A true story
When I was climbing up the steep hiking trail last Saturday, I was soon exhausted. The sun was burning, but that was not the worst. I had a spine surgery four weeks ago to fix a herniated disc that causes motor issues in my right leg, making it weak and numb. I still felt the numbness and the weakness on my way up the mountain. A climb of 1’000 m altitude on just 3 km of trail. Sweat was running down my face into my eyes. I was exhausted. My legs were trembling with every step. As I stood there to take a sip of water, I asked myself: “Why for f**s sake do I even do this?”
Failing on action
You have almost certainly been in similar situations yourself. Aren’t we all? Over and over? We decide to act and then when things get tough we question our decision. Sometimes we even question our decision before starting to act. Just think about that moment when you look into the mirror and see yourself out of shape. That moment, when you decide to go to the gym in the afternoon. Then comes afternoon and somehow your priorities shifted.
And then we decide that things are too difficult, too hard, too straining, and then … we give up. All of a sudden whatever we decided is not worth the effort anymore. It’s not worth to continue running. It’s too annoying to continue our workout. I don’t know where to start this big presentation slide deck. I don’t know how to write this blog post. I can’t do this last pull-up. You name it.
How does it happen to us over and over again to take a decision and then fail on execution? In this mini-series I am going to shed light on four mechanisms built into our human brain that are significantly impacting our ability to follow-through. I am also going to give practical actions to become better in execution.
Re-feeling is the enemy
We all know what we would have to do. To get in better shape, we need to become more physically active, go to the gym, go running, lift weights, do yoga. To become leaner we need also to change our food intake and make conscious decisions about what we eat. And drink. We need to get away from alcohol and drink more green tea.
Maybe you stand there in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror. You are out of shape. You have too much belly-fat. You need to catch your breath when you climb the stairs. You don’t know how to start working on that big project. Put your favourite “I-want-to-change” topic here.
So, you decide that this has to change. You decide that this evening you will hit the gym and work out. You pack your gear and off you are to work, determined to do something for yourself in the evening. Yes, you will hit the gym!
Comes evening, you re-think. You re-feel.
You are mentally exhausted from yet another day of work. Maybe another day you have spent in hours of video calls, or another day you spent with people who don’t understand what’s important. Maybe there are kids waiting for you at home. Maybe you have spent all day home, working, while your kids (that you certainly love a lot) hit your nerves yelling and shouting while playing.
It was just another day in a challenging world. Now you are tired. You look at the gear in your backpack. Going home and take a rest now becomes more important than hitting the gym. You just want to slouch on the couch, sip a beer, have dinner, and watch the match on TV.
Our brain always lives in the present. Whatever you think and feel in any moment, from your brain’s perspective, it’s present. When you remember your last holiday right now, that memory and with it all the emotions become present. You can try this yourself. Close your eyes and remember a particular scene from your last holiday, remember the pictures, sounds, something you smell, maybe people talking. And the stronger the memory, the livelier it is, the stronger also the attached emotion gets.
Now put this into context with the decision and the action period. At the time when you make the decision your brain is in a particular state, involving emotions, attention to a particular topic or issue. By the time of execution your brain states totally changed in terms of emotions, focus and attention, and the priority of what is important right now.
This phenomenon is what I call the decision disconnect. The disconnect between the brain-state of decision-making and execution.
What to do about it?
There are a couple of strategies we can use to overcome the decision disconnect.
Hold yourself accountable
My preferred strategy, and I am saying that because this is the only one that works in the long run, is to hold yourself accountable at any given time for the decisions you made. At any given time, when you are at risk to bow out, just remind yourself that this is what you signed up for. Regardless of how tough the upcoming action is going to be, or feeling right now, just remind yourself that you took the decision, it is because of your decision that you are here, and that now is the time to execute. This is what you signed up for and you will not let yourself down.
Take the first step
Sometimes, the actions we need to undertake to achieve a certain goal take a long time. They require hard work for hours. What we have to do may seem complex and cumbersome. By the time we start executing on our decision, the work ahead of us seems just like a huge mountain and we have a hard time seeing where to start.
In such cases it helps a lot to take a short note of the first thing that you are going to do to execute. Take that note when you make the decision — not when you start working. Because, when you start working, just pull up the note and do what you’ve wrote. Do not think that you are smarter now than when you took the decision. Believe me, you are not. When you take the decision, you just know what’s right. When you start executing, you want it the easy way.
Once you have completed your first action, the rest will follow. You are now in execution mode.
Connect to your why
When you take the decision, take note on why you take that decision, why it is important. When it is time for action, pull up the note and read it. This helps you to connect to your why. It is not sufficient to just remember! Write a note. This makes it tangible.
Do not expect to be motivated
There is just no such thing as being motivated. Don’t count on being motivated all the time to do the things that need to be done. You need to summon motivation. You need to ellicit motivation. It is not just there — it is not there more often than it is! That is why you need to trust yourself on the value of the action that you had clearly identified when you took that decision.
- Our brain states changes between the time we make decisions and the time we execute on them.
- This brain state change gets into our way for consistent execution.
- There are ways to overcome the challenge by making sure you understand the value of action.
- Do not make yourself depending on motivation.