Looking back at the year so far, do you have plans or ideas that you have set out to accomplish but can’t seem to get them done? Do you have pending tasks in your work or a delayed promise to a friend or loved one? All of us are guilty of this at some point in our lives. Human beings have put off doing what is most important for centuries. We even developed a cute word for it – procrastination.
The challenge of following through with our plans encompasses more than just overcoming procrastination. It involves how you set yourself up to do the tasks and the systems and strategies you have in place to aid you. The completion of the actions simply becomes a result of what you have already set in motion to help you keep on track. The stronger the checks and systems you have in place, the more likely you are to see a task to its completion.
A lesson from The French Novelist Victor Hugo
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about the French novelist and poet Victor Marie Hugo and how he managed to beat a submission deadline by his publisher. The novelist had promised his publisher that he would have the manuscript ready in about 12 months. However, instead of writing, he used up most of his time entertaining guests, engaging in other projects and ultimately delayed completing his work. (Does this remind you of something you often do, especially when the project is of utmost importance like a thesis, a work-related project or starting a new diet or training routine at your local gym? – but I digress.)
In frustration, the publisher responded by setting a new deadline less than 6 months away. In response, Hugo devised a very strange plan to fire himself up to follow through and finish his book. He collected all the clothes he owned and then asked his assistant to put them away and lock them in a large chest. He left himself only a large shawl.
With this, he couldn’t entertain his guests or go outdoors hence remained in his study. During the next 5 months, he laboured at his task diligently and the famous book titled “Hunchback of Notre Dame” with the character Quasimodo, was published with two weeks to spare. (Don’t we all love Quasimodo resilience and triumph)
Why do we make plans, but fail to follow through?
The two main reasons I have found as to why we commonly postpone what we know we need to do are as follows.
First, we have a general tendency to value instant gratification more than we value future results. For this reason, although we know the plans we make and the actions we need to take, are for our benefit, the allure of satisfaction in the moment takes precedence.
Tim Urban, in his TED Talk: ‘Inside the mind of a master procrastinator’, talks about us having an ‘instant gratification monkey’ in our brain that constantly competes against the ‘rational decision-maker’ whenever we have an important task before us.
According to Tim, the only thing the monkey fears is a looming deadline which he refers to as ‘the panic monster’. As the deadline nears, the monkey vanishes up the tree and leaves you worriedly hurrying through the task. You might complete it, but often with dismal results compared to if you had given it the deserved attention.
The second reason we put off important things is we generally tend to value our commitments to others more than we value our commitment to ourselves. Whenever you make plans for yourself, such as setting goals to write a book or an article or lose weight or even learn a new language, you are in essence making a future commitment to yourself.
However, when the time comes to follow through with the said actions, you are now in the present moment and you have only yourself to be accountable to. Coupled with your need for instant gratification and not the long term payoff, you find yourself falling into your old patterns. Our commitment and involvement of other people, especially those in positions of authority or those that have great significance in our lives, often acts as the ‘panic monster’ or looming deadline, especially where no real deadline exists. This simple association makes us more likely to follow through when other people are involved.
Creating a Success Framework to help you follow through
Here are three pillars you can use to help you overcome procrastination, improve your willpower so as to act along with your better judgment and follow through on whatever task you set out to accomplish.
Pillar No. 1: Critical analysis of the task’s / goal’s value
For you to be successful in the task at hand, it is important to understand the underlying reason for the task. You might say that you want to go to the gym and lose a few pounds but unless you can clearly see what that means for you, it becomes an empty promise to yourself.
Find out the real motivation behind the task. Try and get to the heart of what you really want and bring it out. This requires you to be brutally honest with yourself and what drives you. If you can be truly honest about what it is you are looking for, it might just give you the extra push to do what it takes to get there.
You then need to understand the sacrifice that you will need to make in order to accomplish the task. Call it the proverbial paying the piper. Every single action requires both time and effort which could alternatively be committed elsewhere. The important question to ask is, “Are you ready to make the trade-off – are you willing to sustain the required discipline and maintain the systems you will put in place?”
It is important that you don’t set yourself up for failure by neglecting the cost you need to pay. (sidenote…… Most tasks/ ideas usually costs us about 10 times as much as we first estimate and take about 3 times as longer than we thought we would need …… Hopefully by the end of this post you will improve your chances)
On the flipside of considering the sacrifice, it is equally important to take into account the value you stand to gain. Simplified, it’s contrasting the pros of following through with the cons of not doing so. For example, if you are preparing to give a presentation; consider the benefits of doing a great job and magnify them. Beyond the huge applause, there is a great chance of growing your reputation. With that, you will find that you will command great influence on your audience’s thoughts and possibly behavior. (Make this list personal and heartfelt). The clearer the reward is in the long term, the easier it will be to resist a short term gain.
Pillar No. 2: Put in place accountability measures
When the Novelist Hugo took the extreme measure by having his clothes locked away so as to focus on writing, he was consciously utilizing what psychologists call a “commitment device.” This is a decision that you make in one moment so as to control or guide your actions in the future. You can look at it as a homing device that locks future behavior, binding you to good habits (just like a guided missile to its target) ultimately restricting you from bad habits.
Here are a few examples of accountability devices that have proved helpful in the past for me:
Set a public commitment with potentially painful/embarrassing results
One way to make use of embarrassment (normally considered a negative state) is by telling people who you care about, that you are committing to getting a task done especially when not doing it will be really embarrassing or costly to you. A friend once told us during a hangout that they were looking forward to cleaning their house but the whole process was very daunting for them. Nonetheless, he went ahead to invite us to his house that weekend to celebrate him finally cleaning it. Some even bet he wouldn’t do it. Imagine the embarrassment he would have been in if we walked into a junkyard that weekend. Needless to say, he got it done.
Schedule the task to a specific date, time and place:
As soon as you have decided that you want to get something done, schedule it in so that is has a place it’s anchored to. Not all tasks are meant to be done immediately but if they require urgent attention, the time and place become there and then. Remember the time you had an important meeting or a doctor’s appointment and you knew exactly when and where it would be? Most likely, this simple act of knowing that it’s scheduled helped you get it done. Why then, would you not recognize that the commitments you make to yourself need the same care as the commitments to others receive? When you schedule it especially by writing it down, it makes it more concrete. It sets the stage for taking action.
Pillar No. 3: Make the tiniest of steps to begin
A small step at a time
Even when we know what to do and have made plans on how to get it done, why then do we still procrastinate? The truth is doing the work might not necessarily be hard as that last-minute sprint to the deadline often proves. The difficult thing, the thing you need to focus on overcoming, is the inertia of starting the work.
Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, coined the word “inertia.” from the Latin for inactivity or idleness ignorance and unskillfulness. True to its origin, this concept of inertia makes us wait for as long as we can before we start on a given task. To overcome this state, we need what physicists describe as activation energy.
Once you begin a task, you often find it less painful to continue with the work. This is why it is often more important to focus on a small beginning to get you started. When you’re beginning a new task instead of worrying about whether or not you will follow through, the focus shifts to starting on the next small step.
You have to constantly reduce the size of the task to the smallest possible steps. As you put your energy and effort into making it as easy as possible to get started you will not worry about the results but instead, you will master the art of showing up and diving in.
Focus on a single task at a time.
I recently came across this interesting graph showing the difference between a good day and a bad day. On the left side of the graph, there were five partially coloured progress bars. At the bottom of the bars, it read, BAD DAY. Looking at it I understood why. By spending your day working on five different things, you find yourself busy all day but come evening, nothing is properly DONE.
On the right side of the graph was a single progress bar. This progress bar was completely colored in from end to end. At the bottom, it read: GOOD DAY. By now you know why. If every single day you could get one important thing done, in one year, you can clearly see the journey of 365 steps. As you focus on one thing, you are able to get it done. if you wish to reach the day’s end and get a sense of satisfaction of seeing a task through to completion? This is what you should focus on. A single step.
The same concept of this progress graph can also be applied to a month or a year. If you spend your year spread out working on twelve different projects, without completing any of them, you will most likely feel it was a bad year. On the other hand, a year in which you focused on one important project and pushed yourself to see it through to the end would be a good year.
If you were to choose right now, your most important task for the day and give it your all until it’s done, how would it impact your life? If you had the same outlook of the year and chose one important project to complete, what would it be?
If you get it done and still have time before the year’s end, pick your second most important project and follow through with it until it’s done, and so on and so forth. It’s very likely that by the end of the year you might not have gotten all of your projects done, but you will surely have finished the ones that matter most. And that’s what matters.
Making the commitment to follow through
While ‘Just do it’ is a really good catchphrase, when it comes to following through, it just doesn’t cut it. It is important to invest a little time and effort into your future success by setting up a system that works for you. One that gets you started as soon as possible, with the proper accountability checks and clearly outlines the reasons for the sacrifice. If you’re committed to following through on exercise, for example, set up a system to simply get the workout started and make it easy to follow up at regular intervals. This could be as simple as putting your running shoes and tracksuit next to your bed when you sleep to be the first thing you see when you wake up.
Don’t get caught up in the creation of systems at the expense of doing the task. (This is a common habit of substituting a bad behaviour with a well ordered bad behaviour) As you begin your tasks and projects, some will require that you bring in other people or delegate some tasks and responsibilities to others so as to focus on what you need to get done. Don’t hesitate to share the responsibilities.
The author, Steve Levinson, in his book ‘Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start.’ argues that “Willpower is both a precious commodity and an unreliable one. You really can’t count on it. It often does not come through for you when you need it the most and the best thing to do is to structure circumstances so that you don’t need to rely on it.”
Whatever goal you have in your life, get it started today with a small step but sustain it with a great system.