Focus & Follow-Through

Know what you want to do. Go do it.

When you get down to it, that’s pretty much the essence of succeeding in life. There are, of course, some additional caveats. Things like, “If you make a commitment, follow through on it.” “When you do something, do it well.” “Be kind to other people.” Luck also plays somewhat of a role.

What’s also astonishing, though, is how often we don’t do any of the above. We aren’t sure where we are going. We don’t do the things we promise. We don’t do the things that move us forward. And there is an outside chance that in failing to do that, we blame others.

It is arguably much easier to be a victim than to do the work necessary to be successful. But the results of victimhood are also arguably a whole lot less desirable.

That’s not to say that if we just have a goal and work at it that everything we want will land in our lap. But what’s pretty much guaranteed is that if we don’t know what we want and don’t do anything about it, the probability of attaining anything that looks like success is infinitesimally low. Fortune favours the persistent.

It’s fascinating how often that reality comes up. It’s a circumstance that has surfaced several times for me, particularly in recent weeks. And in each instance, resolution has come down to “what are you trying to do?” and “what do you need to do to make that happen?”

Part of that has just been my own personal reality. I have no idea how we are now sitting at the end of September, but I’m coming off of a rather intense and busy summer. I’ve been dealing with the urgent and immediate stuff in front of me, and giving very little consideration to the important but admittedly longer-term direction of where I’d like to take things next.

The challenge of hitting this point is that, once I attain some free time, I frequently struggle with where I’d like to take things next. Not that there are too few options, mind you. On the contrary, there are too many. I am amply capable of thinking of several different things that I want to address or attend to while I am busy, and therefore have no capacity to deal with them. Once I do get time, I often get overwhelmed with the number of things I could do. The risk of getting overwhelmed, however, is that very often none of those things actually moves forward.

Getting clarity on where you are going takes time and perspective. That doesn’t have to be hard, but it does require the right headspace. You need to be able to take a longer term view. You need to accurately assess where you are, where you are trying to go and how attainable the outcome is. You need to be able to answer some simple questions, but answering those questions requires clarity, confidence and a certain distance from immediate pressures. We can’t answer those questions in the heat of the moment, but we often struggle with the motivation to address them once pressure declines.

That’s certainly been my recent experience. Addressing it has required recognizing that responding to “what’s next?” isn’t about immediately about jumping into something else. It’s about recognizing that taking the time to reflect, to assess and to decide is also important work. That once we know where we are trying to go, then the next steps will become clear.

The other side of the equation is actually having the follow through to take action. Once we are clear about where we want to go, what are the actions that will best deliver results? This isn’t an academic exercise. It’s also not an exercise that stops once we actually have a plan. Plans are good (and don’t happen often enough). But action is essential (and frankly happens even less).

The examples that I can draw from regarding this are, to put not too fine point on it, legion. Friends that have been wanting to write books for years (and still haven’t gotten so far as producing an outline, let alone a book proposal). Associates that have wanted to deliver speeches they have never written. Colleagues that have taken on projects they haven’t followed through on.

Which is not to say that I’m uniquely virtuous in the follow through department. Although I like to think I’m getting better. It took me nearly seven years to earn a three year undergraduate degree. And another eight years to earn a doctorate. There are articles I have planned, speeches I’ve conceived and books I have wanted to write that extend in a continuing line through the mists of history.

At the same time, I actually finished my doctorate. I’ve co-authored one book, and authored a second. I typically average about three presentations per month. With the notable exception of two weeks over the summer, I’ve been writing these articles without fail on a weekly basis all year. And my writing output for any given year can be measured in linear feet. So for all the work that I don’t do, I can with reasonable confidence point to a lot that actually does get done.

But the point remains, there are a lot of ambitions out there that remain idealized objectives without follow through. Without action, there will be no results. And without plans, whatever action does happen will likely be entirely chaotic. Or perceptually non-existent. Or, worse, both.

A recent organization I’ve been working with, for example, has had an objective of diversifying their revenue sources for—quite literally—years. It’s been discussing the need to do so earnestly. There have been debates, discussions, arguments and advocacy. At the same time, they’ve largely avoided addressing the underlying issues and inconsistencies that have prevented them from dealing with the issue. And they’ve not really taken any action to move forward. Several years later, they are in exactly the same place they have been. Without change in behaviour, there won’t be any change in outcome.

Addressing this reality has first required highlighting some challenging issues. There are inconsistent understandings about just how diversification should occur. There are differing views about whose responsibility it is to take action. There is disagreement on the best action to take. And no matter how impassioned the discussion might be in the moment, there has traditionally been absolutely no follow through in addressing the problems that get discussed.

What’s very likely the most significant challenge is simply taking action and moving forwards. Partly that’s knowing what action to take. But often inertia means that even where the next step is clear, we don’t often take it. We may not know everything we have to do. We may not know fully how we are going to realize the outcome. But usually we can identify immediate actions that would be helpful, and that will in turn help the next actions to be clearer.

There’s a very careful balance to walk here between doing for the sake of doing, and taking action because it will move us forward. What signifies whether something is helpful action is usually a product of having some clarity on desired outcomes. Busy-work is more often an avoidance strategy than a taking-steps-forward strategy. It’s what we do to steer clear of the difficult questions of what we want to be doing. It’s what helps us fill the days with action to avoid confronting that we aren’t focussed on purpose.

Generally, though, we know when our actions are aligned with our direction or not. It is the meaning and relevance that often create joy and enthusiasm at work. Positive actions are very often associated with positive emotions; we get immersed in the task at hand, and enjoy the work both for its own sake and its connection with where we are trying to get to. When we fell burdened, overwhelmed, frustrated or stressed with our work, there are very often unconscious messages that we are doing doesn’t support our underlying goals, or we haven’t made the connection to how it contributes. The very same action can be inspiring or demoralizing, depending upon our perception of it and our view of how well it supports our goals.

Realizing different outcomes requires first engaging in different behaviours. Shifting behaviours requires a clear picture of required actions. Knowing what to do requires having a clear plan. And plans depend upon being clear about the outcomes and goals we are trying to attain. Innately, we know this to be true, and yet still struggle to follow through.

We need dreams, visions and goals. We need plans. And we need action. Moreover, we need these to be aligned. As a Japanese proverb elegantly states, “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

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