How to Be Successful: Follow Through

The original idea for this post was “don’t commit to something you won’t be able to do,” but that is proscriptive and I am aiming more for productive on this site.  The sentiment stands, though.  I see this time and again with students and interns who start research projects (with me or someone else).  It’s easy to say “Yes” when you have a summer with nothing to do BUT do research, but no research project ends when the summer ends.  Will you be able to follow through with it to the end?

The most successful people I know finish the projects or assignments they are given.  In fact, we have a saying, “The reward for doing good work is more work.”  If you consistently complete your tasks and do them well, you’ll tend to accrue more tasks to do.  Who do you think has a better reputation: A) the person who may or may not do a given task that needs to get done  or  B) the person who will definitely do a given task that needs to get done? 

So it’s obvious you want to be Person B, who completes tasks, ideally in a timely and quality manner.  How do you get to be that person?  I suggest 4 steps:

  1. Show Up.  If you aren’t around to be appointed the task, you won’t get it.  Be present, reach out to mentors, be around, and be engaged.
  2. Identify tasks you like.  Nobody wants to follow through on tasks they don’t like.  I agreed to be an assistant editor for an online journal recently and found that I really didn’t like it.  I found I wasn’t doing as good a job as I wanted to, so asked to step down.  It’s fine not to take every task you are given.  Be selective and honest with yourself to identify the tasks you think would be most fun for you.
  3. Establish clear expectations.  What EXACTLY do you have to do?  WHEN do you have to do it by?  What steps are involved?  Make sure to get all of this ironed out as soon as possible so you can create a schedule or steps or whatever your mechanism is for getting things done.
  4. Motivate yourself.  As mentioned above, if you don’t like a task, it’s going to be hard to complete it.  Try to identify ways to motivate yourself.  Maybe reflect on the autonomy you get doing the task, or think about the social capital you will earn if you do it well, or how it might improve your future career prospects.  I personally aim for Zero Inbox, so my motivation is to get things off of my own to-do list.

I think it’s easy to say “yes” and commit to things.  Some people feel pressure to say “yes”.  Others want the social approval that comes from saying “yes”.  But, if you can’t follow through on that “yes”, it will backfire on you.  I would much rather someone say “no” than say “yes” but not follow through.  I suggest the steps above.  What challenges do you have with follow-through?

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