Swimmer Michael Phelps is arguably the greatest American Olympian and one of the greatest competitors of all time. In the 2008 Beijing summer games, Phelps won eight medals—all gold—to break the record for the most hardware ever captured in a single Olympiad and become the most decorated Olympian in history.
But it is the race that almost blew his winning streak that captivates me the most. It was his seventh contest, the 100-meter butterfly, and Phelps trailed for literally 99.9 meters of it. In the last fraction of a second, Phelps thrust his arms into one final, mighty stroke. Meanwhile, his Serbian competitor, Milorad ˇCavi´c, coasted the final few inches. Almost implausibly, Phelps tapped the wall first, beating ˇCavi´c by a mere one-hundredth of a second.
Most of us won’t experience such a heart-pounding, dramatic moment in our lifetimes, but we do make daily choices to either stretch or coast toward the finish lines we create for ourselves through personal goals. They’re often small decisions—routine things we don’t think about a lot—but they have the power to determine much of our success.
Reaching a finish line can be as simple as completing an “almost done” project or initiating a long-delayed and difficult conversation. Unfinished business can be disastrous. It drains your mental energy. It derails your goals. It impacts how you feel about yourself. And, critically, it can undermine your reliability in the minds of others.
Simply put: Procrastination is the enemy of progress.
Life is full of moments that require one more stretch to achieve success. If you don’t have the discipline to persevere, well, you’re going to end up like Phelps’ competitors—looking up at the winner from a lower podium (or worse). In the words of economist Thomas Sowell, “Doing 90 percent of what is required is one of the biggest wastes, because you have nothing to show for all your efforts.” Instead you must develop the habit of staying committed and finishing strong.
Here are some suggestions to help you do that:
Engage in brick-by-brick thinking.
I confess: I have very little patience. I tend to want instant results. Still, I understand success requires daily progress. How do I solve this dilemma? With daily disciplines. I practice what might be called “brick-by-brick thinking.” My friend Henry Cloud, Ph.D., says, “All success is built and sustained just like a building is built, one brick at a time.” I practice regular disciplines every day, and these small, incremental actions turn into tangible steps toward success.
Amplify the reward.
When you don’t feel like doing what you should, then focus on why finishing is important. The why can keep you motivated even when you lack desire. Motivation is fickle. You can’t depend on your emotions to keep you committed to your goals. So envision your end result and keep it in the forefront of your mind. How will you feel when you accomplish your goal? Why is it important to you? By focusing on the answers, you’ll stand a much better chance of reaching your goals.
Build structure and systems around your goals.
Great intentions don’t get me very far. I need systems. They make it easier for me to stay disciplined. I have an insatiable hunger to learn, so I read every day. I want to stay fresh, so I file great quotes and illustrations every day. I had a heart attack in my 50s, so I exercise by swimming every day. (Phelps’ Olympic records are safe, by the way.) My life is filled with systems that move me forward and push me to reach my wall.
Surround yourself with support.
Over the years I have found that I am most successful when I tap into a network of people who support me and encourage me in my goals. When I need business advice, I talk to my brother Larry and my company’s key businesspeople. When I want to launch a new venture, I talk to my CEO, Mark Cole, and members of my inner circle. When I am ready to write a book, I meet with my creative team to brainstorm and vet ideas.
If you want to succeed, surround yourself with people who will help you, encourage you and, when necessary, hold your feet to the fire. Remember to choose wisely—your success largely depends on the company you keep.
Quitting isn’t an option.
A great start is important, because all’s well that begins well. But it takes much more to reach your goals. I tend to think of it like farming: You can prepare the land immaculately and plant the seeds just right, but if you don’t water, fertilize and cultivate as you go, then you wasted your time by planting the crop. Remember the reward that awaits you—the fruit you will harvest—and it will help get you through the times of hard work in the “summer.”
When I was a kid, my father always told me, “When you made the choice to start, you made the choice to finish. It isn’t two choices… It’s one.” He taught me early that if you aren’t careful, quitting can become a habit. The good news is that finishing can also become a habit when you practice diligence in all that you do.
There’s an old saying, “The fortune is at the finish line.” It’s absolutely true. Why did Michael Phelps aggressively reach for the wall at that critical moment? Because he had practiced finishing strong every day of his life. And that made the difference between gold and silver.
Let’s learn from his lesson. And let’s remember that, oftentimes, the only thing separating us from success is a few inches. So don’t let up, and reach for the finish line!