How to Stop Being Flaky and Follow Through (Episode 30-39)
Why we need to trick ourselves into results
Ironically, before finally starting the process of writing this post I’ve went through quite some procrastination, self judgement, and distraction before I could finally get myself to start. Possibly me feeling inspired after my interview with an expert on the topic of following through, Dr. Steve Levinson, and wanting to do a perfect job trying to get all of that on paper flawlessly had something to do with it. Quite possibly I’d put the bar so high in my mind, that in the end I couldn’t get myself to finally start the writing. Interestingly, answering emails, scheduling meetings, and having calls wasn’t hard to do. Neither was my training for the day. I didn’t particularly feel like it, but I did it without too much effort. Sounds familiar? Then read on, this might be useful for you..
Design flaw in our wiring
‘We humans, […] are the only beings that can actually use intelligence to figure out what we should do for our survival, our wellbeing, our improvement, and then not do it’ (Levinson, 2022). The simplest organism does a better job at following through than us humans. As Dr. Levinson shared during our talk, we aren’t wired to follow through. There is a design flaw in our wiring. In his book ‘Following Through’, this design flaw is defined as follows: ‘The Design Flaw theory’s bottom line is this: The real reason we fail to follow through is not because we as individuals lack willpower, self-discipline, or character. It’s because we as a species have a design flaw that prevents our good intentions—despite their obvious qualifications—from having enough influence to consistently get the job done’ (Levinson and Greider, 2015). As Steve states, learning the truth about our minds limitations when it comes to following through, opens the door to progress. When we can accept that it might not be our fault when we often fail to follow through, and realize instead this is caused by faulty wiring and a design flaw in our mind we can start asking the right question; ‘How can we get the job done despite the mind’s limitations?’ (Levinson and Greider, 2015).
Our behavior is primarily governed by our feelings
Animals do what they need to do. A squirl doesn’t contemplate the idea of collecting food for the winter, it just does. Their needs are directly connected to their behavior (Levinson, 2022). For us humans, there is a gap between our needs and our behavior. We can decide what is good for us, and wholeheartedly buy into it, and then still not do it. The intelligence with which we can think about what’s good for us, doesn’t automatically require us to do it. There is a huge separation between figuring out what’s good for us and what we should do, and actually doing it. What we do is guided by how we feel, and not by what we intellectually think about it. That’s typically not a (lasting) driving force for behavior. However, our feelings are. What we do is primarily governed by how we feel (Levinson, 2022).
Our two guiding systems
According to Dr. Levinson, we basically have two guiding systems. On the one hand we have intelligence, which forms the foundation for our Intelligence-Based Guidance System. Centered around intelligent reasoning, we figure out the best course of action for us, based on reasoning, evaluation of experiences, and intellect. On the other side, there is the Primitive Guidance System which is based on feelings. As Steve mentioned during our talk, this is the system ‘mother nature forgot to disconnect’ (Levinson, 2022). As states in his book ‘Following Through’, our human mind isn’t wired for follow through (Levinson and Greider, 2015). As humans we’re good at figuring out what to do, using our Intelligence-Based Guidance System. However, often, what we do doesn’t follow from that. Instead, as already mentioned before, our actions and behavior follow from how we feel. This results in us acting based on our Primitive Guidance System. This primitive system isn’t smart and it doesn’t use reason. It reacts. Our Intelligence-Based Guidance System is smart and should be in charge, but it often isn’t. It’s overruled by our feelings (Levinson, 2022). In order to follow through on our good intentions, we need to align this with our feelings, and how these drive our actions.
The impact of circumstances on our ability to follow through
Before diving deeper into this alignment with our feelings, I’d like to address the impact of our circumstances on our ability to follow through. They play a huge part in our ability to follow through on our intentions. Our circumstances can make our break our follow through. It can set the stage, so to speak, or it can ensure failure to follow through on our intentions due to distraction, chaos, and lack of focus. Steve talked about high-performing athletes who do great in their sports, but slack at home and with their children. They get in trouble with their coach if they don’t train, have strict routines, and are incentivized to perform, and punished if they don’t. They have an infrastructure around their sports performance in place (Levinson, 2022). However, for their private life, and with their family, this infrastructure is missing, or not clearly created. Hence, their follow through on their intentions might be very different from their athletic performance. This topic of circumstances, or context for follow through was quite an eye opener for me. We all do it. When we set a reminder to do something, or the alarm for the morning, we’re creating an infrastructure that helps us follow through on our intentions. If we want to be follow through champions, we require an infrastructure to be successful (Levinson, 2022). When we do this in such a way that it aligns with our feelings, we’re building a fool proof system for following through on our intentions. Let me explain.
Infrastructure in alignment with our feelings
Without consciously being aware of it, I did exactly that with this project of 39 Ideas for Life. I made it public. I recorded a video, for the world to see, and announced my intentions publicly. Because I want to be a person who does what he says, meeting my own imposed deadlines every nine days became more important with ‘the world’ watching me, then had this just been my private project, which I might have shared only with a few friends and family. I’m sure then I’d been able to sell myself some excuses for, or find other more important ‘urgent’ issues which would have allowed me to miss a deadline, or even a number of posts. The feeling of not wanting to be an ass and starting this project without finishing it pushed me, and keeps pushing me to complete my writing, and find new people to interview and learn from. Yes, I enjoy it. But sure as hell I don’t always feel like it. Had it not been out in the open as it is now, I’m not sure if I’d been as disciplined on following through on my intentions as I have been until now. I’m proud to say, that until this day, and with my 30th post, I still haven’t missed a deadline. Being public about my intentions provided the infrastructure that ensured my follow through. Perhaps that same thing, and getting a coach to chase me down and tell me what to do, is helping me stay on track with over 1,5 years of training for my upcoming Ironman. The feeling of not wanting to be a person who doesn’t do what he says he will do pushes me forward and drives my follow through. The fact that the ‘world’ is watching, or at least my coach for my trainings helps be to get up and write, or train, time and time again.
For Dr. Levinson, writing a book on Following Through provided the perfect infrastructure for him too to follow through. Because how could he, someone who has written about this, and studies follow through for decades, not do as he said he’d do?! Coming to think of it, when we really want to do something, go public about it, and put skin in the game. Risk being called out as a failure and a fraud for not doing what you say you’ll do, and there is a good chance that it will drive you to actually achieve what you bluntly publicly announced you’d do. If you create situations on purpose that make you feel like doing exactly as you intend to do, then you can follow through (Levinson, 2022).
An intention is a solemn promise
Many people don’t take their own intentions very seriously. It’s easy to come up with an intention, but doing it is another story (Levinson, 2022). As Steve explained during our talk, we often take on promises and intentions without putting too much thought into them, and without thinking through how one can keep his promise (Levinson, 2022). Every time you adopt a promise or intention that you can’t keep, because you didn’t do the due diligence on how you’ll follow through on it, you’re making all of the promises and intentions that come after it weaker. ‘If you treat your intentions as if they’re a dime a dozen, that’s how much they’ll be worth’ (Levinson, 2022). For me, it has always been my experience that doing what I say I will do, builds my confidence. On the contrary, when I don’t do what I say I will do, it deteriorates it. Thus, we have to be conscious about what we say yes to, and what we commit to. But if we do, we have to make sure we follow through.
Intentions carry a load
When we don’t act on our intentions, it is as if we’re hauling a load behind us. It weighs us down and slows our step. It saps energy when we don’t fulfill on our promises and intentions. When this is the case, Steve suggests we are better off making an announcement to ourselves and others that we are no longer intent to fulfill on the intention or promise. To officially divorce from that intention. That will actually create space, and clarity for everyone involved, and free up valuable energy for moving forward. ‘You’re better of making a few promises and keeping them, than making a whole bunch of promises and fulfilling only 15 percent of them’ (Levinson, 2022).
Trick yourself into starting, and finishing
‘Following through like a champion requires tricking yourself’ (Levinson, 2022). The Getting Things Done guru David Allen says about this, ‘[t]o a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. The smart part of us sets up things for us to do that the not-so-smart part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing’ (Allen, 2015). Sometimes the idea of the entirety of the work can be intimidating and simply look like too much. I had this before starting the writing process for this post. Steve often had this when trying to get himself to exercise on his home trainer. He couldn’t get himself to do it. At one point he changed the infrastructure. All he had to do was get into his exercise clothes and get on the home trainer. Whether he’d actually peddle, was irrelevant. This was something that left him with a choice, and he could still achieve his intention, even without actually training. What happened was that on many occasions, once on the trainer, he started to bike anyway. Sure, at some occasions, he really didn’t feel like it, and got off straight away. But before he knew it, it had become a routine without having to force himself where he was exercising daily (Levinson, 2022). The simple trick of ‘only getting on the bike’ ultimately led him to build the habit over time.
Finding the right trick that gets us in action takes trial and error according to Steve Levinson. It also requires us to be honest with ourselves. As he explained, many people have a bias to motivate themselves for doing something they know they should do, but don’t feel like doing, thinking they need to have some kind of reward (Levinson, 2022). However, if we are really honest with ourselves, and look at what moves us on a day to day basis, it’s the stick that moves us, not the carrot (Levinson, 2022). Go public, or make a promise to someone who will keep you accountable, and offer them something if you don’t do what you say you’ll do is a great stick that motivates us into action and follow through.
Carrots and sticks
‘Deciding what you should do is not enough to get it done’ (Levinson, 2022). It is very easy to mistake a feeling of excitement and inspiration for something that will get you over the finish line. Then life will happen, and you’ll forget about it and other things will occupy its space. Instead, we need infrastructure, alignment with our feelings, carrots, and definitely sticks, to see us follow through. According to Peter Hollins, author of ‘Finish What you Start’, reasons for why we don’t follow through are due to inhibiting tactics, such as poor goal setting, procrastination, distractions, and poor time management, and psychological roadblocks such as laziness, lack of discipline, fear of judgment, rejection and failure, perfectionism, and lack of self-awareness (Hollins, 2018). During our talk on follow through, I asked Dr. Levinson about his thoughts on this. He considers all these factors legitimate, and of some influence, but they make up a mere ten percent of the reasons people don’t follow through (Levinson, 2022). Ninety percent has to do with the wiring, and the lack of alignment between our intentions and the feelings that drive us to follow through on them. As Levinson clearly articulates and illustrates in his book, we are not wired to follow through (Levinson and Greider, 2015). Therefore, we have to come up with tricks, carrots and sticks to get us to follow through (Levinson, 2022). To make up for the lack of wiring, we have to create infrastructure, situations, circumstances and incentives, which make us feel like we have to act. Thus, we have to sync our feelings with what we have intelligently decided to do.
The often overlooked second step of intention: strategies for following through
You never want to simply rely on trying or doing something merely on the basis of willpower. Instead, you want to create a structure that makes acting in alignment with your feelings. When we set out to do something, and when an idea and intention emerges within us, we’re often inspired and energized with this great new idea on how to improve our lives. What’s often missing, is step two. Which is creating the context to actually follow through on this new idea or intention. We need to design a context that helps us feel like doing what we rationally intend to do. During my talk with Steve Levinson, he shared some strategies for this:
Willpower leveraging. If you want to get yourself to do something, don’t think of it as trying, or trying harder. Think instead about creating a context, or a trigger that will make it easy for you to fulfill on your intention. Setting an alarm on your phone, and putting your phone in the other room, will surely make you get out of bed without the risk of hitting snooze and rolling over. To help us follow through, we need to leverage our willpower and intentions. Steve illustrates this by talking about consuming unhealthy food. It’s difficult to resist it when it’s right in front of us. However, when we create a context where we don’t have this unhealthy food at hand (by resisting to buy it, or simply storing it out of sight), it will become much easier to fulfill on our intention to be healthy. The context of not having the unhealthy food around or in sight helps leverage our willpower to resist (Levinson, 2022);
Creating compelling reasons. The motives that get you to adopt an intention are in most cases not the same as those that get you to act in accord with it on a daily basis. Instead, we have to create a compelling reason that we can feel in our gut which forces us into action and makes us feel like wanting to act. You can get yourself to follow though on anything if you are willing to create the right compelling reason (Levinson, 2022);
Leading the horse to water: This is a strategy that helps us start (and then follow through) on those big goals that we really can’t seem to get ourselves to do. Instead of committing to the entire intention, the leading the horse to water strategy get’s us to commit to doing at least the smallest bit of something without feeling the full load before starting. The trick of Steve with simply only getting onto the home trainer instead of exercising daily for a set time as shared above is a great example. Once on the bike in exercise clothing, he might as well bike. Before he knew it, he was exercising daily on the home trainer, and it became a routine. When we lead the horse to water, it will drink by itself. If we make it easy to do something, we make it easy to become a routine. For that, often, all we need is to get ourselves to start;
Going to far. This is about overdoing something so much, that we simply cannot or do not want to do it anymore. Steve gave the example of a lady who wanted to quit eating doughnuts which were amply supplied in her office. She couldn’t stop eating them. Finally, Steve suggested her to only eat them when she at least ate three pieces. Although this struck her as weird at first, it did help. When she committed to only eating three doughnuts when having one, she ultimately ended up eating none. She couldn’t do it. Another example of this is having smokers sign a contract to not be able to stop for two years if they can’t keep their intention to stop smoking. Not wanting to not be able to stop smoking ultimately helped them to stop;
Right before wrong. For this strategy you allow yourself to do the thing that you’ve decided not to do anymore, but only on the condition of doing the right thing first. Taking food as an example, you would be allowed to a particular junk food, but only after eating some other healthy food first. Often times, after having eaten the healthy food, the desire for still having the unhealthy food is no longer present, and your focus will be shifted from the unhealthy food to the healthy, building a new routine and habit around the latter. Doing the right thing first, even though it isn’t what you originally wanted, satisfies the same need and you won’t do the wrong thing anymore after having done the right thing.
Set a timer, and shift your focus
As written above, great ideas and good intentions are often accompanied by inspiration and excitement. We see the logic of our great new idea and believe that will bring our intention to fruition. And then life happens. We get distracted, lazy, or simply forget about those great ideas and intentions. We do not follow through on them. To help us with this process, and support the buiding of good habits and routines, Dr. Steve Levinson invented the MotivAider. This clever and simple device, which is sold and used in over 50 countries, is like a small pager which at random vibrates to remind us about a preset intention. This vibration then is paired with a personal intention. This prompt helps us focus (again) on our set intention, and through that build the routine. We can do the same on our phone, and help remind us though a vibrating prompt to follow through on a preset intention. A particular vibration or ringtone could be a reminder to sit up straight, or to smile, thereby helping us to build a desirable habit. It’s best to do this focusing on one intention at a time, not overwhelming ourselves with prompts and reminders. It is important to build and enforce one habit first, and only thereafter shift to the next (Levinson, 2022).
Cues and prompts
‘The big secret to efficient creative and productive thinking and action is to put the right things in your focus at the right time’ (Allen, 2015). A big part of why we don’t follow through is that we simply forget about our good intentions and become distracted with all else life is throwing at us. The MotivAider, as mentioned above, or simply setting reminders are good tools for this. Cues help us to keep our motivation on our mind. ‘According to Psychological Science, people are more inclined to follow through if they are exposed to stimuli that remind them of their motivators’ (Hollins, 2018). Thus, it is important to be reminded often, and expose yourself to cues and prompts to help keep your motivation in mind and thus follow through (Hollins, 2018). From personal experience I know that this works. However, we need diversity and variety. We can do this by moving our cues around or creating variation in them, thereby stimulating newness and hence enforcing us to notice. If for instance you’d have a post-it note on your mirror, over time it will become something normal that doesn’t stand out anymore. Moving the note around, and replacing the message jotted down helps tremendous with notability.
Fear of failure
As mentioned by Hollins in his book ‘Finish What You Start’, our fear of failure can prevent us from following through. Personally, this fear at times kept me from completing what I had started in my early years as an entrepreneur. With what I know now, I regret having missed the opportunity to succeed, or at the least, having missed an opportunity to learn. Gene Hayden asks the question, ‘is it better to have acted and lost than never to have acted at all?’ (Hayden, 2010). In ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, author Daniel Gilbert has compiled the research which proves we would rather take our chances than play it safe. He concludes that over time people of all ages and walks of life feel more regret about what they didn’t do, than what they did. ‘This is partly because it’s easier to justify failure to ourselves than is it to explain why we wimped out and didn’t do anything. We applaud ourselves and others for trying, even when things don’t work out as hoped. “I tried my best” is a badge of honor. “I didn’t try” is a blight on our character.”’ (Hayden, 2010). Thus, next time you find yourself like me fearing the possibility of failure, do it anyway, and enjoy feeling alive and the learning and growth of character that comes with it. You won’t regret it.
Be kind to yourself, and stop making so many promises
In closing, I’d like to make a case for kindness. Not only towards each other, but also towards ourselves. We need to learn to accept that we’re poor at following up, and that its due to our poor wiring (Levinson, 2022). Stop beating ourselves up about it and relax. Poor follow through is a species problem, and not an individual problem (Levinson, 2022). As Dr. Levinson shared with me during our talk, ‘people’s extend of wellbeing is determined in part by how many of their promises they have kept’ (Levinson, 2022). Therefore, the best is to keep a higher percentage of promises, which you can do best by making fewer promises (Levinson, 2022). ‘Poor follow through is not your fault. It is the function of our wiring (Levinson, 2022). Knowing this, and being aware of how our feelings influence our behavior allows us to ask ‘[h]ow can we get the job done despite the mind’s limitations?’ (Levinson and Greider, 2015), and ‘what feeling will drive me to follow through on this intention?’ The answers to these questions will likely shift ones focus, finding a trick, to following through.
To learn more about following through, why we don’t, and how we can ensure that we will, I have talked to clinical psychologist Dr. Steve Levinson, a.k.a. the Follow Through Doc. Steve has spent over three decades making sense of why we too often fail to follow through on our intelligently set intentions.
He has authored two books on the topic, titled ‘Following Through: A revolutionary new model for finishing whatever you start’ and ‘The Power to Get Things Done: (Whether You Feel Like It or Not)’. Steve is also the inventor of the MotivAider, a device that helps us focus on our intentions, and thereby follow through.
I have to say, I really learnt a lot about why follow through is so difficult, and how we can trick ourselves into becoming a champion at it. If you’re like me, sometimes struggling to do what you’ve set out to do, you’ll gain lots from watching/listening to this interview. Enjoy!
Website of Steve Levinson: https://habitchange.com/about.php
More information on the MotivAider and prompting: https://habitchange.com/motivaider.php
Virtual MotivAider App: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/virtual-motivaider/id1450231402?ls=1
Allen, David, 2015, Getting Things Done. https://amzn.to/3KIidgp
Drucker, Peter, 2006, The Effective Executive: The definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. https://amzn.to/3i2Hky7
Gilbert, Daniel, 2007, Stumbling on Happiness. https://amzn.to/3i00owK
Hayden, Gene, 2010, The Follow-Through Factor: Going From Doubt to Done. https://amzn.to/3Jchy6r
Hollins, Peter, 2018, Finish What You Start: The Art of Following Through, Taking Action, Executing, & Self-Discipline (Live a Disciplined Life). https://amzn.to/3J0RxqC
Levinson, Steve, and Chris Cooper, 2015, The Power to Get Things Done: (Whether You Feel Like It or Not). https://amzn.to/3i2QISu
Levinson, Steve, and Pete Greider, 2015, Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start. https://amzn.to/3i1pIme
Steel, Piers, 2012, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.https://amzn.to/3t1T2zf