Book Recommendation: Finish by Jon Acuff
I’d like to end this year and begin next year by recommending a book to you. This fall, I read Finish by Jon Acuff, and it changed how I approach all of my goals. I didn’t expect this outcome, as I usually finish things (like novels). But this has made it easier and less stressful to do so, and I feel like I’m doing even more than I was before. You might be shocked to learn it is because I’m expecting less of myself.
“What was astonishing to me is something that should be more apparent to all of us: the exercises that caused people to increase their progress dramatically were those that took the pressure off, those that did away with the crippling perfectionism that caused people to quit their goals. Whether they were trying to lose a pants size, write more content on a blog, or get a raise, the results were the same. The less that people aimed for perfect, the more productive they became.
It turns out that trying harder isn’t the answer.”
Acuff, Jon. Finish (pp. 4-5). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
A few years ago, I did vision therapy for several months. I was disciplined and always did my exercises. I always attended my appointments. But one thing kept popping up as a problem – I was trying too hard. In order to improve with the exercises, I had to relax. I had to try less. This sounded ridiculous because I was spending a lot of money on this therapy. I really wanted it to succeed. But I did as I was told and tried to relax. The crazy thing? It worked.
But did I try this with anything else? No, don’t be silly. This is America. Trying harder is always the answer.
There is a lot about writing which is subjective, so I’ve always known there is no perfectly disciplined approach that will yield an entirely predictable result. However, it is safe to say if you don’t work on it, it won’t happen. So I worked on it. And I worked on it. And when I didn’t work on it, I felt terrible.
If I didn’t hit the word count goals I’d pulled from thin air, I had failed, even if I had written something. I could beat myself up for failing to complete my task. The funny thing here is I’ve finished two books in two years; it isn’t like I was slacking. It just always felt like I was.
Last year after the Writing Excuses Cruise, I did very little work on the draft of my second novel. It stressed me out to think about it because it wasn’t very good. I wasn’t very good. I wasn’t working on it, so I wasn’t improving. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. The draft wasn’t finished until spring, and I’m still not happy with that book overall.
For this third novel, I still have targets. But I set them with the tips in this book in mind, so they’re very manageable. I frequently outdo them. I also don’t follow as many “rules” on how to write the draft. Last week I rewrote an entire scene, just to see if it worked better without one of the characters. It did. I’ll keep both versions in my draft folder. I’m counting all those words.
I can get hung up on the inefficiency of this method. Write a terrible first draft with all sorts of extra scenes where I figure out what I want to do? Wouldn’t it be faster to figure out what I’m going to do ahead of time and write it down that way? Turns out, no, not really.
In trying to make the perfect product right out of the gate, and in trying to follow my perfect plan in writing it, I ended up doing nothing at all. And nothing at all is horribly inefficient compared to something.
“Once the streak is broken, I can’t pick it back up. My record is no longer perfect so I quit altogether. This is a surprisingly common reaction to mistakes.”
Acuff, Jon. Finish (p. 9). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I’ve started using this book to help me with my fitness goals, as well. It turns out I’m a lot like other people in this area of my life – I come up with a great plan, follow it for a bit, and then as soon as I fail once, I stop. Why do it at all if I can’t be perfect? How will I maximize the impact of my exercise if I don’t follow the plan?
This is silly now that I write it down, of course. If I’m supposed to walk five times a week but only walk four, that’s four times more than the zero I’ll walk if I quit. That’s still a big health benefit. Will I see all the same gains in lifting weights if I miss a session like I did last week for Christmas? No, the gains will not come as fast, but they will come.
I just set some goals for 2020 in terms of health. I used to associate a certain number of words or hours writing with an increase in money I could spend on frivolous things in video games, but I’m switching that to health in 2020. Every X number of points gets me Y number of dollars. Thanks to this book, I came up with the max number of points I could earn in a week. Then I set the goal at half. Because I’ll likely get more than half, but this gets me to at least half, and half is half more than the none I might do if it looks like I’m not going to make it.
“Perfectionism is a poison that pretends to be a vitamin” Jon Acuff’s Instagram
It is easy to think if we just try harder, plan better, and become more disciplined we can do anything. Or more often, we can do all the things. If we were better people, we could do so much more. This thought process can motivate us for a bit and make us feel like it is wise advice, but in the end, it does nothing but cripple our progress. We can get overwhelmed, fail, and then quit instead of taking the small (if imperfect) steps forward to our goal.
If any of the above sounds familiar to you, you should consider reading Finish by Jon Acuff. There are eight chapters with ways to change how you approach goals. It is easy to read, insightful, and funny (bonus). I plan to reread it this week as we enter the new decade as a refresher, so let me know if you read it and we can compare notes!