The ability to follow-through has to be one of the most important human traits to master. People never have trouble deciding what it is they want to do. It is the follow through part of the equation that is difficult. When I saw this book I was immediately drawn in because like everybody else I have a long list of things I want to accomplish that I keep failing to do. I am pretty skeptical of “self-help” books, but I felt like I needed to give this one a try. The book is titled Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model For Finishing Whatever You Start by Levinson & Greider, and I highly recommend you give it a read. It is around 200 pages, some of it repetitive, but it really opened my eyes to the process of following through on actions you intend to do. For me the methods described in this book work, and I want to share a few details here.
The main points the book makes are the following:
- Poor follow-through is more of a species problem than it is an individual problem. The main reason we so often do a lousy job of following through is because we humans are just not hard-wired for follow-through.
- What it takes to adopt an intention and what it takes to follow through on that intention are entirely separate matters. Failing to understand the difference is at the root of many follow-through failures.
- We can improve our ability to follow through by understanding the faulty wiring and learning how to use it to our advantage.
- The key to following through despite the faulty wiring is to deliberately and creatively make whatever we intend to do feel necessary.
The first half of the book is about preparing you for the solution. It goes over examples of how people fail to follow through on their good intentions. While reading the book I was thinking that they used too many examples. Maybe they were just trying to pad the book and make their simple concept seem bigger and thus justify you spending money to buy the book. I am sure their intention is to repeat enough examples to make sure you really “get it”. Some examples will speak directly to you and others will kind of bore you. So if you start to get a little bored with it about half way just keep on reading. They are making their point, and they do eventually give you solutions to the problem. They talk about good intentions like spending more time with your kids, cleaning your messy office, keeping on your diet, quitting smoking, watching less TV, and different examples in business. Out of all of the examples something will get your attention and make you realize that you are in the same boat as everybody else.
They point out the fact that there is no guarantee that hard work and persistence will pay off and no guarantee that the absence of hard work and persistence will hurt. This makes it hard for intentions alone to be enough to make you successful. Smoking a cigarette today doesn’t mean you will get cancer, and quitting smoking doesn’t mean you will have a long and healthy life.
At the root of the problem is what they call the follow through fairy tale. “If it’s really important I will do it for sure”. It makes perfect sense. The problem is that our minds don’t work that way. Even being enthusiastic about an idea doesn’t mean you will follow through. The answer is perplexing and disappointing, but really quite simple: Our good intentions don’t work the way we think they should. Not even enthusiasm will guarantee good results.
In trying to make sense of poor follow through most people accept a theory that seems to explain what is happening. This is called the “It Must Be Me theory”. This theory assumes it is you who determines whether or not you will follow through. It is a straight forward expression of your character. The truth is that follow through is more a matter of circumstances than a matter of character. The book then talks about how most people have a mixed follow through record. Certain sports fans always follow through to catch the game on tv, check the scores in the paper, arrive at the stadium on time for the game. Yet in other areas of the person’s life they fail to follow through all the time. That same person may always fail to do that new exercise plan or every year fail to do their taxes early and have to do them at the last minute yet again. There is no one follow through trait that you can count on in a person.
The book then compares the human guidance system to the primitive guidance system of a squirrel. Squirrels automatically store up food for the winter. It isn’t a matter of follow through. It is instinct for them. They describe humans as having an Intelligence based guidance system and yet still having part of the primitive guidance system. The Intelligence based system says you should follow through on your good intentions, but the primitive guidance system tells you to “listen for squeaks, and grease the squeakiest wheel”.
Now that you realize what different systems are at work in the mind you can see that the primitive guidance system is to blame. The book then talks about using this to your advantage and gives the example of a lady who always has the good intention of getting her taxes done early. Her good intentions keep telling here it is a good idea to do them early. Then her primitive guidance system would get in the way by saying you are hungry you should go to the kitchen, you are bored so you should go do something else like watch TV. But there becomes a point where the primitive and intelligence based guidance systems work together. The day before taxes are due she is frantically working on them and both systems are saying it is the top priority. Every year this happens and she is successful at getting her taxes done on time even though she fails at getting them done early. It is this realization that we need both systems saying the same thing to be successful at follow through.
They give another example of a man named Joe who had a heart attack and knew he had to change his lifestyle and start walking to avoid having another one. It was life or death. After awhile he would start slipping in his routine and beat himself up over how stupid it was that he couldn’t follow through. Then he met a guy named Tom who was going through a similar rehabilitation program and suggested they walk together. Once the situation changed Joe had no problem following through. Whenever it was time to go walking Joe’s intention would whisper that it was “essential to his health”, but his primitive guidance system would shout “Walk, because I can’t let Tom down”. Joe learned the lesson that what squeaks, squeaks, and what doesn’t, doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t make sense. The important thing is that the change in situation put his intention in the driver’s seat.
We have finally gotten to step two of this process, shaping your situation. You have to ask the question: how can I shape the situation, or the way I experience it, to make my intention the squeakiest wheel?
There are different strategies discussed in the book for making sure you follow through:
- Willpower Leveraging
- Creating Compelling Reasons
- Leading the Horse to Water
- Going Too Far
- Right Before Wrong
- Strike While the Iron Is Hot
The book describes Spotlighting as involving the following three steps:
- First identify the right voices – the needs or wants or motives that urge you to do the same thing your intention is telling you to do.
- Next you need to identify or create the right cues – the things out there that will stimulate those voices.
- Third, you need to find a way to make sure you’ll be exposed to enough of the right cues.
One tool they describe to aid in spotlighting is what they call the “MotivAider”. This is useful for a task you want to follow through on where there is no opposing voice to overcome. It is just a lack of remembering. It is a beeper looking device that will send a vibration that acts as a constant reminder. This device will expose you to a constant stream of personal reminders that will expose you to enough of the right cues regardless of what is going on around you. You don’t necessarily need to have the device they describe. You can setup similar reminders on computers, cell phones, or even come up with visual or audio cues that accomplish the same thing. The key is that is needs to happen often so that you can get your mind back on track.
The second follow-through strategy they talk about is “Willpower Leveraging”. This means taking one easy action today that makes it much more likely that you will do the right thing tomorrow. It is all about putting the right obstacle in your way. One example they gave was for a man who wanted to stop snacking on cookies at night. He asked his wife to stop buying them at the store making it less likely he would fail to follow-through. When that late night craving hits next time the thought of getting in the car and driving to the store to buy them himself is a larger obstacle to overcome instead of just trying to stay away from the kitchen.
Another follow-through strategy is to “Create Compelling Reasons”. The idea behind this is when the “right” reason to do something isn’t compelling enough then you can deliberately create a reason that is. This lets you take a common cause of poor follow-through – the powerful hardwired tendency to be unduly influenced by what feels most real at the moment – and turn it into a cure for poor follow-through. There is no exact formula for making this work, but they do list three guidelines:
- Make It Matter Now
- Eliminate Wiggle Room
- Make Sure It Fits You
The key to making this strategy work is to forget about what “they” say should be important: forget about what you only “think” should be important; and forget about logic. Reasons that make the most sense might not move you at all. And reasons that do the best job of getting you up and running might not make much sense.
With “Creating Compelling Reasons” you come to ask yourself, “how far can you go”? Once you understand that you can create a truly compelling reason to follow through on any intention, you may get a little nervous. The book uses the example of offering your car to the stranger at the table next to you if you eat the brownie that you’ve promised yourself you won’t eat. While it may be extreme and almost silly it is also very likely you wouldn’t eat that brownie either.
The “Leading the Horse to Water” strategy is a new spin on the old saying. While you may not be able to make a horse drink water, if you want him to drink it makes sense to lead him to water. If the horse is there where the water is he is certainly more likely to drink when he does become thirsty. So you are putting him in a better position to drink. This strategy is all about separating the easy part from the hard part. If you want to follow through on a new exercise plan and the idea of riding your exercise bike for 20 minutes is a huge deterrent, then separate the getting on the bike part from the 20 minutes of peddling part. Getting on the bike is the easy part, but once you are there you are more likely to follow through with the second part. Make an agreement to get on the bike and pedal for one minute then give yourself the right to stop. Unless you separate the two parts, you make the whole thing worth avoiding. This strategy is summed up in four parts:
- Separate the easy, “Get Started” part of what you intend to do from the hard, “Yuck, I don’t want to do that” part.
- Tell yourself that all you have to do is the easy part – that you can stop any time you want.
- Go ahead and do the easy part.
- Prepare yourself to be pleasantly surprised.
The next strategy is an interesting one “Going Too Far”. For this to work you have to make a deal with yourself. The authors sum is up like this: “If you are going to do the wrong thing, then you must do it even wronger than usual”. They give an example of a girl who wanted to stop eating donuts in her office where they kept them in constant supply. The deal she made with herself was if she was going to eat a donut then it had to be three donuts at a time. It turned out that when she would reach for that donut the thought of having to eat three when she only wanted one right now was enough to turn her away. For this strategy to work you have to keep up the deal you make with yourself. If you can’t do that then this strategy is not for you.
A similar strategy is what they describe as “Right Before Wrong”. It is similar in that you are making a deal with yourself, but instead of promising to do more of the right thing, you promise to do the right thing before you do the wrong thing. So if you are trying to avoid junk food you can agree to eat something healthy before eating the junk food. After eating some carrots for a snack if you still want a piece of cake then it is ok. Go ahead and do it. What you will find is that most of the time you will not want the cake.
The “Strike While the Iron Is Hot” strategy is the perfect strategy to use whenever you have an intention that was born while your emotions were being “stirred”. The strategy acknowledges that inspiration doesn’t last long; that when the stirring stops, the window of opportunity to follow through begins to shut. If you don’t take some kind of action to at least get the ball rolling you’ll likely lose the opportunity to follow through. They use the perfect example of sending a thank you note. You either do it while it is relevant or it is a missed opportunity. Using this example when you remember about the thank you note you have to stop what you are doing and take some immediate action on it. You may not be able to write the note right now, but maybe you can address the envelope and leave it sitting on your desk. You need to take some immediate step towards accomplishing this goal.
There is one last cautionary tale in this book. That is about agreeing to do too many things, promising to complete more tasks than you feasibly have time to do. If you are way over extending your time then no amount of cues and methods for following through will enable you to accomplish everything. The book talks about taking the tasks you agree to accomplish more seriously, and even having a way out of a task that you no longer want or need to accomplish. They recommend officially “divorcing” yourself from a task that isn’t feasible anymore instead of letting it just linger around and die. Get rid of it and move on.
While I hope you got some information from my brief summary of this book, I really hope you pick up a copy and read it for yourself. I even recommend keeping the book around to re-read later down the road for a refresher course. The examples given really speak to things in everybody’s life, and I didn’t spend time retelling all of those stories. That is what the real book is for. Following through on some of these good intentions you have are life changing and you will no longer keep beating yourself up over failing to accomplish these goals. You will stop thinking you are just built weak, and if only you had more willpower then you could finally do the things you want. After reading this book you realize that the human mind just doesn’t work that way. But knowing how it does work equips you with the tools you need to follow through on any goal that is important enough.