaneedorawant
Isitaneedorawant
8 years ago
Reply to  Threadbndr

Great to see there is someone else who brings a water bottle/mug of tea,knitting project and in my case my iPod with pod casts on it everywhere. Frustrated. me when I was flying on a trip 28 hours each direction and could not get definitive info as to what kind/ size of needles would/would not be allowed on board:)(I survived) In the last two weeks I went through my wool stash, I have committed to knitting/using the wool or it’s out the door to someone or group that can put it to use. When my mother was receiving chemo treatments… Read more »

JR
JR
8 years ago
Reply to  Threadbndr

Absolutely true. There is nothing wrong w/ trying something out, expanding your horizons a bit perhaps. One certainly does not need to go all-out on the endeavor in the beginning. I’m certain that even Michael Phelps started w/ just a wet toe in the back yard.
If you’ve given it an honest try and find you truly do not like it, no worries.

Carly+Wilson
Carly+Wilson
8 years ago
Reply to  Threadbndr

I find that grandmothers will always trade yarn for conversation 🙂

Josh
Josh
8 years ago

I’ve had the same problem for years now with learning German and Russian. I’ll do it for 3 months or so and start to get it and then with no one else to speak the language with I lose interests and end up forgetting most of what I learned. It’s not that I don’t want to learn the language its just that I’m not following through 100% to the finish.
Great post! thanks. 🙂

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Same here, same two languages (also Latin)

MizLoo
MizLoo
8 years ago
Reply to  Andrew

What you both need is to find a native speaker who wants something you have = English conversation for 1/2 hour, then Spanish ditto, e.g.

My brother the Latin teacher (high school) would be delighted to tutor you for a fairly small fee.

Money Beagle
Money Beagle
8 years ago

The biggest thing I’ve seen that helps you keep your goals on track is setting a large goal with small goals as milestones along the way. Paying off a $15k debt might seem huge, and even if you start of gung ho about it, you could lose momentum after a few months of success. Setting a milestone of, say, $12k will help you feel a sense of achievement with your next milestone another goal to hit.

Bella
Bella
8 years ago

April,
Nice article, I’m currently in process of those 4 steps in regards to a new exercise regimen. for the first time ever I waited to get the month long membership till I knew I had a plan to make it there. It’s only $20 for a month, but that was $20 I wanted to get the max benefit from. So this week, I start, I’ve carved out time, I know what sucess looks like (less weight, fit into my clothes again), and I’m making a commitment (at least for the next month :))

CincyCat
CincyCat
8 years ago

Scheduling time is key, however, you also need to make sure that those around you will support your commitment. It’s one thing for me to block two evenings a week to study. It’s quite another for my husband to support my commitment by handling the family evening routine 100% while I’m out of pocket. If, however, he was calling or texting me all the time asking when I was coming home (he doesn’t, by the way…), it would seriously undermine my resolve to stick with my study schedule. I’m also a big fan of visual cues (April’s tip #4). For… Read more »

Bella
Bella
8 years ago
Reply to  CincyCat

Totally agree – part of waiting to sign up – was completing the negotiations with my hubby about me taking the time. Much happier to be married, but some things were defintley simpler as a single gal.

Jasanna
Jasanna
8 years ago

This has been something I’ve struggled with my ENTIRE life! I’ve never been great at following through. I go ADD and off I run in another direction after something bright and shiny. But this year, that was my goal. To finish things. To begin a good habit of journaling (or blogging: http://munchtalk.blogspot.com/) regularly. To learn to cook better and not just bake sweets. To get my house *really* in order and not just let it stay that way for a couple of days. I haven’t always been successful, but I think, like you said, it’s important to really follow through.… Read more »

Zeynep
Zeynep
8 years ago
Reply to  Jasanna

Jasanna, it may help to quantify goals: E.g. “make two non-desert meals from scratch weekly”. We have been contemplating how to eat more vegetables and now have a goal of two vegetarian meals a week.

Krantcents
Krantcents
8 years ago

The easy solution is don’t take assignments that you do not plan on finishing. I will only set goals that I am trying to accomplish. Usually, I reach my goal. It takes discipline and tenacity.

Zeynep
Zeynep
8 years ago

I have been thinking about this topic a lot as we approach the end of the year. Despite being pretty good financially, 2011 has felt like a year where I was a bit adrift. I think back to the years when I felt really successful and it was always those years when I set a limited amount of goals and wrote them down. E.g. “write a joint paper with husband”, “graduate in top 25% of class”, etc. Goal setting is crucial to success, even for ambiguous projects. I want to learn how to invest better. So I think next year,… Read more »

Stellamarina
Stellamarina
8 years ago

I once read about somebody who made a goal “nonnegotiable” and have kept to that all their life because it can not be changed. That is a little scary but I have actually committed myself to one such goal. Flossing my teeth nightly. :0) That was after a few bad dentist visits. Flossing was not part of my culture growing up. In this case it has become daily habit so it makes it easier. There are a few other goals that I have been tempted to add to the nonnegotiable category but have scared myself off.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago
Reply to  Stellamarina

I will give you $1000 if you don’t floss your teeth tomorrow.

Stellamarina
Stellamarina
8 years ago

Am not tempted. Medicare does not cover dental costs and so I will need my teeth in good condition going into retirement. $1000 does not go far at the dentists.

This brings up a good point though. My doctor once asked me if I could lose weight if I knew that I would get $1,000,000 as a reward. It does fit in with incentive for changing bad habits as well as the recent article about being in good health to prevent medical costs.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
8 years ago
Reply to  Stellamarina

Being in apparently good health is absolutely not going to necessarily guarantee reduced medical costs. There is a whole lot of magical thinking going on with health issues, and even more really, really bad information. So much of what we think we know just isn’t so. Re weight: losing weight by going on a diet is almost always a mistake. Most very obese people have lost and regained tons of weight, sometimes literally. Just staying where you are and not yo-yoing is important. For an authoritative expert who uses sound science search for “Sharma obesity” and subscribe to his blog.… Read more »

Melissa
Melissa
8 years ago
Reply to  Stellamarina

I disagree strongly with SLCCOM’s comment about health care and magical thinking. I am an ER nurse and I can almost always see the difference between someone who has lived a healthy lifestyle and someone who has not. People who eat well, exercise, don’t smoke, etc. still get serious illnesses sometimes, but they generally get less sick and recover faster and better. A healthy lifestyle is a great investment toward a physically and financially healthy life. And flossing is an important part of that- gum disease is a source of chronic inflammation, and has been correlated with incidence of stroke!… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
8 years ago
Reply to  Stellamarina

Well, Melissa, I said a “healthy lifestyle” would not GUARANTEE lower health costs. You disagree with that? Wow! Talk about magical thinking! As an ER nurse, you see a different population than, say, a rheumatologist, and appear to indulge in your own form of magical thinking: i.e, if these slobs would just have lived a healthy lifestyle, they wouldn’t be so sick, and if they got sick, they would get well a lot faster. This does not make you a good nurse; it makes you one of the people who are the problem for those of us who live unhealthy… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
8 years ago
Reply to  Stellamarina

We scattered dental floss all around the house, everywhere we sit down. The kitchen table; bedroom nightstand; living room table where we sit and watch TV; desk center drawer. Then when it crosses our minds, the floss is there.

Bella
Bella
8 years ago
Reply to  Stellamarina

The floss daily mantra by the dentists is a whole lot of HOOEY. At least for me – I had a few bad visits, I started flossing daily for three months solid, no improvement. I started shortening the time between cleanings – BIG IMPROVEMENT

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

On the other hand, this course of action leads immediately towards the sunk-cost fallacy for any instance in which you should have quit while you were ahead (or at least less behind). This could mean, for instance, giving up on piano after you miss six lessons in a row, but *before* you drop thousands of dollars on your own piano to put in your front room. So, finish what you start, except when you shouldn’t. In regards to point 1 from the bottom of the article: “Are you serious about this goal?” I encourage anyone contemplating that question to read… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago

“if you were serious about it, you would be taking it seriously ”

Nonsense! I think that thousands of writers who struggle with fear/writer’s block/lack of time/etc would strenuously disagree with this!

Sometimes, (often) there are psychological reasons why we’re not doing something that might be really, really important to us.

Bella
Bella
8 years ago
Reply to  imelda

But that’s the point – if it were that important you would be finding ways to overcome the writer’s block, or whatever it is.
you know it’s perfectly fine to say – I want to play the piano – but I value spending this time in my children’s life with them more
OR
I want to play the piano – but I want to make enough money to get out of debt first
This are all choices that we make – own up to them!

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  Bella

Lol, you don’t know many writers, do you?

Like I said… something can be important to you, and you still struggle with periods of fear, block, inaction, etc.

And I use the word “struggle” advisedly – because we are constantly working to overcome those periods, and DO overcome them, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back again and again.

Here’s a great TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert that touches on this fear…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA

K.C.
K.C.
8 years ago

I agree with Tyler. Those activities that I truly value become incorporated into my daily living. They become part of my lifestyle. If I quit doing an activity, it is because it just isn’t that important to me anymore. Our use of time reflects our values.

erika
erika
8 years ago
Reply to  K.C.

I don’t agree at all. Like April, I have started and stopped piano lessons for years. When I was a kid, it probably wasn’t that important to me, but as an adult I have a strong pull and a sense of longing everytime I think about the piano, and sincerely wish I had stuck with the lessons (or started them again). However, as a full time working mom with 3 little kids aged 6 – newborn and a husband with 2 jobs, there are a lot of obstacles to learning the piano that have nothing to do with my desire… Read more »

cc
cc
8 years ago
Reply to  erika

i sat down at the family piano at thanksgiving and banged out a rendition of chopsticks instead of the beethoven i ambitiously tried to learn myself as a kid. my poor family. that aside- i was on a committee to grant a scholarship a few years ago. one student was hugely talented, but their work was varied and scattershot and they kept referencing other things they wanted to do. finally another judge asked “well if you want to do xyz so bad, why don’t you have any here to show us?” at the time i thought it was a little… Read more »

Eileen
Eileen
8 years ago

Asking yourself that #1 question April listed is key. My version is, “Will leaving this thing unfinished hold me back or propel me forward?” Many times, I realize that the unfinished projects are responsible for clutter, in addition to wasted time/money/thought. I also tell myself, “If I don’t feel like doing/reading/using this thing RIGHT NOW, will I actually feel like it later?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but often it is No. In the ‘No’ cases I am able to (in my case) recycle huge piles of things that I know I won’t read, or get rid of craft supplies… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago

Thank you for this post! Even though it wasn’t directly PF-related, I was very glad to see it here. Having just failed NaNoWriMo (or, as I’m *about* to fail it), I am glad to read your rubric. In particular, the idea of scheduling specific time to work on your project. I wish I’d thought of that, rather than saying “I’ll write 1,000 words whenever I have the time.” I’ll definitely adopt that in December. Also, I was really glad to see your first point – if you’re not serious about it, then stop. I have been picking up my guitar… Read more »

Cherleen @ My Personal Finance Journey
Cherleen @ My Personal Finance Journey
8 years ago

Sometimes we have to try out different things, not only to expand our horizons, but also to see if we are fit for it. Realistically speaking, there are things that we really wanted to do only to find out that we cannot endure it. I suggest to attend trial lessons or trial classes first before signing up and spending money.

Anna
Anna
8 years ago

This post completely speaks to me-I have always been a great starter and a terrible finisher. I’ve always wanted to write, put in on every “goal” list for years, and NEVER did. BUT, I finally forced myself to put myself in the chair for scheduled time every single day, whether I wrote or not I sat there, and I finished. I am so proud-not because I’m sure it’s a great book, but just because I actually something.

Carly+Wilson
Carly+Wilson
8 years ago

Wonderful article!
I think that it is so valuable to start – and then finish – a project. This is something that is very difficult to do. It is always easy to start something but to plow past the honeymoon stage and get to the finishline is hard. For the haters that said this article is not about personal finance, you’re wrong. Setting a money goal and maintaining steadfast until you accomplish it is no easy thing to do!

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
8 years ago

Finishing reading books is not required. If you lose interest in a fiction book, the author is at fault, or something in your life interfered with it. Either way, you have no moral or legal obligation to finish it. It took me until my 30s to figure this out and quit forcing myself to read all kinds of mediocre stuff and spend the time on good stuff.

Finishing writing a book is another animal.

cc
cc
8 years ago

i recently finished up a three month art project. it was incredibly ambitious – basically a whole new art portfolio- and so many times i wanted to slow down or just stop and give up entirely. between my husband’s support and not wanting to let myself down, i kept going and finally finished last wednesday. printing out the final art portfolio of brand-new paintings was an amazing feeling. i have a vague interest in going to grad school for art. the last time i looked at it though, it seemed like the principle goal was to create a brand-new portfolio… Read more »

Matt, Tao of Unfear
Matt, Tao of Unfear
8 years ago

I was practicing my Spanish during my commute to work, but now that I’m unemployed, I don’t have a set time to work on it, and it naturally doesn’t happen. I need to sit down and rehash my schedule. I noticed a few people mentioned language as well, and there are some really great free resources (especially if you’ve already had Spanish lessons and are just working toward fluency). The first is BBC Languages. Some of the material might not be accessible outside of the UK, but if you can access it, it’s really high quality. The second is Anki,… Read more »

Christa
Christa
8 years ago

You’ve inspired me to try the violin. I’ve wanted to play since I was 8 years old, but I was never very musically inclined. And since the violin is one of the most difficult instruments to master, I’ve never attempted it. Now, though, if I set the goal and practice every day, maybe I could eventually play a few easy pieces. I’ll never be a pro, but that’s okay with me.

KS
KS
8 years ago
Reply to  Christa

I started the cello at the age of 37 (and am now 44). Go for it!

Frances
Frances
8 years ago

I am in the process of decluttering my house; my unfinished projects (or things that I “thought I’d like to try”) is directly costing me money. I’ve hired someone to help so the project actually gets done, and I’m paying her to box up unused stuff, and paying again in fuel and my time to haul it to the local WIN drop-off…on top of having paid for the items in the first place. Now, if my circumstances hadn’t changed and I didn’t need the real estate cleared right now, it would be less expensive, and probably I would have gradually… Read more »

bobj
bobj
8 years ago

It’s refreshing to see your article… not the same old money stuff!

Kiz
Kiz
8 years ago

I was one of those people who loved to start new exciting things, which has resulted in a spare room full of unfinished projects. Getting my finances in order 4 years ago allowed me to see that i can do anything if i just stick with it Good finances led me to my dream travel to Germany, Peru and the Mediterranean in the last 3 years Now I am exercising regularly, grow a garden, use my leftovers to create healthy meals for my family and recently finished a major home exterior remodel project I also have stuck with a weight… Read more »

KS
KS
8 years ago

I recommend Barbara Sher’s “Refuse to Choose” for others like myself who feel guilty about starting and not “finishing”. There are a lot of problems with the book and it’s often wildly unrealistic, but many of her suggestions were very helpful in getting me past the guilt of starting/stopping. I’ve done that for my entire adult life and have learned to be content – sometimes, all I want to do is dabble. I make sure I don’t invest tons of money in each project, but have gotten over the guilt associated with starting things but not finishing them. And many… Read more »

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