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What Makes Us Follow-Through?

September 22, 2010

Recently I read a cool blog by Julian Mendoza on the decision making behind
acheiving or following though on goals
.  That really came to life yesterday
when I was working with a charity on their strategic plan.  It brought to
light in a very simple fashion what makes us move… whether that’s
setting up new goals, or following through.  A majority of the time it
is contained in one word… do you know what it is?

I’ll expose it in a minute, but first a bit of background.

Julian, cited a blog from Lifehacker that has both helpful and misleading
information on the topic.  Note the misleading information is from
Psychology Today.

Here’s the quote: “It’s easy to set goals, but the chasm between saying
you’re going to do something and exercising the willpower and self control
required to actually follow through can be enormous. Psychology Today
recommends setting a mental budget to improve your self control.”

OK, so we all know there’s a gap between saying and doing when it
comes to goals, new years resolutions and strategic plans as examples.
We see it all the time with individuals and organizations adopting ManagePro
to assist them with what really amount to making a change in how they work.

For most of us, Psychology Today has it all wrong.  Here’s why.
Julian alludes to it when referencing the work of Nobel winning behaviorist
Kahneman, who confirmed the insight that we give more weight to a negative
consequence, than to a higher-probability reward – i.e. humans are
inclined to be risk averse

If you combine this with Tony Robbins popularization of the Pleasure and
Pain model to circumscribe emotional drivers… you get to a very important
answer on what motivates us to make a change.  We are more reactive to
pain than pleasure.

For most of us the most common reason we move is contained in one
simple word – PAIN.    Yes, having a mental budget for how much you
take on is a helpful concept I suspose, but it’s not in the same league
for predicting follow through as pain is.

I might add that in my experience it is usually sustained moderate to
moderately high levels of pain.
  Minimal amounts of pain tend to
dislodge attempts to create change.  High levels of pain tend to scramble
our coping mechanisms, resulting in reactions but not very well
structured change.  Moderately high pain, when sustained, becomes
a driver for change as long as we can’t alleviate or ignore it easily.
“Punch pain” as some call it, doesn’t usually do the trick.

Back to the strategic planning session with the charity.  Why were
they in my office this week and not last month, last quarter, a year
ago…?   Not because today’s strategies and  ideas had better pay-offs.
The reason was pain. 

The challenge for all of us, whether its emotional pain, physical pain or
business pain, is that we are pretty good at finding a way to reduce the
pain level pretty quickly, and in so doing remove a very important
driver for the needed change.  We get busy on next, we focus on something
else, we tell a confidant, we complain to a co-worker.  All of those techniques
work to reduce pain, and in so doing reduce the ultimate driver for change.

Bottom Line:
Humans are risk averse, and that means avoiding or getting out of
pain is a stronger motivator than achieving something positive for
most of us.  If you are in the pain resolution business, whether as a
leader or a professional, make a note to yourself to be careful not
to be in a hurry to alleviate pain before the needed changes are in
place, as it will likely derail the change process.

2 Comments. Leave new

Your insight and bottomline sure confirm my own experience with different organizations, and, I must admit with chagrin, my own self. I don’t feel ready for the day until I’ve had my caffeine (charge up the emotion) and cinched up the fuzzies into My List (appeases my prefrontal cortex).

The article from Psychology Today made me shake my head like you. The choice of phrasing, “…a mental budget…”, ironically acknowledges the need to reassure readers it is still a rational process.

There must be a chasm, but it’s an emotion: a fear or a pain to drive the action. The rational process of gap analysis and planning and budgeting only follows after.

Research into leadership cites neuroticism as a key trait – which interestingly parallels the manic-depressive swing of many of the world’s most creative artists – a continuing swing between confidence and achievement on the one hand, and then down to a deep deficit of “was it good enough”. I think achievers continuously lean forward, but sometimes we straighten up to relieve the pain or discomfort, and, hey, sigh, maybe it’s ok not to press back on.

Serial entrepreneurs know the hunger. (Ha. I heard you wince.) There won’t be room for change, for new things, if we don’t create space to begin with. (Which you’ve preached for years. It’s the core mechanism in both counseling, and selling.) Gotta feel the pain. And then we can do the rational gap analysis thing.

Gotta go.

: )


Great comments. Yes I think, as well as you do, that emotions are the driver, the engine for the process, and that the cognition or reflective part functions best as the steering and throttle controls for what’s driven by the emotional spark… or should I say heat?

Keep blogging, I like your blog.



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