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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?