New Directions

How to Follow Through

Not long ago,  I learned two new things that have really stuck with me:

1. The ancient Greek word akrasia, which describes our tendency to act against our own best interests. Akrasia is at the root of procrastination. It’s also the reason we don’t go to the gym, even when we know exercise is good for us.

2. The term “time inconsistency,” which describes our tendency to value things differently at different points in our lives. Time inconsistency is why it’s easy to tell ourselves at 11 p.m. “I’m going to get up early and go to the gym and start the day off right.” But when 5:00 a.m. rolls around, it turns out we value sleep more than exercise.

I learned both of these things by reading James Clear’s article The Akrasia Effect: Why We Don’t Follow Through on What We Set Out to Do (And What to Do About It).  I enjoyed learning the word akrasia because it comforts me to know that even Socrates struggled with procrastination. It isn’t necessarily a product of the contemporary world and its many distractions, as we tend to think of it. Nor is it merely a function of being lazy or unprincipled. It’s possible to be a decent person with good intentions who doesn’t always do what she says she’s going to.

Possible and, perhaps, not uncommon.

I’m similarly comforted to know that there’s an actual reason why I flake out on going to the gym in the morning. Not an excuse, mind you, but a reason. At 11 p.m., I value the possibilities that the next day holds; at 5 a.m., I value the immediate comfort of my bed. The concept of “time inconsistency” also helps me understand how we end up with houses full of junk–because, at some point in the past, those items actually seemed useful.

All of this has helped me re-think the issue of motivation. Like many people, I have a tendency to make big plans for myself. Then I don’t follow through. Sometimes, that’s because my plans were unrealistic in the first place. Other times, it’s because I don’t want to work through the various steps I’ll have to take to execute that plan. Even if the goal is appealing, getting there might not be.

But I’m not going to beat myself up about my lack of follow-through, because that won’t change anything. What will? James Clear offers several good suggestions:

Employ “commitment devices.”

It turns out I’ve been using commitment devices all my life without even knowing what they were. Basically, they’re things that make it easier for you to follow through with a goal. If you want to cut down on eating sweets, you don’t keep sweets in the house. If you want to save more money, you have a portion of your paycheck routed directly into savings.

Commitment devices don’t guarantee your success–you can always withdraw that money from your savings account, after all. But they do get you one step closer. I’ve started thinking of commitment devices as the first line of defense between backsliding and actually taking a step backward. One is easy and can even be accidental; the other requires conscious intent, which makes it somewhat less likely.

Focus on getting started.

Clear points out that actually taking the actions we’ve pledged to take–like working out, once we get to the gym–is far less difficult than getting just started. I think that’s almost always true. I don’t mind working out once I get to the gym; in fact, I feel really good about it. The workout is not what I hate. What I hate is getting out of bed.

So how do we resolve that tension? By doing whatever is necessary to make getting started easier. This is why I work out in the afternoon, not in the morning–no matter how many people tell me a morning workout is best. If I plan for a 3:00 session at the gym, I’m far more likely to stick with that plan. I always change clothes after work anyway; changing into gym clothes is way easier than rolling out of bed early. This may not be the case for you, so be honest with yourself. Figure out what will help you get started.

Make a specific plan.

Clear calls this “utilizing implementation intentions,” which sounds very official. But basically, it’s the difference between saying “I’m going to work out three times this week” and “I’m going to work out Tuesday and Thursday at 3:00 and Saturday morning at 10:30.” The more specific you can make your plan, the more likely you are to stick with it. Pledging to work out three times a week gives you four days to procrastinate. If your life is anything like mine, those are the four days during which the remaining three will fill up with non-negotiable commitments. Make a plan to thwart procrastination and you’re halfway toward following through.

If you aren’t working on a goal you’ve set for yourself, maybe it’s time to ask yourself why. Are you lacking commitment devices that would help you take action? Are you asking yourself to get started in ways that actually make the task more difficult? Do you need to develop a more specific plan?

The key thing to remember is that beating yourself up for a lack of follow-through won’t change anything. All it will do is make you feel less capable of fully embracing the possibilities your life presents.


  • Reply lesleybolton January 21, 2016 at 4:34 am

    I’m interested in this book. It sounds great! You have a well thought out plan which can be a point of procrastination itself. Enjoyed this very much!

  • Reply Debra C January 20, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    Great post! Follow through is definitely something that comes easily for some things, but not so easy for the harder things. You’re right, things often require a plan, rather than an “I will do this…” My word is focus, and I believe focus and follow-through work well together!

  • Reply Manicmom January 20, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    Love this. I coach volunteer fundraisers who sometimes have every intention of helping the charitable organization with which they work, but when the rubber meets the road, they have a hard time getting started. I’m going to put some of these to work for them (and myself). Thanks!

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