Andre Agassi and the Odd Energy around a Finish Line.

Agassi extravaganza continues.

I recently read tennis star Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, even though I’m not interested in tennis, because so many people recommended it to me. And I must say, the book is fascinating.

The other day, I posted a happiness quotation from the book.

Yesterday, I noted that Agassi is an Obliger (if you want to know what that is, read here), and his autobiography presents an excellent example of that perspective.

Today is the last Agassi reference, I promise. This passage  caught my attention, because it’s about the power of the finish line.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m hard at work on a book about how we make and break habits, which will be available March 2015 (sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale).

One thing that took me a long time to realize, in the study of habits: the danger of finish lines. They came up in my study of the complicated Strategy of Reward.

Setting a finish line does indeed help people reach a goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit-formation, the reward of hitting a specific goal actually can undermine habits.

The more I thought about finish lines, the more I noticed…there’s something strange about finish lines. They have a weird, unpredictable power. They need to be considered very carefully. They affect our habits in ways we might not expect.

Agassi captures this beautifully.

The finish line at the end of a career is no different from the finish line at the end of a match. The objective is to get within reach of that finish line, because then it gives off a magnetic force. When you’re close, you can feel that force pulling you, and you can use that force to get across. But just before you come within range, or just after, you feel another force, equally strong, pushing you away. It’s inexplicable, mystical, these twin forces, these contradictory energies, but they both exist. I know, because I’ve spent so much of my life seeking the one, fighting the other, and sometimes I’ve been stuck, suspended, bounced like a tennis ball between the two.

Here’s an example. My friend Adam Gilbert founded the terrific program My Body Tutor, to help people get fit and healthy through accountability. He told me that sometimes, people will do very well with their new healthy habits, and then when they get within a few pounds of their goal weight, they drop out.

This really surprised me. Wouldn’t the promise of hitting the finish line keep people going? Yes, sometimes. But sometimes people become uneasy as they near the finish line — just as Agassi explains. Or people cross a finish line, say by reaching a goal weight, and they immediately push off in the other direction, with contradictory energy, and seem to hurry to undo all the work they’ve done.

Finish lines. There’s an odd atmosphere around them. Agassi captured it better than I’ve ever seen elsewhere.

What about you? Have you seen unexpected behavior emerge around a finish line — in yourself or other people?

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  • Gracie

    I’ve noticed that when I work on a project and I’m almost finished, I have a hard time getting myself to keep going. It’s not that I don’t want the project to end, because when it’s finished I feel good about it, I just can’t explain it. Same way with little things around the house. Get started, almost done and walk away before finishing. I’ll have to tell my husband that I’m not the only one!

  • Jennie Wong

    MBTI would say the J’s are driven by closure, but P’s are adverse to closure. My MBTI to Rubin Tendency equivalency chart:
    – Upholders are TJs
    – Questioners are TPs
    – Obligers are FJs
    – Rebels are FPs

    • Marcia (123 blog)

      I’m ESTJ so I’m going to have to think about this some more 🙂

      • Marcia (123 blog)

        Yes, I went back and read all the posts and I think you’re 100% right! 🙂

        • Jennie Wong

          T’s emphasize self and F’s emphasize others (neither of those is meant in a bad way). J’s feel best after closure and P’s feel best when doors are left open.

    • Marcia (123 blog)

      PS what is your style, Jennie?

      • Jennie Wong

        I’m an ENTJ, so I’m an Upholder like Gretchen.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Interesting. I am an I/ENFP and I have a really hard time with ‘finishing’ a project. I have learned to really finish quilts, but the borders and bindings are still something I tend to rush and do ‘the easy’ way or be sloppy rather than meticulous. I definitely start new projects while I still have a backlog of already started projects to finish. I have a very hard time with long-term habits (exercise and diet) which I am trying to address by substituting longevity of behavior for ‘completion’ goals.

    • Susan B

      Interesting, Jenny. It works for me, an INFJ – and obliger.

      • Ann

        Works for me too – INTP questioner.

    • PolarSamovar

      I’m an closure-averse INFP Obliger, definitely not a Rebel. My husband, very much a Questioner, was an ENTJ.

      Like Penelope, my favorite ‘goals’ are not goals at all, but what I call ‘processes’ that I implement with no finish line or goal in sight. Things like “have fresh flowers from the garden on my desk all summer” or “eat a root vegetable, a fruit vegetable, a leaf vegetable, and some beans every day.”

      • Jennie Wong

        You are the final word on your type, but as a certified MBTI administrator, I should mention that most people who haven’t had a 1-on-1 session are mis-typed in one or more of their letters 🙂

        • PolarSamovar

          I’ll tell ya, the likelihood of my being a J is zero. If you knew me, the idea would make you laugh! 🙂

          One of the things I am enjoying about Gretchen’s Rubin Tendencies is that I think they get at characteristics that are not reducible to the MBTI.

  • Maxi

    And of course there is always post-project depression. The bigger and more involved the project, the more depressed I get after it’s done completely regardless of it’s success or failure (and actually they’re usually successes).

    The enegy that carried me thorough all the stages of planning and completion departs leaving a flat nothing to take it’s place. I know it’s said the answer is to start a new goal immediately but that’s not always what I want. I just want the satisfaction to linger of a job well done, a goal achieved.

    • Gillian

      I experience the same thing after completing a project. I need down time for my brain to readjust and refocus. I think it’s best then to relax, savour the success and slowly contemplate where you want to direct your energies next. The bigger the completed project, the more time I need. It is easy to feel depressed at this point if you feel pressured to launch into a new project right away but I think that if you are aware of that circumstance, you can accept that you need the down time, reject the pressure, perhaps catch up on small tasks that fell by the wayside while you worked on the project, and just chill out for a little while.

    • scipeach

      It’s the old joy vs happiness conundrum. Joy comes from within, happiness is external. Your satisfaction does not last long because it was externally mediated. I find that when I engage in things (project, work, etc) that have a “legacy”, that I’m much joyful and happy.

  • Renee

    I’ve crossed finish lines in four races, all were …. anticlimactic. Nothing. It was a weird sense of having finished, but no one was there to notice or cheer me on or anything. Worked hard. Finished. The end.

    • Marcia (123 blog)

      same here. All the things I thought would be AMAZING were just ok. Writing a book, appearing on TV, etc. Very strange!

  • Anna

    I have experienced this to the greatest degree with exercise. It was only when I stopped trying to identify a “finish line” that I began actually enjoying exercise, otherwise it was always something i got near and then gave up on. I never thought of it in this way, but it’s so right — there really is a strange force around the finish line!

  • Eilbur

    Is there a correlation between this topic and with anticipation often being more enjoyable than the actuality?

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I am currently struggling with a ‘not the finish line’ stall in my weight loss program. I have lost almost 40 pounds but am circling around the same spot. I have at least for the moment lost my grip on my intense I’m-all-about-this focus, and need to get it back so that I can progress. This is NOT the finish line, it seems to be the halfway point and my motivation is not so single-minded. I know this is really not ‘good enough’ for me going forward, so I hope to get a refocus in place.

    • Gillian

      It isn’t uncommon to hit a plateau when losing weight – I think the body needs to adjust to the new reality. I think the best thing in that case is to just take a breather from the focus on weight loss. Make sure you don’t regain anything you’ve already lost, basically keep up the good habits as well as possible and enjoy your success to date. When the time is right you can get back into the right frame of mind and attack the last bit.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        Thank you for your encouragement!

  • Professor C

    I experience this all the time. I’m a professor and write several academic papers every year. The process is grueling and can take over my life, especially near the end of the project as I see the finish line in sight. I get compelled to work longer hours to finish, but then just as I am ready to submit the paper, I lose my momentum. I doubt my work and second-guess myself and often think I should go back and revise the paper to improve it. Typically I have to talk myself out of a last major revision and just submit it. So interesting that this is a more common phenomenon than I thought.

  • Heather Rider

    I dated a guy who paid his own way through college. He quit his last semester and never finished the degree. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the money or was too busy working. I never could understand why he quit.

    • scipeach

      I think those kinds of issues are very complicated. Could have been fear of what was going to happen next. Fear of success. Fear of getting a job….start taking on responsibilities. The Imposter Syndrome…any number of things. I know a person that walked away from a full ride in law school, he also walked away from what would have been a very successful (albeit clandestine) position in the government. Go figure.

    • JB

      My friend’s son has ONE class left to take to finish his degree and he refuses to do it. Human behavior is strange! 🙂

  • Before my husband (a personal trainer) and I started dating, I only ran for exercise, never weight-trained. He showed me around the gym and I really started to enjoy working out, but found it difficult to make a habit out of it. So I decided I’d set a goal of competing in a physique competition. This would keep me lifting weights and eating healthy, come hell or high water. During training, I dreamed about the post-contest me–how healthy I would remain, how I’d never skip a day at the gym, etc, etc. Needless to say, the finish line really threw me for a loop. I binge ate junk food for weeks and slept in instead of getting to the gym for my morning workout.

    As the weeks went by, life began to balance out and I got back to the old me, with a healthier twist. What really helped me get through post-finish line depression was giving myself a whole lot of slack for a while and having the 5 a.m. gym crew act as my accountability partners. They noticed my absence, which made me feel missed and cared about, and that re-motivated me to get my rear out of bed!

  • Leanne Sowul

    Very thought-provoking. I’m usually a good finisher, but I have this hang-up with weight loss- when I only have a few more to lose, I absolutely cannot weigh myself daily. I get thrown by normal fluctuations, so if I’ve “lost,” I feel careless, like I can reward myself, and if I’ve “gained,” I feel like nothing I do makes a difference anyway, so I might as well eat what I want. I have to actually hide the scale to make myself keep going, and weigh in a month or several weeks apart, so that I make progress but don’t sabotage.

    • Gillian

      I’m the opposite with weight loss. I have to weigh myself every day. Yes, it’s disappointing when it goes up one day but very motivating on the good days. If I weigh myself only once a week and it happens to be on a bad day when the weight is up, I don’t know that earlier in the week it was 2 pounds less and that I am actually making progress.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        I am an every day person too.

        • stephmk

          I have to weigh every day too. It doesn’t bother me as much to see the fluctuations when I weigh every day.
          This finish line concept definitely applies to me though I wish I could find ways around it. I make good progress towards my weight loss goal or a project then really, really struggle to get either done. I will gain a few then have to re-motivate to keep going or leave an almost done project for weeks.

      • Cathryn

        Me too. I write the weight down every day. I am doing the 5.2 Fast Diet so it does fluctuate each day but I can look back in my diary and see what I weighed on the same day in a previous week. I have lost more than a stone and kept it off over the last year without feeling deprived although I have hit a bit of a plateau now. Probably not much more to lose but I keep going to keep my husband going.

        • Gillian

          Congratulations on your success – I hope it is permanent. I think plateaus are very common in weight loss but if you keep to the regimen the weight loss will start up again.

          For the benefit of N. Americans who might not be aware of the term, the British “stone” refers to 14 lbs.

  • Gillian

    I don’t have a problem with finishing; my problem is starting. I always say that once I have started a project and completed the first 5%, it is actually almost half done. It takes me forever to psyche up and gear up to start a project. Once started, I become obsessive. The longer I work on the project, the more obsessive I become so that as I approach the finish line, I focus on nothing other than completion of the project. After completion, I am then somewhat disoriented and at a loss and feel a slight depression until I accept the fact that I am now in a transition stage where I can just float for a while.

    That is for a project. Lifestyle goals are different. There, it is the process we must focus on and enjoy. There is no finish line in weight loss or fitness; there is only maintenance. Any goals achieved are interim goals; the process and the vigilance have to continue for a lifetime. It is only when we come to accept this fact, and live with it, that we can claim success. That is why I refuse to embark on an exercise regime that I know will never be more than temporary and I stick to my regular walking that I enjoy and that I know I can continue as long as my legs function. And I know that whatever eating habits I adopt in order to lose weight have to become permanent even after I reach my goal.

  • lolabelle

    This just happened to me! I read this post and thought it was absurd at first. Then, I stepped on the scale this morning and saw my goal weight. I thought I was “done” and immediately fantasized about relaxing my diet. Your post stopped me in my tracks:)

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  • mosmab

    I’m with Professor C. When I’m working on a long project (writing or translating), I think it’s going to go easier when I just have a few pages left. But those are the hardest bits to do. I can completely lose my momentum and drive.

  • Kelly McDougall

    Perhaps you’ve come across this already, but Paulo Coelho addresses this challenge in his introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of The Alchemist. He writes about the four obstacles to having “the courage to confront our own dream.” The final one, when we’re at what you call the finish line, is fear.

    • gretchenrubin

      Interesting. That may be it sometimes, but to my mind, it’s often less about fear and more about the idea of “stopping” or “completion,” which then requires starting in order to continue. And it’s hard to start again, once you’ve stopped or finished.

      • Kelly McDougall

        I most definitely agree about the difficulty of starting again. As an undeniable obliger, I see it in myself when it comes to so many positive habits (eating well, working out, staying on top of my email inboxes, developing a regular writing habit, and so on). I look forward to Better Than Before for tips on following through on promises to myself that will really make me “better”, and then staying the course!