We’re a society that thrives on finishing things. We look forward to completing a to-do list or pressing the send key – whatever sets off our mental applause track. And because of that, as the finish line comes closer, the more desperate we get to reach the end.
The problem with rushing to completion is that it changes our behavior by undermining the formation of good habits that help people, and organizations, grow. That’s because hitting big milestones can convince us that it’s okay to stop – making it harder to restart new goals or extend existing ones. In some cases, finish-line thinking can rob us of the chance to improve and grow along the way.
To help us make sense of the finish-line conundrum, we talked with NeuroLeadership Institute researcher Emma Sarro. In addition to being a neuroscientist, Emma recently completed the New York City Marathon, putting her in a unique position to unpack the finish-line principle from both a professional and personal standpoint. Below are edited excerpts.
Clearly, you physically trained for the New York City Marathon. Can you tell us how you trained your brain for the race?
Most marathon runners follow a training plan that culminates with one big goal — race day — and smaller weekly goals set over the training period. In a 26.2-mile race, you have to build mental resilience, because you have a lot of time to lose focus. Even though I woke up each day thinking about race day, having those weekly goals gave me an intermediate payoff, a little reward, on my way to the end goal. On race day, every step I took became one step closer, and those intermediate goals I had met helped me keep going when the finish line was still far away.
At what point did you struggle?
I trained up to 22 miles. So as soon as I hit that point, I suddenly thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ The mental wall just hit me because I hadn’t covered that ground. And my body reacted the same way. There was a huge amount of self-doubt. And a large part was about not having experienced those last miles mentally or physically in real time.
So, how did you feel during those last miles, and what does that say about how our brains think about finishing?
Those last four miles suddenly made the finish line feel so far away. I felt like I didn’t have a map to complete the rest. It felt like a new challenge, not part of the existing one, and I felt frustrated and anxious.
Fortunately, that’s where the mental training kicks in. It reverses uncertainty. I was encouraged to keep a training log, and people told me to read it right before the race, as someone said, to prove to myself I had done all these other things. That kept me going.
In our work, we tell leaders to adopt a growth mindset — the belief that skills can be improved over time, rather than set from birth. Marathon training turns out to be a good parallel here. In setting intermediate goals, you can evaluate those you meet as well as those where you fall short. I made it to the finish line because in noting and celebrating those intermediate goals over four months of training, I was consistently improving as I prepared for the race.
Some research suggests that goal-setting literally alters the structure of your brain so you behave in ways that will help you achieve goals. Did this happen to you while you were training for and running the race?
Our brains like big goals and the reward we get when we reach them, so finish lines are important. Getting to my finish line meant a lot. But meeting big goals works better when you create an incremental path that blends learning with rewards along the way. The best coaches communicate and offer recognition and valuation of someone’s progress throughout a project, not just at completion. Small rewards are important.
How does the finish line principle apply to organizations and how we work—particularly now? Should we be approaching goal setting differently?
Growth mindset is all about building a transparent process to help teams learn and recognize accomplishments as they go. If you want teams to continue to reach for the next goal with accountability and confidence in the skills they’ve built, then leaders can’t just be focused on deadlines or completed projects.
What tactics do leaders need to think about to make that happen?
Intermediate check-ins, either formally or informally, are important here, and they’re probably even more important as remote and hybrid work settings continue.
But mostly, it’s about creating a more accepting environment. Team flexibility is important because there are going to be situations where goals won’t be met. Injuries happen. Project goals change. Roadblocks surface. You can still reach your overall goal with patience and open communication between managers and team members to get back on track. Agile organizations accept that the unexpected is a constant, and realize that obstacles can create opportunities. If you didn’t reach a particular checkpoint, you can either punish yourself for it or learn from it. The latter choice is better.
Careers are marathons many decades long. So how can we continue to meet finish lines, while also trying to steadily improve?
I think finish lines are more of a pause than an ending. I couldn’t walk for days after my marathon — but I also couldn’t wait to sign up for the next one. That’s the best finish-line outcome. I celebrated completing a marathon by wanting to do better the next time.
That’s a really important point for leaders and teams to think about — how to use that pause to their best advantage for their teams and organizations. Recognition and rest should come first. Whether it’s self-care or team care, rewarding yourself or others for hard work isn’t just a nice thing to do, it fights burnout, too. But don’t waste that time just letting yourself or your people crash. Use that window to talk about more new and interesting projects, training or job opportunities that can play to each team member’s strengths. It gives people something to look forward to. And that can be the difference between someone merely surviving a big project and being excited about the next one.