It’s an amazing thing to me how often people will know that there is something they should do, have all the information and ability required to do it and even want to do It, but just not.
There can be massive, personal or business benefit to be gained from doing What’s Most Important and massive pain and suffering likely to come from not, but it doesn’t matter. We very often just don’t.
You see it everywhere. In business and personal life. In how we treat other people, what we eat, drink or smoke, who we spend our time with, how we manage our finances. In business you see it most in how we choose to spend our time.
Some sinister force works against us when we try to do these Most Important things. It shows up in the form of excuses, distractions and doubt. I call this force Squirrels. A Squirrel is anything that prevents or delays us from doing What’s Most Important at any point in time. Squirrels are relentless, cunning, hard to spot and completely dedicated to keeping us from Doing What Matters Most.
Squirrels are formidable opponents and they win - a lot.
But there is hope. We can defeat them. I know because people do. People lose weight, stop smoking, get out of bad relationships, save for the future, exercise consistently and accomplish important things at work. People I know, even.
Some of these success stories have to be chalked up to good genes. Some people really do love to run every day, find fried foods revolting and show up at work each morning filled with real enthusiasm, pumped to get after it, finding real satisfaction in their jobs.
They are the lucky ones. To them, I say, “Congratulations. But you’re no help to the rest of us.”
The rest of us need a plan we can work. Tools we can use. Something to help us see the path we should take, motivate us to stay on it and raise the alarm when we take a wrong step.
Here’s the plan I’m using right now in my own war on Squirrels.
It’s my own take, based on things I’ve seen and learned along the way. It’s version 1.0 because it’s just a starting point. It’ll change as I study and learn from people and organizations who are world class at Doing What Matters Most.
The sections below deep dive into each step.
Set Good Goals and Write Them Down
Goals are good when they are the critical few. The one or two, but not more than three goals that are most important to your success right now. Any more than that and you won’t get any of them done.
Goals are good when they are SMART. When a goal is SMART, you know exactly who is going to do what and by when. You know it’s a reasonable thing to ask that person to do, and, critically, you know how you will measure progress.
If your goal isn’t SMART, work on it until it is. If you aren’t able to make a goal SMART, pick another goal, because you won’t accomplish that one anyway.
Commit Publicly and Display Prominently
The forces at work to keep us from Doing What’s Most Important are forces of human nature. We can best defeat them with other forces of human nature. Fight fire with fire.
We humans crave acceptance. In order to gain acceptance we strive to be recognized as successful and trustworthy. We want to be known as someone who does what we say we will.
Failing to meet a goal we’ve set for ourselves feels crappy. Failing to meet a goal that we’ve shared with other people feels way worse. That’s why public commitment is such a powerful motivator and why our society uses it for all of its most important commitments.
Brides and grooms exchanging wedding vows in front of family, friends and an officiate. Immigrants pledging allegiance to their new country in front of a crowd and a judge. A President-elect taking the Oath of Office in front of millions in person and on live TV.
Sure, some marriages end in divorce, but that’s not the point. Marriages have a better chance of success because people try harder to make it work because they promised they would in front of everyone who matters to them.
We can harness that same power by simply finding someone who matters to us - whether a co-worker, boss, spouse, friend, etc. - and presenting to them the goals we’ve written down. The more people and the more important those people are to you, the more power of public commitment you will harness.
When you display your written goals prominently you renew your public commitment every single day. Post them in a place where you and other people will see them often. Make sure what you put on the wall grabs your attention and can be read easily.
The temptation to procrastinate can be bested by the fear of public failure.
Use Micro Goals to Know What to do Next
At some point there will come a moment when you’re done with all the thinking, writing and declaring and you actually have to do something. At that moment - and every day thereafter until you reach your goal - you will need to have at your fingertips a good answer to the question, “OK, so what do I do Next?”
It’s probably worth a sideways glance at the Squirrels here. You’ll see that the work you’ve done to this point has them scattered off into the rafters. That’s great, but now they are on high alert that you’re up to something. There they are, more vigilant and determined than ever, sinewy little muscles coiled in anticipation, waiting for you to lose focus, waver in your commitment, question the validity of your goal.
When you don’t know what to do Next, you pause. You lose momentum. Squirrels see this. Then they smile evil little Squirrel smiles and pounce.
Quickly figure out what to do next and you have a shot at winning that day’s battle. If not, you will lose.
What you do Next every day is a micro goal - a tiny piece of achieving your larger goal. If your big goal is to run a marathon in 8 months, some of your micro goals might be to buy a pair of running shoes, find a training program online, schedule your training on your calendar, etc.
Try to make your micro goals small enough that you can accomplish them in the amount of time that you’ll spend working on them in a single day. If you can’t complete them in a single day, break them into even smaller chunks. Achieving your micro goals every day will build confidence and momentum. You’ll see your progress and get excited. You’ll be winning.
Break your big goals down into micro goals that you can accomplish every day. Put them in your calendar or a to do list or whatever you like to use to keep track of things. Just make sure you can find them quickly in the midst of a Squirrel attack.
Dedicate Time and Attention
There is overhead to be paid every time you start something. No matter what it is, there are things you have to do just to get started. Every time you start working on your goals you have to review where you left off the time before and refresh yourself on your micro goals for the day.
But there’s a special kind of overhead that is particular only to starting work on your Most Important Thing. Recall that the singular aim of Squirrels is to to keep you from Doing What’s Most Important. Squirrels know that if they can keep you from starting, they will win. Because if you don’t start, you can’t finish.
The moment you decide to start, the Squirrels rally and attack, dive bombing you in their little Squirrel kamikaze planes. You’ll see them whizzing by,
They’re waiting for you to stop and do something else. The moment you do, the Squirrels know they have another shot at you when you re-start. Re-starts are time consuming and tiring. Avoid them by simply not stopping until you are done for the day.
Carve out blocks of time to work only on your goals. Don’t do anything else during this time. Close your door if you have one. Turn off your phone if you don’t need it. Turn off your computer or close your email if that makes sense. Let people know that you’ll be unavailable for an hour.
We are better at everything when we focus on it exclusively. We are the best parents we can be when we put our phones away and give our kids our full attention. Same with being the best spouses. Same with the work we do. Same with Doing What’s Most Important.
Follow Up to Follow Through
There’s something magically motivating about Follow Up.
If I’m on track and getting things done, Follow Up is a chance to shine. A win. “How am I doing? Awesome! Here, check it out…..”
If I’m falling behind, Follow Up sucks. It’s painful and embarrassing. It forces me to admit, whether to myself or someone else, that I’m not doing what I said I would. It forces me to admit that in some way, I’m failing.
And I hate having to admit that I’m failing. There’s something about it that hurts at a deep down, DNA level. Even admitting failure at little things sucks. It’s funny though, I think the act of admitting failure actually feels worse than the failure itself. It’s like until I actually have to acknowledge it, I can know about it, but somehow mostly ignore it.
Follow Up shines a bright light on failure. Brings it to the surface for close inspection. It forces me to see my failure, acknowledge it and own it. “Yes, that’s mine - the ugly one there.” That’s when it sucks the most.
The magic of Follow Up as a motivator is that it taps into our fundamental human aversion to failure. Every measurement of our performance is an opportunity for us to avoid failure.
Recently I wanted to get stronger and bigger in my upper body (my big goal) so I set a daily push up goal of 100 (my micro goals). Every evening I write on a little index card how many push ups I did that day. Writing on the card is my Follow Up. On a couple of days, I didn’t hit my goal and it stung a bit. It stung the most when I had to write something less than 100 on my little card.
If I wasn’t Following Up and I failed, the failure would be the same, but I’d be able to sort of look the other way and avoid really feeling it. It was the act of writing something less than 100 below yesterday’s 100, that called me on the carpet, gave me a stern look and said, “Really? You couldn’t do 100 push ups in a day?” Of course I could. I just didn’t. I failed at this simple thing and there’s no good reason for it. What a crappy feeling.
So, Follow Up’s magical powers of motivation are there for you to use. A couple of things to keep in mind to make sure it works for you.
Keep it as easy and simple as possible
It’s tempting to go overboard. Which tool to use? How to organize and store the data for analysis and trending? How about sharing? Blah, blah, blah. If you’re going down that path, you’re chasing a Squirrel. And if you lose to this sneaky little guy there’s a good chance the way you Follow Up will be so cumbersome that before too long, you’ll stop doing it. When that happens, you will be cut off from it’s magic and your chances of Doing What Matters Most will plummet.
Keep it simple. Pen and paper work fine. If you’re set on using something online, it absolutely has to be quick to get to. Logging in can easily take longer than actually logging your measurement. Use something you can access with a single click on your computer (a shortcut on your desktop) or tap on your phone (an icon on your home screen).
Follow Up on actions, not results
You’re trying to get yourself or someone else to DO something that you think will accomplish a result you want. Ultimately, you’ll need to check to see whether doing that thing is actually getting you your result. But you can’t evaluate the effectiveness of an action that doesn’t happen. So you have to start by just focusing on doing the thing.
I started doing push ups in order to get stronger, look better and feel better about myself. If my daily Follow Up was to run a tape measure around my chest and arms it wouldn’t work.
Follow Up on the action you want to happen - the number of push ups.
Follow Up every day
Every time you Follow Up, you plug into its motivational power, so do it often. If you’ve kept it easy and simple, frequent Follow Ups won’t be a burden and their benefit will far outweigh their cost. When Following Up is a part of my daily routine, it doesn’t take long before it to become a habit that I do without thinking. Squirrels hate that.
I find it hard to overstate the importance of Following Up. Without it Squirrels are just so hard to beat consistently over the long haul. Over time even public commitments fade and goals taped to the wall get lost in the landscape. Following Up reminds you about all of that and makes it fresh again.
I’ll wrap this up with a great quote and a link to a discussion about the importance of Following Up - said ‘measuring’ here - in the context of the Gates’ Foundation’s work to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.
“Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you’ll get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost” – H. Thomas Johnson
Why Measurement Matters: 2013 Annual Letter from Bill Gates
Follow Up on the Follow Up
In Follow Up to Follow Through I said everything I could think of to convince you to use the magical motivating power of Following Up to stay motivated, defeat Squirrels and ultimately Do What Matters Most to you.
But it won’t be enough. Because over the long haul we get tired and we get weak and we want to avoid the pain of seeing our failure that Following Up points out. And so we stop. Just when we need the motivation more than ever - when things are tough and we’re struggling. And it’s such a shame, but it’s hard.
So we need something more. A backup parachute. A belt to go with our suspenders. We need to Follow Up on the Follow Up.
“Wait a second.” You might say. “So you’re saying that in addition to actually doing my thing, I should Follow Up on it daily AND ALSO Follow Up on the Follow Up? How am I going to have time to actually do my thing when I’m spending all my time Following Up? This is crazy.”
I understand. But remember, the goal here is consistent action over time so that you get the result you’re working toward - your Most Important Thing. If your Most Important Thing was easy, you wouldn’t need any help, you’d just do it and be done. But chances are it’s hard and takes time and commitment. It requires you to win a Squirrel fight every single day.
We’re human. It’s hard to stay focused on our Most Important Thing when other also important things are fighting for our attention. That’s why so many Most Important Things don’t get done. We win a few battles but lose the war. We stop Following Up then we stop doing our thing and we sort of know it, but since we’re not Following Up we’re able to ignore it. Then one day we think, “Geez, I should really do that Most Important Thing.” And we’re right back where we started. The Most Important Thing is still most important and it’s still not done. Bummer.
So yeah, you should Follow Up. And you should Follow Up on the Follow Up.
Just have someone check that the Following Up on your thing is happening when it should. They simply ask the question, “Did you Follow Up with X on Y?” Note the answer. Done. Very quick. Very simple.
It should be someone different than the person Following Up on your thing, but other than that it can be anyone. They don’t even have to know anything about what you’re actually working on. They just need to know who is supposed to Follow Up with you and when, and they need to to check in to make sure it happened.
If you’re working on something on your own, recruit a friend, colleague or family member to Follow Up on the Follow Up. If you’re part of a business or other organization, anyone can do it. Someone else on the team, an intern, someone in an administrative or support team. All that matters is that they have access to ask the question and will do it reliably.
It works for the same reason any Follow Up does. We want to be able to say, “Yes. I Followed Up.” and we desperately want to avoid having to admit failure.
Give yourself two layers of security. Harness the magic motivation of Following Up twice. Follow Up on the Follow Up.
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