You get really excited about an idea to start an exercise program, or become a better partner, or get organized. And then you do . . . nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It’s said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Even if they don’t send you straight to Hades, good intentions, that go unfulfilled, can lead to real suffering. When you fail to act on your perennial plans for progress, you end up feeling frustrated, demoralized, and stuck.
My guest is a clinical psychologist who has spent his career obsessed with how to tackle this stubborn issue of human existence. His name is Steve Levinson, and he’s the co-author of Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start. Steve first explains the unhelpful ideas we have about why we don’t follow through and that its real cause comes down to a tension between two different systems within us. He then shares the ah-ha moment he had as to how to reconcile these systems in order to consistently follow through on your intentions and offers strategies on how to put his follow-through method into practice. We end our conversation with the idea that the greatest strategy for increasing your follow-through is treating your intentions with a seriousness that borders on the sacred.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science
- AoM Podcast #444: How to Use the Procrastination Equation to Start Getting Things Done
- AoM Article: What Gandhi and a 19th-Century Prussian Prince Can Teach You About Making Unbreakable Resolutions
- Sunday Firesides: Lash Yourself to the Mast
- AoM Article: The Power of Temptation Bundling
- Sunday Firesides: Do You Take This Habit . . . ?
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. You get really excited about an idea to start an exercise program or become a better partner or get organized, and then you do nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even if they don’t send you straight to Hades, good intentions that go unfulfilled can lead to real suffering. When you fail to act on your perennial plans for progress, you end up feeling frustrated, demoralized and stuck. My guest is a clinical psychologist who has spent his career obsessed with how to tackle the stubborn issue of human existence. His name is Steve Levinson, and he’s the co-author of Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start. Steve first explains the unhelpful ideas we have about why we don’t follow through, and that its real cause comes down to attention between two different systems within us. He then shares the aha moment he had as to how to reconcile these systems in order to consistently follow through on your intentions and offer strategies on how to put his follow-through method into practice. We end our conversation with the idea that the greatest strategy for increasing your follow-through is treating your intentions with a seriousness that borders the sacred. After the show’s over check at our show notes at aom.is/follow-through.
Steve Levinson, welcome to the show.
Steve Levinson: Well, thank you.
Brett McKay: So you co-authored a book called Following Through, and it’s about a problem that a lot of people have. We have good intentions, but then we just don’t follow through with it. You’re a clinical psychologist and you’ve spent a lot of your time and career researching or writing about the problem of poor follow-through and helping people who struggle with that. What led you down that path?
Steve Levinson: Well, when I began my career, I worked at a medical center and spent day after day after day working with and observing patients who didn’t get better or didn’t get better fast enough or got sick in the first place because they failed to do things that they knew they should do, and actually told themselves that they would do. And I was just struck by how much of the problems that people have in the realm of health are caused by poor follow-through by just not doing what they intend to do. And as I got fascinated with this topic and I saw that there was relatively little research done on it, I became interested in the fact that people don’t follow through in all areas of their life. It’s not just with regard to healthcare, that may be especially consequential, but people don’t follow through with their good intentions when it comes to relationships.
They intend to be a better partner, a better parent, a better child, a better anything, and they often don’t do it despite the fact that they sincerely intend to do it. And I was, frankly, puzzled and perplexed by why this topic which seems to affect just about everyone in various ways, didn’t get more attention than I did get. So I decided I was gonna make this my life’s work. This was gonna be my contribution, if you will, to somehow shed some light on why it is that we humans do such a lousy job of following through on our own good intentions.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned some of the problems that poor follow-through can have. So in the healthcare world, I think people see that all the time. They go to the doctor, the doctor says, “Hey, you need to lose some weight,” but they’re like, “Yeah, I’m gonna start exercising and watch my diet,” but they don’t do it. But I think we’ve seen in other parts of our life, I think New Year’s resolutions are the perfect example of poor follow-through. We intend to do all these things, but we don’t, and it ends up hurting us in the short term and in the long term.
Steve Levinson: Exactly, yeah, it’s just unbelievable the kind of chaos and havoc that poor follow-through wreaks on our lives in every respect. Just think about relationships. People all the time make promises to themselves that they’re going to be a better partner, they’re going to do this thing that will help their partner in some way, and they just don’t do it. They decide to improve their posture, and they just don’t do it. They start off with a bang, but they fizzle out very quickly before the job is done in every sphere of life. Finances, people intend to save, they intend to curb their spending to achieve various financial goals, and often they just don’t do it. So if in fact there was a pill that one could take that would enable them to immediately and consistently follow through on all their good intentions, it would have an amazing result on the quality of that person’s life.
Brett McKay: So you start off your book, Following Through, by unpacking unhelpful ideas about why we don’t follow through with our intentions. Sometimes when we have a failure to follow through, we think, “Well, why did it happen?” And you in your research and just working with people as well, you found some common explanations people tell themselves as to why they didn’t follow through. And the first one you talk about is the follow-through fairy tale. Explain that myth.
Steve Levinson: Well, the follow-through fairy tale has to do with the fact that we believe something that just isn’t true about follow-through. We believe that if we have a good intention, if we’re truly motivated to make some kind of change, to make some kind of improvement, to make some kind of adjustment, and if we’re motivated enough, we’ll do it. That’s all it takes, is just automatic. If we’re convinced that we should do it, we’ll do it, and that’s very appealing and it’s very logical. Unfortunately, it’s a fairy tale. It’s just not true. It doesn’t work that way. We have a very complicated, frankly, messed up system for dealing with intentions that just doesn’t produce that kind of result.
It isn’t automatic. It’s not automatic that if you intend to do something, even if you’re highly motivated, that you will necessarily do it. So we are suckers for logic, frankly. We humans always assume that things will be logical, and it makes perfectly good sense frankly, to assume that if we use our intelligence to figure out what we should do, we would just do it. Why wouldn’t we? But unfortunately, logic does not prevail in this case. We don’t do what we intend to do, we often do more of what we feel like doing.
Brett McKay: Okay, so the fairy tale is just ’cause we think something’s good, we intend to do something good, we should just naturally want to do it. And even you point out even when those good things are easy, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gonna follow through with. I think flossing is a perfect example of like what’s so hard about flossing? We know it’s good for your teeth, but when people intend that, they don’t do it. They still don’t do it.
Steve Levinson: They don’t do it. And it is amazing. It’s been amazing to me and I’m no exception to the rule. How easy something can be to do, and we still won’t do it, we still won’t follow through. There is something about the way the mind is designed, the way the human mind is designed, and I’m sure I’ll get into more of that later, that makes it very, very difficult to do even the easiest thing consistently, and enough to actually create a self-sustaining habit.
Brett McKay: So the next unhelpful theory that people fall to when they fail on their intention, putting to action, their intentions, so they think, “Well, okay, I intend this good thing, it’s easy to do. I didn’t do it, therefore, it means that I have no willpower.” And you call this the it must be me theory. Walk us through that theory.
Steve Levinson: Well, the it must be me theory is just a… It just follows from the follow-through fairy tale. If in fact it’s logical that if you intend to do something, you’ll do it, if you don’t do it, it’s obviously your own damn fault, and that’s what people do. They blame themselves for poor follow-through, and from my own research study, immersion, obsession with making sense of why people do such a lousy job of following through, I came to the conclusion, and I’m utterly convinced of this, that it’s not our fault, that it’s actually the fault of the way the mind is designed to treat good intentions. We have a very mixed-up system.
Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about this system, you’ve been alluding to this. So what is it about the system in our mind that often prevents us from following through on the good intentions that we have?
Steve Levinson: Well, it’s somewhat complicated, but if you look at us from an evolutionary standpoint, we are the crowning achievement of evolution. We have a system, an extremely sophisticated system, which is based on intelligence to guide us through life, to make decisions, big decisions, little decisions, and all kinds of decisions in between big and little as to what’s in our best interest. Should we do this, should we do that? Should we do the other thing? We figure things out, we know what we should do, we hear from other people what we should do, we can collect advice from others who are collecting advice themselves. And so we’re very good at figuring out what we should do of knowing what we should do, but there’s still a primitive system in place that is shared by many other living things on this planet including single-cell organisms that causes us to automatically move in the direction of the least amount of pain and the most amount of pleasure.
That’s what we do. We’re kind of automatically inclined to do what we feel like doing and not do what we don’t feel like doing, even though at the same time, we’re intellectually capable, in fact, incredibly talented at figuring out what we should do. The problem is that when we figure out what we should do, it’s often at odds with what we feel like doing, and what we feel like doing has an advantage because it’s automatic, whereas figuring things out is manual.
Brett McKay: And you call these two systems the system that guides us by our reason, you call it the intelligence guidance system, and then the one based on evolution, you call it the primitive guidance system, correct?
Steve Levinson: Correct, yes. And the primitive guidance system to me, it seems like mother nature sort of chickened out when she was making plans to install this incredibly sophisticated intelligence-based system, she thought at the last minute, “You know what, maybe I better not disconnect the primitive system that everyone else has, that all other species have. I’ll just leave it in place.” Without realizing that leaving the two systems in place causes conflict over and over again, not just once in a while, but many times everyday. Everyday, people have essentially a war between what they intend to do, what they intelligently decide, what they intelligently conclude they should do, and what on the other hand, their primitive guidance system urges them to do based on how they feel.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, there’s lots of examples that happens on a day-to-day basis, like let’s say someone intends to eat better. Well, that’s a reasonable intention. It’s gonna help their health, etcetera, etcetera, but then they see the potato chips and their primitive guidance system says, “Well, carbs and fat, you need to eat that because that’s good for survival.”
And so you eat the carb, fatty potato chips. The same thing with distraction. “Well, I’m gonna spend my time just working on my work and not being distracted by social media,” but the primitive guidance system loves novelty because novelty can help you maybe find new resources that can help with survival or novelty could be a danger or threat. So we’re just cued into novelty, and so we have this intention to work on document, but then that PGS says, “Let’s look at this new shiny thing on Facebook.”
Steve Levinson: Exactly, exactly. And this is constant. It’s not just once in a while, it’s constant. And we’re stuck with these conflicting systems that co-exist but don’t cooperate, and often the instructions they give are at odds with one another. And unfortunately, the primitive guidance system has the edge because again, it works automatically. We automatically know what we want, we automatically feel things. We don’t automatically come to conclusions, and we don’t automatically have those conclusions actually control our behavior. In fact, our behavior is controlled more often than not by how we feel and not by what we decide.
Brett McKay: This reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s idea of brain one, brain two. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. It’s the same sort of idea. Both of them are useful in certain situations, but they can often work at cross hairs against each other.
Steve Levinson: Exactly, exactly. And they don’t work together. There’s a possibility that coincidentally, they can, but they don’t deliberately work together. There’s nothing about the wiring in place that guarantees that they will work together in our best interest. Often, it’s very much the opposite. You decide you should do this, it’s really important, and then you end up doing that because the automatic primitive guidance system pushes you in that direction.
Brett McKay: So how do we resolve this tension between the primitive guidance systems and the intelligence guidance system?
Steve Levinson: Well, many years ago, when I was profoundly obsessed with this whole matter of why people don’t follow through and what I could do, what kind of contribution could I make to helping people follow through better, I had this aha moment. And then the best way for me to describe it is to give an example. If you feel tired and you intend to go to sleep, you’re in good shape, because the feeling tired, which is an expression of your primitive guidance system, happens to be in compliance with or in alignment with your intention. So when you feel… When you automatically feel like doing what you also intelligently intend to do, you’re in good shape, because you have the power of the primitive guidance system pushing you to do exactly what your intelligence-based guidance system has advised you to do.
So if you’re sleepy and you intend to sleep, you’ll sleep. If you’re hungry and you intend to eat, you’ll eat. The problem arises when those things are not in alignment, which is often. So what I discovered, or the path that I went down in my thinking was that if we can figure out, if we can essentially trick the primitive guidance system into wanting to do exactly what we decide, what we intend to do, we’ll be in good shape.
If you can make yourself feel hungry because you need to eat, that’s good. If you can make yourself not feel hungry because you don’t wanna eat, that also is good. So it’s a matter of tricking the primitive guidance system into wanting to do, feeling like it needs to do the same thing you intend to do.
Brett McKay: This reminds me, there’s an analogy I’ve heard about our faculty to reason and our emotional faculty. And it’s our emotional faculty is often like an elephant. It’s big, it’s powerful, and if you try to tell the elephant where to go through brute force, you’re gonna lose.
Steve Levinson: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And so what you need to be is you need to be like a rider on top of this elephant and guide it gently with your intelligence, but you’re letting the elephant… It’s not like you’re using brute force. Again it’s kinda like you use the word trick, but yeah, I think that’s what you’re kinda doing. You’re guiding this big giant elephant of emotion and desires that we have to do the thing we wanna do.
Steve Levinson: Yeah, Brett, the way you put that is actually perfect. We are at once the elephant and the elephant trainer.
Brett McKay: So through your research and your writing and your working with people on this problem of poor follow-through, you’ve come up with different tactics, tools, techniques that people can use to get their primitive guidance system to line up with their intelligence guidance system. And the first one you talk about is called spotlighting. What is spotlighting and how does that help us follow through?
Steve Levinson: Well, spotlighting is based on the observation that good intentions only work when they’re at the top of your mind. Plain and simple. If you decide, for example, I always use this example ’cause I think most people can relate to it, if you decide at 8:30 one morning that you really need to improve your posture, you think you would give a better impression to others, you would seem more alert, you’d seem more engaged, more involved, it would just be good for you besides it being good for your back. So you’re gonna improve your posture, that’s what you’ve decided, that’s your intention. If you start that at 8:30, by 9:00 AM, if you’re like most people, you’ve forgotten about it. You’ll remember, if you happen to see someone who’s slouching rather badly or if you slouch rather badly enough that you notice it or you nearly fall off your chair or someone calls attention to it. That’s fine, that will bring the attention that sunk to the bottom of your mind up to the top again, and it will work for a while. But on its own intentions, no matter how important they are, they tend to sink to the bottom of the mind and they become useless.
So spotlighting is about using prompts around you or cues, reminders, anything at all that will take a good intention that you have and bring it to the top of your mind. So for example, people who intend to improve their posture for whatever reason, they can use a little reminder device that every 10 minutes sends them a private signal that they have decided means I’m no slouch. It says to you, “I’m no slouch. I intend to sit up straight, to stand up tall, that’s important to me.” It just reminds them of what they already know, what they’ve already decided, and that’s all it takes to get them to actually make the change, improve their posture, and if they do it often enough, it will become a habit. But without that, intentions just again, they sit at the bottom of your mind and they don’t do you any good at all.
Brett McKay: One example you gave in the book that I liked about spotlighting, you were working with a guy who had an anger issue at work. When he would talk to his co-workers that he was in charge of, he would be really gruff with them, and he knew it was a problem, and he had all these intentions like, “Oh, I gotta do better,” and he always failed. And then you told him, “Well, is there a situation where you’re not gruff with people that you’re leading?” And he was like, “Yeah, when I coach my kid’s little league team.”
Steve Levinson: I remember that, yes.
Brett McKay: Yeah. “It means a lot to me to help these young men develop their talents and to develop their capabilities, and I just… I love that. That’s when I’m at my best.” And what you had him do, you were just like, “Well, put up reminders in your office about being a little league baseball coach,” and that was his spotlighting.
Steve Levinson: Yeah. He went pretty far with that and he actually printed up little memo pads, note pads with a bat and ball on it, and used baseball as a theme for everything he could possibly do so that he was immersed in it all the time, and it always made him think about that aspect of his identity where he behaved in accord with his intention and he wanted to bring it over to the areas where he wasn’t behaving in accord with his intention. A key thing, however, is that a lot of people will put up motivational posters or something and think that that will do the trick, it won’t, because anything that’s just static in your environment will eventually fade to the background and it loses its ability to actually bring your intention up from the bottom of your mind, so you have to keep at it. You have to keep coming up with new prompts, new cues, new reminders that keep an intention alive and well and active at the top of your mind.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break before a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So spotlighting is the first tool. The next tool you talk about is willpower leveraging. What is that?
Steve Levinson: Willpower leveraging is really important, and it’s at the core of my whole program or my whole system for improving the ability that people have to follow through. Willpower leveraging is… Well, let’s first talk about willpower. Willpower is basically a measure of a person’s ability to do something they believe they should do when they don’t feel like doing it, or to resist doing something they do feel like doing when they feel like they should resist it. It’s like physical strength in many respects, and it’s especially like physical strength in the sense that how much you can accomplish with the strength you have depends on how you apply that strength. So for example, I always consider if you had to change a tire on your car, you would have enough physical strength to lift up the car if you applied the physical strength to a tool that’s designed to leverage your strength, like a tire jack. If you try to lift up the car with your own bare hands and then just set the bumper on your knee while you unscrew the lug bolts with your hand, that wouldn’t work very well. So you have enough strength if you apply it correctly, you don’t have enough strength if you don’t apply it correctly, and the same is true with willpower.
For example, someone who doesn’t have the willpower to resist eating their absolutely favorite food, but a food that they’ve put on the list of foods that they shouldn’t be eating, they could resist the temptation if they took that food and put it in a safe somewhere behind armed guards in Estonia or some place very far away where there ain’t no way they can get to it. They would have enough willpower to resist it. So willpower leveraging is about using your willpower to take an action, to take a step that actually causes you to require less willpower going forward to follow through on your intention. It would take less willpower to make a phone call to have somebody come and take away a temptation than it would for you to have the temptation right in your face every day and have to resist it. So that’s what it’s all about.
Brett McKay: Okay. So it’s using your willpower to basically modify your environment.
Steve Levinson: Exactly.
Brett McKay: This is often called an Odysseus pact from the Odyssey where when Odysseus is about to go to the sirens, he wanted to hear how the siren sounded, but without going crazy, so he had his crew tie him to the mast, so he could hear it, but not go crazy. So yeah, so you’re binding yourself preemptively so you don’t have to worry about it when you actually face the temptation.
Steve Levinson: Correct. Often people have trouble with what I refer to as follow-through hygiene, practices that you can engage in that will improve your ability to follow through, because they feel like it’s restricting their freedom. Who wants to be tied to a mast? Who wants to be locked in a cage? Who wants to be prevented from accessing something that you’re drawn to? But to me, freedom from failure is the highest order of freedom in my book that you can ever achieve. The ability to intelligently restrict yourself so that you’re unable to do something that violates your own important intention, that to me, is the ultimate form of freedom.
Brett McKay: Okay. So different ways you can do willpower leveraging that came to mind, you mentioned if there’s a snack that you like to eat, just get it out of your house is one thing.
Steve Levinson: Get it out of your house. It takes less willpower to do that than it does to have it stare in your face and call your name all day long.
Brett McKay: Some other tactics I’ve seen, say if someone likes to check their smartphone a lot, you can delete the apps that are the most addicting for you, or you can even set up things where you can’t even access the apps, or there’s apps that do this willpower leveraging, like, “Well, you only get 30 minutes on Instagram, and after you’ve used your 30 minutes, you’re done.” Other tactics I’ve see with that, you can turn your screen gray. Apparently that makes the screen… The smartphone less enticing. Money, I think you talk about in the book, people who had problems with credit card debt, they just got rid of their credit cards. If they weren’t willing to do that, I’ve heard people freeze their credit cards in the freezer, so if they ever needed it…
Steve Levinson: Like in a cube of ice?
Brett McKay: Yeah. It would take forever to get. That was like a last minute emergency thing for their credit card.
Steve Levinson: Right. So all these people are using circumstances, they’re using their environment as an aid in following through. They’re making it harder to do the wrong thing, the thing that they don’t intend to do, and easier to do the thing that they do intend to do. Can I give you an example, the co-author of Following Through, Pete Greider, had a problem. He and his wife had a problem, they wanted to get on an exercise regimen, like many people do, and they thought the easiest way to do that is to buy an expensive piece of exercise equipment, which very quickly became a clothing hanger. Then they bought a more expensive piece of exercise equipment thinking that they just hadn’t spent enough and that became a clothing hanger also. So nothing worked, and then they had a brilliant idea.
They would follow through by going to the Humane Society and adopting a large dog that needed a lot of exercise, and that was quite lovable. And from there on, that was their exercise machine. That worked because from then on, every morning they would get up when they used to think, “Oh boy, we should really get on that exercise bike or that treadmill,” or whatever it was that they had at the time, and they didn’t really feel like it, and ultimately they often didn’t. Now, they had Casey, who was lovable and who had to go out, and they cared about Casey and they cared about their carpet, so they got up and they took him out, whether it was raining or whether it was snowing or… It didn’t make any difference. They did what they had to do and he had to get exercise, so he got exercise.
So they took one step, they took one step, they adopted a dog and it solved their problem with exercise, whereas trying to solve the problem by relying on the right reasons to exercise didn’t work, but going around and creating a change in their environment that would push them, that would make them feel like they had to do the very same thing that they intended to do, then they got the job done.
Brett McKay: It’s all about you’re trying to line up the PGS with the IGS.
Steve Levinson: That is exactly what you’re trying to do.
Brett McKay: And this idea of willpower leveraging, it made me think of this idea of temptation bundling from the psychologist, Katy Milkman, and she has this idea, the same sort of thing, it’s basically if there’s something you don’t like to do, you bundle it with something you do like to do. And so the example she gave from her own personal life is she did not like exercise, so what she did was she said, “Well, I’ll allow myself to watch my really trashy TV shows or read a trashy book that I really, really enjoy, but only when I exercise.” And so she was able to… Actually, exercise became this thing she looked forward to because she got to watch her shows that she wanted to watch and read the book she wanted to read.
So it’s, yeah, temptation bundling. So another thing, like your taxes, for example, if you wanna get your taxes done early instead of waiting the last minute, you could do something like, “Well, I don’t like doing my taxes, no one likes doing their taxes, but I’ll allow myself to eat some snack that I really, really enjoy, but it’s not great for me, but I’ll allow myself to do that.” So you’re bundling something that… Yeah. You’re basically bundling that PGS, that primitive guidance system, with your IGS.
Steve Levinson: Yes. Again, you’re being the elephant trainer to your elephant.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Steve Levinson: Can I give you a…
Brett McKay: Yeah. Go ahead.
Steve Levinson: Can I give you another example?
Brett McKay: Sure.
Steve Levinson: This is my favorite example of creative following through. So this fellow had trouble, like so many people have, getting into an exercise regimen. He joined a fancy health club, thought that would do it, it didn’t. Joined another health club, thought that would do it, it didn’t. And then he came up with this idea, here’s what he did. He decided that from now on… He made a deal with himself. “From now on,” he said, “I will only own one stick of under-arm deodorant, number one. Number two, I will keep that under-arm deodorant in my locker at the gym.” So he would wake up every morning and he would feel like he did before he made this deal with himself, “I don’t really wanna get up, I don’t really wanna go to the health club, I don’t really wanna exercise,” but, “Oh heck, if I don’t, I’m gonna stink all day and I don’t want to stink all day, I’d rather go to the health club.”
So he would go to the health club, use his deodorant and would feel like a total idiot if he just used his deodorant and then snuck out and went home ’cause everyone had greeted him, and so he stayed there and he exercised. So again, he couldn’t get something done for all the right reasons, he had so many reasons to stick with an exercise program, so many reasons, good reasons, excellent reasons, real reasons. They didn’t work. What did work was when he created a bad reason, a stupid reason, a silly reason, an irrelevant reason, but one that moved him. And the key here is that what moves you, moves you, what doesn’t, doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And if it does work, it does work. It doesn’t matter if it’s silly, if it’s foolish, if it’s irrelevant, if it works, it works. And that’s one of the things that people have to get used to if they’re going to become a follow-through champion.
Brett McKay: Okay. So spotlighting, keeping those intentions front-of-mind is the first tool, willpower leveraging the second tool, and you say these are the two most powerful tools to help you have more follow-through. But you also list some other ones as well that can help, and one of them is the leading horse to water strategy. What is that?
Steve Levinson: This is one of my favorite strategies that I’ve used a lot, and I still use a lot, and as I have before, let me give you an example, ’cause that’s the best way to describe the strategy. I had decided, and again, I seem to be preoccupied with exercise today. But I was going to start myself on an exercise routine using an exercise bike that I had purchased, and what I found was that the whole idea of exercising, sitting on a bike and peddling for 20 minutes was, it felt like it was an eternity, and it was very unpleasant, and I did it and then I didn’t wanna do it the next day, and I didn’t wanna do it the day after that, and I did it sometimes, but not much, and it was awful. So I decided that I would lower the bar in terms of what I was requiring myself to do so that I would have a chance to actually behave in accord with my intention. I would make my intention much easier so that I could behave in accord with it and maybe build some momentum to get going and eventually do what I fully intended to do.
So here’s what I did, I basically re-formulated my good intention to getting dressed and sitting on the damn bike. And so I did that, I did that every day, but what I noticed was that as I was sitting on the damn bike, sometimes I figured, “Well, what the heck, I’m sitting here anyway, I might as well pedal.” I’d pedal a little bit, sometimes I peddled a lot, sometimes I’d pedal 20 minutes. And eventually what happened was I created the shell of a habit, so to speak. I made a foundation for a habit of exercising every day without fail. And even though I didn’t always exercise for 20 minutes, the more I did this, the more I did, the more I did exercise for 20 minutes, and eventually it just became automatic.
I did this years ago, and now I would never even consider for a moment not exercising. It’s just now a habit, and now it works on its own. So the key to leading the horse to water is to take away, to sort of detoxify the task that you intend to do, to get all the things that make it avoidance-worthy out of it and make a promise only to do the parts that are easy, that don’t turn you off, that don’t repel you, and to do that and just to keep doing it without requiring you to do anymore at all, not one iota more than the basic that you’ve required, until you actually build the foundation of a habit.
Brett McKay: So the lead the horse strategy is basically just make it as easy as possible, just show up. You just gotta show up and…
Steve Levinson: Show up.
Brett McKay: If you do the thing, great, if you don’t, no big deal. That’s fine. Just showing up is all you’ve got to do.
Steve Levinson: Exactly. Because that allows you to do something that normally you don’t do. I talk about the avoidance monster. Every time you feel like, “Oh jeez, I don’t wanna do that,” that is the kiss of death for following through. So you wanna allow the avoidance monster to stay asleep, so you wanna tip-toe around it. And the way to tip-toe around it is to detoxify your intention to make it as easy as possible to do as much as you can to establish your intention. So that means you’re not gonna do the whole thing, but you’re gonna do part of it so that you pave the way to do the whole thing.
Brett McKay: Another strategy you talk about is the right before wrong strategy. What’s that one?
Steve Levinson: Well, in a way, it’s very similar because with right before wrong, you’re doing the same kind of thing in that you’re trying not to wake up the avoidance monster, which is, again, gonna destroy your effort at following through. In right before wrong, you essentially allow yourself to do the wrong thing as long as you do the right thing first. Best example of this is if you’re on a diet and you’ve sworn off donuts and pastries, that you make a deal with yourself that you’ll eat an apple before you eat a donut or a pastry. So you’re not prohibited from doing the thing that you eventually intend not to do, which is to eat the donut, but you’re gonna eat an apple first. You’re gonna do the right thing before you do the wrong thing. And that makes it much easier to establish the pattern, the habit, of doing the right thing, because if right away you require yourself to stop doing the wrong thing that your PGS wants you to do, you’re not gonna make it. You’re gonna fail. So you say to your PGS, “I’ll make you a deal. You can have your donuts, but first I’m gonna eat an apple,” and you could do that, and then you’ll establish the pattern of doing the right thing. Often what happens when you use right before wrong is that by doing the right thing consistently, you no longer feel as much like doing the wrong thing.
Brett McKay: Right.
Steve Levinson: You might eventually find yourself craving apples and not having as much interest in donuts.
Brett McKay: Yeah. If you eat the apple you might be full, and you don’t wanna eat the donut either.
Steve Levinson: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Another strategy you recommend people doing is striking while the iron is hot. What’s that strategy?
Steve Levinson: Striking while the iron’s hot, it’s really more of a… I would say, an insight than a strategy. But it’s based on the fact that when you have an intention that’s borne out of inspiration, excitement, enthusiasm, you better realize that that intention isn’t gonna last. I call these intentions carbonated intentions, they’re full of fizz, but they also fizzle out very fast and go flat. So an example was a salesperson I worked with who went to a conference. He had gone to many, many conferences and workshops and symposia before and usually, he would hear some idea that he thought was practical and insanely positive and would definitely work for him, would improve his business, increase his sales, and why wouldn’t he do it? And by the time he got home from the conference, he had pretty much forgotten, not literally forgotten, but he didn’t do it. He didn’t implement these tactics.
Well, so he learned about this strategy of striking while the iron is hot, and when he heard of a strategy for improving sales that involved making appointments with his clients to get feedback from them about his services, he thought, “This is a great idea, I’m gonna do it.” But this time instead of just saying, “I’m gonna do it,” and waiting to get home and not do it, he immediately called his assistant, told her about it and told her to call his clients and set up appointments right now, so the appointments will be scheduled when he gets back, and he followed through.
So the key to striking while the iron is hot is to do something, anything that’s in the direction of implementing your intention at the time that you form the intention. Because otherwise, you might as well just kiss it goodbye. If it’s a carbonated intention, it probably won’t last. It won’t last a day, two days, three days. It’s just not gonna make it. So you wanna get something in motion right away, and that motion will help you get in motion the rest of it, to implement it.
Brett McKay: Well, and another thing you recommend too besides these other strategies is when you make an intention, make it… You gotta make it a very serious matter. I think oftentimes we make intentions we do kinda flip and think, “Oh, that’d be great,” but you said you actually need to make these things have some moral weight to them. So what does that look like and how does that help us follow through?
Steve Levinson: If someone asked me, “Well, what is the single thing I can do? I appreciate all these strategies and I’m sure they would work, but I’m not really interested in that. What’s the simplest single thing that I can do to be better at following through than I am now?” I would say it’s to take your good intentions seriously. And what I mean by that is that to consider a good intention to be a solemn promise that you make to yourself. You make promises to other people all the time, and if you don’t keep them, your promises, they lose clout, they lose credibility, they lose their effectiveness. And the same thing is true with promises you make to yourself.
When you form a good intention, you’re making a promise, a solemn promise to behave in a certain way, so you have to take that seriously. You shouldn’t just lightly make the promise. It’s not just, “Oh boy, it would be good if I did this,” or, “It would be good if I did that.” That’s not good enough. Can you actually do it? Will you actually do it? Do you have the resources you need to do it? Are you prepared to make the sacrifices you need to make to do it? And only after vetting a potential intention should it be adopted.
Now, that means that you probably will adopt fewer intentions than you normally do, than you do before you take your intentions seriously, seriously, but that’s a good thing because we adopt too many intentions. We treat them as if they’re a dime a dozen, and frankly, when you treat them as if they’re a dime a dozen, that’s about what they’re worth. They just don’t have clout. They’re just not effective. So the more careful we are about adopting in an intention and the more we treat it like the solemn promise that it is, the more likely we are to behave in accord with them.
Brett McKay: And you make this analogy I liked a lot. You should date intentions and then when you’re ready to commit, then you marry the intention.
Steve Levinson: Exactly.
Brett McKay: When you date somebody, you’re kind of figuring out, “Are we compatible? Is this someone that I like, I get along with?” And so there’s a flexibility there. If it doesn’t work out, you can just, “Okay, it’s not working out,” we move on to someone else. But when you finally marry somebody, that’s a big deal, you can’t do that anymore, you’re with this person for better or for worse.
Steve Levinson: Yes. And I’m a clinical psychologist, so I think about mental health and I think about the general happiness, satisfaction in life. To me, there is nothing more unsatisfying in life and nothing more that drags people down in terms of their outlook and their attitude, than hauling around a whole bunch of intentions that they’re not behaving in accord with. So one of the things that I recommend, which is somewhat controversial, to go a little further with the marriage analogy, is that if you’ve adopted an intention and it’s not going anywhere, you’re just not doing anything whether… For crying out loud, just divorce it. Get rid of it. Don’t haul it around with you as a reminder of how you’re not following through. Just make an announcement to yourself, if you have to, make it to other people that you no longer intend to do X, Y, Z, it’s just not workable. Maybe some other day, but for now, get rid of it.
Brett McKay: This idea of taking your intention seriously, it reminds me of some research that a group of psychologists did at MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada, and we wrote about this, I’ll link to it in the show notes, but they talked about how Gandhi and this guy, he’s a Prussian Prince from the 19th century named Hermann von Pückler-Muskau. They had this idea of unbreakable intentions. Gandhi, when he made an intention, he called it a vow, and Pückler-Muskau, he called it a grand expedient. And they both thought, “If I break this thing, it was a blight to my character.” Here’s what Muskau said, “If I were capable of breaking it after such mature consideration, I should lose all respect for myself, and what man of sense would not prefer death to such an alternative.” So he took this really seriously. It was like a sense of… It was an existential form to keep…
Steve Levinson: I like his thinking.
Brett McKay: These intentions he had for himself. And he said that he only made an intention after he thought about it a long time, and then only then he would make it and then once he did, it was like, “This is life or death here that I keep this.”
Steve Levinson: And I’m sure his follow-through record was outstanding because he took his intentions truly seriously. Just to illustrate how important this is, most of the time, we’re full of baloney when we make an intention. For example, we can decide, “Okay, I’m gonna work on this report that I’ve been putting off because it’s very unpleasant. I’m gonna work on it this afternoon.” So we make that promise, it seems like a sincere promise, but it’s not a sincere promise, and here’s the way to test how sincere it is. Would you give up your new car if you didn’t do that? Would you give up your first born child? Would you give someone the deed to your house if you don’t do what you intend to do?
And most people would be horrified if asked those questions, “Of course, I’m not gonna do that. I’m not gonna risk my car, my house, my first born. I’m not gonna do that.” Well, then the truth is, if you won’t, then you’re not really serious about what you intend to do. And most people are not serious about what they intend to do, and that’s why their intentions don’t work very well.
Brett McKay: Okay. So taking your intention seriously. And then I guess, you also talk about it in the book, what tactic you use or how you’re going to implement these tools. It’s gonna vary from person to person. It’s gonna vary from maybe task to task. Like maybe some tasks you’ll use the lead the horse to water strategy, another one you might use the right before wrong strategy. It’s gonna take experimentation and some flexibility as you try to figure this stuff out.
Yes. Yes. And what I offer is a tool kit, not instructions on when to use the hammer, when to use the screwdriver, when to use the pliers. It takes experimenting. And the key thing is to be honest about what works and what doesn’t work. If it works, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense, doesn’t seem logical, doesn’t seem appealing. It doesn’t matter. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Do more of what works. Do less of what doesn’t work. I always recommend that people start out with gentle strategies, but if gentle doesn’t work, don’t hesitate to take out the explosives. You have to follow through, and you can follow through on virtually anything that you want if you’re willing to take out the explosives.
Well, Steve, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Steve Levinson: Well, they can learn about Following Through at Amazon. It’s available at Amazon, and the audio version of it is available at Audible. And also right now, I’ve created a website with a colleague of mine called followingthrough.org, which is dedicated to helping people do a better job of following through.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Steve Levinson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Steve Levinson: Thank you, Brett. My pleasure.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Steve Levinson. He’s the co-author of the book Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever you Start. It’s available on amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, followthrough.org. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/followthrough where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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