In March 2018 I received confirmation that I would be delivering nine unique keynotes on a cruise ship in October that year. One of the topics was titled Get Healthier Finally and I figured I had 6 months to shape up before having to deliver that one. Excellent. Six months for me to get healthier finally. That's doable. Except I didn't follow through.
Tell the truth
Are there some decisions you've made that were awesome decisions, but then you never took any action? I'll tell you the truth: for me there have been a lot. It's almost as if I know what to do, I decide to do it, I might even want to do it, but I don't do it. And it drives me crazy. And it probably drives others crazy too. I'm not exclusively like that. Sometimes I make decisions bordering on impulsive, act immediately, boom: result. My recent trek to Everest is an example of that. (There are pros and cons with that approach as well. Sometimes that sort of process leads to partial action that magnifies the lack of follow-up activity and results in value diminishment.)
Lack of action
But my point is, I do make decisions and take action, but I'm focussing here on those infuriatingly common times when we make decisions and don't take action.
- Like collecting business cards at a networking event and not following through with contacting them. We have to follow through.
- Like deciding to get fit and healthy and dropping some weight and then going to a buffet or skipping the gym. We have to follow through.
- Like deciding to write everyday and only writing once in a blue moon. We have to follow through.
- Like deciding to read everyday and only reading about blue moons happening the night before and realising I hadn't written anything then either. We have to follow through.
- Like deciding to market like a superhero before then thinking it would be better to immediately take a nap and then go to a supermarket. We have to follow through.
- Like deciding to lead your team better, but only after you're not so angry with them for not being better mind-readers. We have to follow through.
- Like deciding to speak about Getting Healthier Finally while 15kg overweight but then doing nothing to change that for 5 months before the speech. We have to follow through.
Any of these sound familiar? This may be happening to you too, or someone you know, or if you manage people, this could also be happening to some of them.
So here are 5 reasons why this happens, each with solutions to help increase our follow through.
1. The psychological reason why we don't follow through: action uncertainty
One reason why we decide to do but don't follow through, is a lack of certainty about how to do it, or whether doing it a certain way will succeed. The uncertainty of action overwhelms the decision to act.
This is linked to an inflated estimation of the probability of failure coupled with an inappropriate avoidance of failure.
It was 2am in Singapore on 18 September 2018 when I finally decided to go and visit Mt Everest. It was Tuesday. I landed in Kathmandu on the Friday, flew to Lukla on Saturday and from there I started the long hike to Everest. The journey was tough, but incredibly rewarding. It started with finally making the decision to go, and then taking the action necessary to make it happen.
But it didn't begin like this.
I had known about the Everest Base Camp trip when a friend, Simon, proposed it on a Facebook post back in February, some 7 months before I decided to go. I had thought then about going, thought it'd be nice, but then decided that it was too far out to know what I would be doing in September. I had rationalised that procrastination was the correct form of action.
In August, Simon turned up in Singapore from Hong Kong on a work trip. He wanted to catch up and instead of going for a drink somewhere, he wanted to go for a walk as he was in training for his Everest trip. I suggested MacRitchie Reservoir. Lovely tracks. Beautiful walk. I had figured we'd get a taxi to the reservoir, walk for a little while until it started getting dark, and grab a taxi back. We ended up walking to the reservoir, around the entirety of the reservoir and back home again, walking 15.3km in 3 hours 15 minutes and we did half of that in darkness using phone torches and chatting away the entire time.
One of the things we talked about was whether I wanted to go. I did. But, I had just received an urgent request for a training proposal from one of my regular clients in Saudi Arabia, and although it smelled like a purchasing decision had already been made and I was being asked to make up the numbers, I submitted the proposal in which the requested delivery dates would clash with one of the two weeks of the Everest trip. So I told Simon that if the Saudi gig was delayed or didn't go ahead, then I would join him hiking to Everest. I still hadn't made a firm decision, but in my mind I would either go to Saudi or to Nepal. I would wait and see.
The uncertainty of action overwhelms the decision to act.
This can also be linked to an inflated estimation of the probability of failure coupled with an inappropriate avoidance of failure.
A good example is why a child doesn't want to do their homework. It isn't always because the homework isn't interesting. It's partly because it's new to them and they are not sure if their choices and processes are correct, so there is indecision. And that can be compounded if they are made to feel insufficient when they get things wrong, or they feel no discernable positive emotion when they get things right. So homework is avoided because its psychologically tormenting to do it due to uncertainty of the correct course of action (action uncertainty) and regardless of their result, the consequence will be some form of negativity or nothing.
Games have explicit rules. Homework seems to have new rules all the time.
Games have short goals to accomplish and a short celebratory reinforcement when achieved. Homework seems never-ending, never-celebratory, and often negatively reinforced (to avoid a negative consequence, eg: "do your homework if you don't want XYZ to happen").
Ability at games has social equity with peers. Homework completion has social equity with teachers and parents, but less often with peers unless that is established.
When I was a student, my favourite teachers were the ones who we're passionate about the subject they were teaching and got excited when I was passionate or interested in that subject too or when I seem to get what they were talking about as evidenced through my submitted work. So both teacher and parent excitement over the subject, the process (doing the work) and the progress (the improvement in results or understanding) adds tremendous value as leading by example helps the student get excited and focussed on solving or learning more.
Another solution is to create student mastermind groups where homework progress is updated, and in class where those who get it teach their peers how they understood it.
Example 2: A team seems to have no clear solutions to the challenges they face.
This is quite common where the workplace culture frowns upon any form of failure. Since solutions often require innovative or creative approaches which in their formative phases can often work less successfully than a more experienced application of the approach.
Teams not producing ideas to solve their challenges is also common when team members believe their leaders will fail to listen to proposed solutions anyway, or claim credit, or that the team members' perceptions of their workloads or experience at work experience will diminish with the solution.
Solutions include greater leadership training in soft skills, servant leadership, and coaching skills, and delivering a sequence of engaging ideation workshops which demonstrate that ideas are heard, considered and some developed into solution projects with the credit shared appropriately by those in the team including the idea originator.
Make the solutions sessions fun, like games. For example, I've gamified my Solution Storming Sessions to make them interesting, engaging, interactive, and fun. There are rules, music, teams, props, timers, and me as the facilitator or referee. And before we start solution-storming ideas to solve business challenges, I run a primer activity that produces hilarious ideas, making the process fun. Then when we start to solve the business challenges, teams generate hundreds and hundreds of ideas in a 15 minute burst. Fun and games. And solutions.
Importantly, we then take those solutions, organise them, prioritise them, and determine which will be implementable projects, turn them into projects and articulate the next steps forwards, and all of a sudden we remove action uncertainty, because everyone was involved, everyone knows the way forward, and everyone knows what to do next. Awesomely impactful.
2. The social reason why we don't follow through: premature celebration
Another reason we decide to do, but don't follow through, is when we celebrate starting so much, that it's enough positivity for us, so we stop. Premature celebration.
Example: A friend is trying to lose 20kg because they don't feel good about themselves and they finally decide to do something about it. Somehow they drop 5kg. They look a bit thinner. And suddenly people notice. Now they're getting lots of positive comments intended to support their effort and acknowledge their early results. But that only ends up making the person feel good about themselves so they stop the positive dietary habits and decrease the physical activities and celebrate their feeling of success without hitting the ultimate success goal.
Celebrating milestones on the way to a goal is good. But it needs to motivate continuity and not abandonment of the goal. It needs to increase traction and action towards the goal and not distraction and subtraction from the goal.
Solution: celebrate and reinforce
At milestone moments, we need to acknowledge the accomplishment of the milestone, and reinforce the positivity of achieving the greater goal in the mind of the goal-getter. That doesn't mean being never satisfied with progress or diminishing the accomplishment of the milestone in light of the greater goal, but it does mean consciously motivating the continued pursuit of the next milestone during the celebration of the present accomplishment.
If you are the one pursuing the goal, a great best way to do this is to accept the positive feedback and respond with articulating your next milestone. "Yep, I've dropped three kilos so far on my way to losing twenty. And my next milestone goal is to drop two more." That way we're acknowledging our positive progress but we're not mistaking it for the ultimate victory. And we're letting everyone know of our continued commitment and accountability to the goal, and that we're still working towards it. That may even encourage them to continue to ask about our progress at a future date, which keeps our goal top of our minds too and helps make the accountability stronger.
Social media bad likes
Another example: social media. Declaring that you have a goal on social media and a bunch of people give you big support and lots of likes, but then you abandon the goal.
It is good to use social media that way. So long as you don't derail when the novelty of your update posts wears thin and people don't bother acknowledging it anymore. That would mean that we're linking our outcome to the level of extrinsic or external motivators, rather than to our intrinsic or inner motivators and desires for the outcome. It's linked to defining our efforts based on the opinions of others rather than strengthening self. Defining our efforts based on the opinions of others is destined to see us abandon our efforts. Since we have no control or direct influence over their moods and willingness to praise us, it makes that a poor choice of motivator.
Social media validation abandonment
It's almost as if the purpose of the goal was social validation and not the benefits of achieving the goal. So when the validation wears off, we seek another way of drawing attention to ourselves to make ourselves seem worthwhile, when in truth we are already worthwhile and will feel better about ourselves if we continue, motivating from within, firing up our spirit and taking action.
Solution: We accept external encouragement, but that's a short-term boost and not the long-term fuel. That fuel comes from you for you, and me for me; from that spirit within. So we each must decide whether a goal is important enough to strive for, and then make it our goal and make it urgent enough to take frequent habitual action to achieve it.
3. The habitual reason why we don't follow through: conditioned avoidance
If deciding I'm going to do something and then not doing it is a common occurrence, then it follows that I've conditioned myself, through repetition, to allow this to happen. And now this is a bad habit. The conditioning will have come from deciding to do something, not following through, and as a result only nothing got better. Meaning: nothing got worse, or worse enough as a result of inaction. There were no condemningly negative consequences. I got away with it.
Getting away with it is a key ingredient in reinforcing complacency. Complacency is borne from past successes. Past successes reinforce repetition of past behaviour. Lack of reinvention in a changing world results in eventual obsolescence. The past behaviour may not be enough, or relevant, or sustainable in the present world.
Solution: disrupt yourself.
First define the parameters of the standard or goal you wish to attain. Be specific so you can articulate it to someone else. Then articulate it to someone else. Then ask them: "What must I stop doing? What must I start doing? What must I keep doing?"
Stop. Keep. Start.
To be able to start doing new things, you'll need some surplus time. To do that you'll need to either stop doing some things, or find someone else to do some of the things you must keep doing. You can delegate down the organisational hierarchy, to your staff, or sideways to your peers, or even delegate up to your manager. You might be able to delegate out as well, to another department, or to an external party.
In your list of things to start, include learning something. Be a learner. Then apply what you've learned.
Disorganisation and poor prioritisation
Decide complacency is not an option moving forward. But also notice that sometimes complacency is the label mistakenly given to disorganisation and lack of prioritisation.
And disorganisation and lack of prioritisation are at the heart of not being clear what the goal is; there's a lack of purpose. That's evident because a clarity of purpose will marshal resources and effort to draw out organisation and prioritisation of action.
Purpose is found through the exploration of micro-purposes.
Do stuff. Notice what you like, what interests you, what lights your fire, what makes you smile, what makes you completely lose track of time because you're so engaged in it.
A micro-purpose is a short-term big goal. It's not all-of-life. It's part-of-life. A season. A chapter. But it's big. Big enough for you to have to grow into it. It won't fit the you of now. It's too big for you. You'll have to become the even better version of yourself.
Then you can connect the dots and see what you big purpose is.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had a micro-purpose to be Mr Universe. It consumed him. 5 hours a day in the gym for years. He did it, winning multiple times. Then his micro-purpose was to be a Hollywood leading man. He did that too. Then it was to be a leading politician. He was the Governator of California for seven years. Each of these were big goals but each would last only a few chapters.
What's your short-term very big goal, your micro-purpose?
One of mine quickly became hiking to Everest Base Camp and then through Cho La Pass and around back to Lukla in 12 days… with limited preparation. I did it… with very limited preparation. I even forgot to bring a towel. But once Saudi delayed their project, I decided to go to Nepal, bought a ticket at 2am on the Tuesday and was there 3 days later. It was a very short-term micro-purpose, but in those 3 days, a heck of a lot got done. I went from zero gear to fully ready, including buying most of the gear in Singapore and renting the rest in Kathmandu. And I walked around the reservoir a couple more times too. What's your micro-purpose that a large portion of your actions and effort can concentrate their focus on?
Richard Branson's micro-purpose was in the music industry with Virgin records. Then travel, and airlines, and health, and insurance, and fuel and space and ships. And concurrently involved in multiple charitable ventures, and starting Virgin Unite in 2004 which will distribute half his fortune to charities and helping social enterprises do what they do best: solve problems in the world, helping those in need, and fulfilling their purposes. His larger philanthropic purpose was borne from these micro-purposes.
Like Bill Gates is doing. From founding Microsoft to becoming the richest man in the world for the longest time, to now eradicating malaria and solving family planning challenges in African villages through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But sometimes we get too caught up on defining our larger purpose. And we get stuck. Or we flit about inauthentically. Forget about your great big purpose for now. Choose a micro-purpose and get on with it.
What's your short-term very big goal, your micro-purpose?
I wrote a children's book about poo. I had never written a children's book before. And it wasn't really a goal. It certainly wasn't a micro-purpose until I had written it, and then I wondered what I could do with it. I seem to recall it taking me about twenty minutes to write it.
Maybe it was two hours or more. I don't know. I lost track of time.
But then I hired an artist to illustrate it, a publishing house to pull it all together, and it's now about to land on Amazon. And each book sold helps fund the building of toilets for impoverished families in remote villages in Malawi through my membership of the B1G1 Businesses For Good community and I love it (by the way theirs is an amazing example of purpose, check out what B1G1 are doing).
Oh, and the book is called Billy Bottombomb and the Great Poo of Pottyville. I'm so proud of how far it's come and what it's doing. I only wrote it as a bit of fun for my two-year old daughter. Then I thought I'd share it with the world because it was fun, and about poo, and might help other parents potty-train their kids, while also doing good in the world.
Another micro-purpose is that I'm helping people earn a career promotion and a payrise through an online program I've developed called Promotion Payrise. It helps people shift their perspective and mindset, learn manager-influence strategies, plus implement a number of tools and ideas that add significant value at work. All these position the individual to be noticed and considered for promotions and pay increases. And that's definitely a micro-purpose of mine, because I'm helping create better leaders through it.
As it's an online training program, it can reach places that I don't normally go and speak, and reach people whom I may never meet. And that's amazing to me. I've loved working on it and learning as I've done so, and seeing the transformation it is making in people's lives has made it so purposeful. And it's also linked to global giving initiatives in education and business.
What's your short-term very big goal, your micro-purpose?
Whether it's becoming Mr Universe, uniting social enterprises for greater impact, eradicating malaria, helping people get a promotion and a payrise, becoming Governor of California, or helping parents potty-train their kids, it's okay. Just choose something, something bigger than what you can do now, and do it. Then you'll get to the next corner, and you can take a peek around it and see if you want to head in that direction next.
4. The theological reason why we don't follow through: enslaved by sin
Here's another reason why we decide to do, but we don't follow through. This one's theological. I find it fascinating that this EXACT challenge is sitting there in the Bible. Here's what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (text from The Message version of the Bible), and just take a look at what one of the most famous, important, and most influential people in the early church had to say about deciding to do but not following through.
I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.
But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.
It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? (Romans 7:14-24, MSG)
Our sin sabotages us
So in the theological reason as to why we want to do but we don't follow through, the premise is that sin is in the world. The theological explanation of how and why sin came into the world is in the book of Genesis, but essentially the first man and woman managed to break both the world and their relationship with God from His original designs, and so we're stuck with sin messing around in our lives today. Free will means we can choose to sin although God doesn't want us to. And it's this sinful side can stop us from doing that good thing that we decide to do.
We sin-scarred mortals can't win the fight against sin on our own. Our spirit and will-power is not enough to stop sin working against us and our lives. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak: we're enslaved by sin. And sin wants us to stay small, feel bad about ourselves, and diminish our positive contribution to ourselves, our family, our community and the world, and keep us removed from having a relationship with God. And that's the theological reason why we decide to do, and don't follow through, Christianly speaking: we're enslaved by sin and we need a more powerful helper.
Theological solution: the Helper
Paul goes on to say that the answer is that we need Jesus Christ to help us, and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit – the Helper – in us to help us to follow through on what we decide to do. And even to help us decide what to do in the first place. And to reconcile our relationship with God. And from this Christian perspective, this would also tie in with finding our divine purpose, since if we're in a relationship with God, He'll reveal His plan for us or guide us toward various micro-purposes that may reveal the greater purpose of our lives other than loving Him and pointing others towards His truths too. So…
… a practical action here could be to pray for divine help to do it.
If you're not a believer, you could either ignore this bit and maybe sit in the corner and think positively for a little bit before reading the fifth reason, or you could test to see if God wants to help you by praying an honest prayer. If you do decide to pray, then be on the lookout for unusual external resources or moments that connect with your prayer… coincidentally. Meaning, recognise the help He sends, and continue chatting.
Anyway that's a theological reason why we decide to do, and don't follow through. Next!
5. The self-sabotaging reason why we don't follow through: identity mediocrity
The fifth reason why we decide to do, and don't follow through, is when we are trapped in a belief of who we are and what we deserve that closely resembles where we are now or worse. As a result, the standard of living and life experience that we can expect cannot deviate much from the one we're experiencing now. As a result, things stagnate. Or we sabotage progress. Sameness creeps in. And we don't follow through, because doing so might cause a ripple of discomfort in the perfectly mediocre standard niche that we've carved for ourselves in this world.
We may choose to dislike and judge those that call us on it. That's really our self-sabotaging defence mechanism designed to protect a fragile sense of self; one that doubts it deserves the good it has, and holds us back from the greater good we can receive.
The truth is that those who that are calling you on it are trying to wake you up and remind you to shine.
Identity mediocrity manifests itself as self-sabotage.
When we don't take the action we intended to take, that's self-sabotaging behaviour. It ensures we don't succeed beyond where our identity places our value… which is where we are, not where we could be.
Identity mediocrity revels in comparing ourselves with others and seeing our lesser condition as a reinforcement of our lesser worth and why we don't deserve greater success.
One solution is: don't compare.
But that's next to impossible. We compare to get a sense of where we are and a measure of what's possible and how fast we're moving. Measurement and reporting and analytics and stats are all methods of comparing, whether that's against others, or against ourselves and our past performance.
So a better solution is: compare with others with a desire and curiosity of finding another way forward, and compete against your past performance. If they got there, and I want to go there, then I need to find the way that they found. And I want to better my previous best, because that makes me better.
One way to find out how others got to where they are is to ask them. Most people think that others won't tell us how they got to where they are, because it's some big secret that they fear will set them back if they reveal it. Not true. Others are happy to tell how they got to where they're going. They might be more reluctant to tell us what they are working on to get to the next level as that might risk diminishing their competitive advantage, but they will be happy to tell us how they got to where they are. So ask.
Be brave. The courageous you will always be more valuable than your saboteur. Boldly ask. Boldly do. Boldly go where you have yet to go.
What we need is a reboot up the mindset.
We need to practice cultivating a mindset of victory by developing from behavioural and attitudinal aspects: the Leader, the Developer, the Giver, and the Seeker. I'll go into these in another article. In the meantime, let's focus on how to recondition our thinking.
Negative conditioning and self-sabotaging thinking have all been built upon bit by bit over a long period of time. It's going to take a while to shift it. It'll take an immediate decision to decide to shift it, and then a concerted course of action to chip away at the negativity and release the victor within. Here's some ways to do that.
If we've poured the concrete of negativity over ourselves, pouring more isn't going to help. Step one: stop pouring negative concrete. That could include removing or significantly reducing your intake of negative media (and there's a lot), negative song lyrics (also a lot), negative self-talk ("Oh I'm such an idiot…" – you might ask others to point out if you're doing this and then change it to something more empowering), and doing those negative things that keep you imprisoned. You know the ones. They're those things that you do and you regret immediately after doing them. Like eating KFC when you're trying to lose weight (hint: it's not so much the chicken that's the problem, it's the polyunsaturated seed oil that's it's cooked in).
Stop pouring negative concrete over yourself and start creating a world of positive possibility and inspired action. Go for Guided Intelligent Action. And shine.
Now is a great time for a reimagining of your future, and a revision (a new vision) of how you're going to get there.
1. Set some specific goals around health, relationships, business or career growth, learning, and positivity.
2. Choose a micro-purpose and invest yourself in it. Be single minded about that micro purpose.
3. Articulate one next step for each goal and micro-purpose. When this step is achieved, determine your next action step and milestone and celebrate progress while knowing there's still work to be done.
4a. Choose some negative consequences for not following through. Note that a negative consequence must be something you really don't want to do. It can't be donate to charity, as that is a good thing to do… unless the charity goes against your ethos and belief systems, then maybe.
4b. Choose some positive consequences for when you do follow through. These are rewards for doing it. You might ask a trusted friend to take $1000 cash and hold it for you. Each time you complete what you said you were going to complete, they pay you $100. Each time you don't they send $100 to your arch-enemy.
5. Share these goals and your micro-purpose and your next action steps with two or three positive friends and ask them to help you stay accountable. Commit to reporting your progress to them weekly. Don't just do it with one person, have a few keeping you accountable.
Stickk to it
Need more ideas to keep committed to your goals? Check out an awesome service call stickk. I wish I had come up with this site.
Sometimes we each need a jolt.
So I went to Everest. It was tough. But I proved to myself that I was more than the me before the trip. I also dropped 7.5kg in 12 days which gave me some awesome insights into fat loss for my speech on the cruise ship. Spoke on the cruise ship to awesome audiences who were so appreciative and interested. And I returned inspired. Refreshed. Renewed.
And now I've written this article. And it's not even a blue moon. I feel positive. Grateful. Energised. Excited about writing the next one.
Tim Wade is a global conference speaker hired to motivate positive change, develop leaders and teams, and help improve performance results for leading organisations across the world. Learn more about Tim various other projects here … or… about engaging Tim to speak here.