How To Finish What You Started, According To Jon Acuff

What’s a simple way to increase the chance that you’ll actually achieve your goals?

“Dream Big,” are two motivational words you hear a lot when trying to carve out your own path, reports Forbes. Granted, having challenging and ambitious goals are a key part in planning out your future. But are big goals really the right way to accomplish what you’ve set out to do? What if the real secret to crushing all of your goals is to make them…smaller?

Jon Acuff is an entrepreneur, speaker, and hilarious New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Start, Do Over, and his newest book is Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. He talks about how to finish out what we start, and explains the problem with big hairy audacious goals, or BHAGs. I recently interviewed Jon for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed everything from setting goals to watching comedy. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: I’m hoping you’ll share a story about a time when you failed, and what you learned from it?

Jon Acuff: I mean, I have plenty. I guess a couple that come to mind, I would say if somebody said, “What’s the biggest career mistake you’ve made in the last 10 years,” not focusing on e-mail is a pretty big failure. Like a lot of entrepreneurs I got caught up in social media; Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, they’re sexy, and I’ve learned over the years that e-mail matters more than all of those combined, so I’d say that’s a general failure.

A specific failure that I’ve had, I did a book signing event next to John Maxwell, and John Maxwell has sold millions of books, and there were zero people in my line and 200 people in his line, and it was just one of those humbling moments where you realize, “I’ve got a long way to go.”

Kruse: I thought you were going to take a turn there and say you learned how to siphon off his crowd to get them into your line.

Acuff: No, his people are very nice, but they are very clear, like “We like you in a blog way, not in a ‘buy stuff’ way,” Somebody came up behind me that I didn’t know, patted me on the back, and said, “10 more years, son. 10 more years.” And I thought, “Well, that’s not encouraging. A decade. Ugh.”

Kruse: It’s funny how quickly that decade burns through too, I’ll tell you that.

Acuff: It adds up. I mean, you know, they’re always saying that with kids. I’d say the same thing with business or the same thing with being an entrepreneur. My first big blog was 2008, so I’m closing in in 10 years. That doesn’t mean 10 years of speaking or 10 years of writing books, but it does mean 10 years of having a conversation online.

Kruse: What are you finding are good ways to get email addresses and establish a relationship with your fans via e-mail?

Acuff: I think there’s a couple things. One is that seasonal kind of challenge, so I love to do a summer challenge. I have found trying to get people to sign up for a general newsletter is almost impossible. It’s so general and so plain, so what I’ve done, the biggest thing I’ve done in the last six months is I identified audiences and needs, identified strengths I had, and where there is an overlap, and I created a specific e-mail list. So I said, “Hey, if you’re a writer, so am I! I’ve got some ideas about writing. I’ll share one a week. Sign up for my writers list.” Or “Oh hey, if you’re a public speaker, so am I!”

“Hey, you’re a parent.” “You’re into health.” “You’re an entrepreneur,” and so I created five different lists, and it’s really fun because essentially what you do is you say to your audience, “Hey, raise your hand if you like the color red.” And then they raise their hand, and you go, “Okay, I’m going to send you an idea about red once a week.” And it’s never too nerdy. I can nerd out about the intricacies of public speaking and know that they’re going, “Yep. Yep. That’s what I like. Thanks for serving me.” It’s such a dumb simple thing, but it took me years to get there.

Kruse: Your newest book is Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. How did you come up with this? Why did you decide to write on this topic?

Acuff: Well a few years ago, I released a book called Start. That was about beginning your goals, getting you off the couch. I kind of believed what a lot of us believe, “Well begun is half done.” “The hardest part of any journey is the first step,” and so I thought if I could just people to start, that’ll help, but what happened is, over the years, people have come up to me and said, “Hey, no offense. I like your book, but I’ve never had a problem starting. How do I actually finish?”

And I realized I didn’t have an answer, but I needed one, because in my own life, I don’t finish well. It took me three years to do six days of P90X. I don’t finish books I read. I haven’t finished diets, and statistically, according to The University of Scranton, 92% of New Year’s Resolutions fail, and so I saw a big need, both in my own life and the lives of other people, and so I said, “Let me figure this out,” and that’s kind of what started me on the journey.

Kruse: What did you learn as you started to research this topic?

Acuff: I wanted to get beyond a traditional, “I’m a guy on the internet. Just trust what I say is true.” Most of the “expert” advice we see online is what’s called narrative bias, in that I had a singular experience in my own life, I go review my past and come up with steps that I really didn’t take, but maybe you should take, and then I promise the same thing will happen to you. I just think that’s really soft advice, and so I commissioned a study with the University of Memphis and a researcher there, and we looked at nearly 900 people. Most studies are about 100 people, maybe 150, so we went way beyond normal, over six months as they worked on goals to see what really works. I’d say one of the biggest surprises is that small goals, when you cut your goal in half, are 63% more successful than big crazy BHAGs.

It’s nuts. When you’re looking for a principle, you’re looking for a five percent change. You’re looking for a ten percent change, but the reality is when you say, “Aim for the moon, because even if you fail, you’ll land amongst the stars.” That’s not how life works. People quit when they fail. The problem is we judge on a pass/fail scale, so if I want to lose ten pounds and I lose eight, I failed by two and I give up. So the idea of having this crazy goal that’s your main goal just cripples people from the beginning.

Kruse: You’re right, that gets us out of bed, but it doesn’t make us finish all the way to the big goal.

Acuff: No it really doesn’t, and if you want to fail before you start, pick a goal that’s too big. Let’s use health again. I meet people that go, “I’m going to start running.” “Well that’s great. What are you going to do?” They go, “I’m going to run a marathon.” And I’ll go, “Well, have you run a half marathon or a 5K? Even just a single K?” And they go, “No, I’ve got to go for it.” And then they give up. I’m about you having a big goal, and one of my big goals right now is to ride my road bike 10,000 miles, but that’s not my main goal. My main smaller goal is 1,000 miles before the year ends, so I break it down into small goals and win along the way and keep going.

My goal, Kevin, is that you don’t just dream and work on your goals in January, that you work on your goals in February and in March, and I asked a cashier once, “When do people quit their goals?” She said, “Most people quit the third week of January.” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “That’s when they stop buying kale.” And so if you can win a little, you’ll continue. I care about the second month more than the first, and I care about the third month more than that second.

Kruse: You say that we have rules that we don’t even realize we have, like secret rules. What do you mean?

Acuff: Anytime you’ve seen somebody who can’t get out of their way, and maybe it’s an employee, somebody you manage, and it’s like right as they get to the finish line, right as they get the boat in the harbor, they sink their own ship and they sabotage themselves. A lot of us bring secret agreements, secret rules into the way we work.

For instance, I know a lot of people that struggle with success. They’re ashamed of success, and some of the narrative in our country speaks to that, but I had dinner with a friend the other day that said, “Man, that CEO makes $20 million a year. How do you think he sleeps at night?” And I wanted to say, “Probably on Hungarian down pillows.” But he had told himself, “If you make more than a certain amount of money, you’re evil, you’re selfish, you can’t do good.” And that was a rule, so if he got too close to a certain amount of success, he would take a foot off the gas.

Another secret rule people make is, “I want to start a business, but I’ll become a workaholic, and I won’t be there for my family, so I better not start the business.” And you go, well there’s a lot of moms and dads who run businesses that aren’t workaholics. It can be done. That’s a weird rule to bring into the conversation.

You know, I had somebody in the book, a woman told me, “My secret rule is that being in shape is slutty, so to be out of shape is more humble.” And she said, “I know that’s crazy.” But you want to talk about rules, a lot of them are inherited from our parents. I had a friend whose mom used to tell him all the time when she saw a nice house, “Well they must cheat. They must steal. The only way you’d be that successful is by doing something wrong,” and he finally had to say, “Mom, I’m that successful and I don’t do that. Where did you hear this rule?” And so I think that’s the heart stuff. That chapter is going to be the one that catches people off guard.

Kruse: What are these limiting beliefs that are keeping them from that goal?

Acuff: Exactly, and the way I wrote the book was to deal with both the emotional and the practical. A lot of goal setting books act like you’re a robot, and so they go, “Do these seven things and life will work this way,” but that takes away emotion. We’re emotional people. I heard somebody say, “If we were a logical people in America, People Magazine wouldn’t sell more than Time.”

Kruse: Whether it’s deciding to buy something or do something, it’s almost all emotion, not so much logic.

Acuff: I completely agree. I mean, think about this: the study says 92% of resolutions fail every year, but we still keep doing them the same way, because we’re emotional about it, so unless you get in there and go, “Wait a second. What am I really doing? How a

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