The Power to Get Things Done (Steve Levinson)

The Power to Get Things Done book

The power to get things done doesn’t come from intrinsic motivation. Rather, it comes from building systems and erecting structures that hold me accountable for following through. That’s how to go from ‘knowing’ I have to follow through to ‘feeling’ like I have to follow through. And truth be told, in the battle of feeling against knowledge, feelings often win. So why not use this to our advantage? According to Steve, here is the purpose of the book: “To teach you how to consistently turn your good intentions into action so you can be as successful as possible in the work you do.”

Why I Picked Up The Book

I picked up ‘The Power to Get Things Done” after many struggles with turning some of my good intentions into practical action. Like Steve talks about, I knew that simply having exciting dreams and goals isn’t enough to bring them to pass – I must be able to do whatever it takes to achieve those goals and that is what ultimately leads to success. So I picked up this book to help open my mind to new ways of thinking, tools and strategies that would help me follow through better with my personal, health, financial, business and even relationship goals. What made me even more desperate to improve in this area is that as a business owner, being able to follow through is everything.

The Core Message

We cannot depend solely on willpower or inspiration to do the things that we know need to get done. Expecting that I would automatically follow through simply because of my good intentions is a surefire way to fail. The process of following through requires me to employ a manual, somewhat mechanical strategy that holds my feet to the fire, and moves me from having a desire to follow through to feeling like I must follow through.

The Big Ideas

  1. “Whether you’re in business for yourself or you work for a company, the better able you are to do what you intend to do, whether you feel like it or not, the more successful you’re likely to be.”
  2. Our actions aren’t always governed by a sense of knowing what the right thing to do is. They are often controlled by what we feel.
  3. Discovering how to make myself feel like doing the work required to accomplish my goals is the key to following through.
  4. By learning and applying a few simple but powerful follow-through concepts and strategies, you can dramatically improve your ability to follow through.

My Favorite Quote

“If you’re not consistently doing the things you know you should be doing, you’re simply working against yourself. Yes, you’re in your own way. You’re preventing yourself from being as successful as you could be. And we won’t let you pretend that you can do a better job of following through just by trying harder…”

How ‘The Power to Get Things Done’ Changed Me

By far my favorite chapter of the book is Detoxify Dreaded Tasks because it’s really helped me to deal with some of the issues I have had around procrastination. I am taking on dreaded tasks that I would normally have put off and my productivity has definitely improved as a result.


The Power to Get Things Done Summary + Notes

Here is my summary of the book, based on the chapters:

Why Motivation Isn’t Enough

Motivation doesn’t always take resistance into consideration. Feeling motivated about an outcome (e.g building a successful blog) is not the same as feeling motivated about doing the work required to get the outcome.

Where we fail is that our motivation is focused on the results and not on the efforts required. Without a plan to overcome the resistance that might arise, we are doomed to fail.

Ugh! The Work You Don’t Feel Like Doing

For us to accomplish any given goal, there are a number of tasks we must do. Some of those tasks are appealing to us while others are things we really don’t enjoy doing.

Steve says these actions, tasks, and projects we don’t enjoy “are like unpaved and muddy sections of the road to success. To get to success, you need to get through the mud.” The name Steve gives to these unpleasant tasks is “goo”

Special Follow-Through Challenges for Business Owners

EVen though employees and business owners struggle alike when it comes to following through on their intentions, there are a few factors that make following though even more challenging for entrepreneurs. And it comes down to these 2 factors:

  1. As an employee, you had a follow through infrastructure that pushed me to do the things that needed to be done – the external expectations of superiors at work, deadlines, performance evaluations and even peer competition. But as an entrepreneur with no one that I’m answerable/accountable to, it becomes very easy to let things slide…until it eventually leads to the demise of my business
  2. Working at a job allowed me to focus on a few specific tasks, many of which I might have enjoyed doing. Running my own business would require me to do wear a lot more hats, some of which I might not enjoy at all. For example, as a writer at a marketing agency, I might have been allowed to focus solely on my strengths of writing and creating content while the marketing department handled the promotion. With running my own agency however, I would need

What makes entrepreneurship so exciting is the same thing that makes it so risky. Here’s the word that describes it: FREEDOM

Steve says, “…freedom is a double-edged sword. Sure, with the ceiling removed, the sky’s now the limit on what you can accomplish, and that can be truly exhilarating. But the floor is also gone. Yes, you’re free to fail like you’ve never failed before. And if you think about it—and maybe you try not to—that can be awfully frightening.”

Unlike in a typical work environment where the consequences of failing to follow through are immediately obvious to your boss or colleagues, when you are a business owner with no one really holding you accountable, it’s easy to slack off. There’s no one there to check if I made the sales calls I was supposed to make, or start running the ad campaign or even finish writing the blog post that was due last week.

We often don’t realize how much the external expectations of our superior at work, deadlines, performance evaluation, competition and the many other subtle pressures that our work environment as employees push us to follow through.

Here’s the big question: “Now that you’re self-employed or running my own small business, what’s replaced the help and follow through infrastructure I had as an employee?

Making the Shift

“Doing what you intend to do as a predictable result of a very deliberate manual process.” Inspiration-produced-motivation has a short half-life and isn’t enough to sustain my good intentions.

As someone who has relied quite heavily on motivation by inspiration to get stuff done (and as such, haven’t gotten as much done as I would have liked), this chapter gave me a few things to think about.

On the days when I don’t feel enthusiastic about doing what needs to be done, my intentions will suffer if I don’t have a system in place to keep me going. And failure becomes inevitable.

I particularly liked this illustration that Steve gives, “Emotions that make you feel “I Can Do It!” are like favorable gusts of wind. Whenever they’re available, you can and should use them to push your good intentions through the goo. But it’s a big mistake to rely on them. That’s because your good intentions will get stranded if the wind dies down. And, yes, the wind will definitely die down. If you really want to reach success, you can’t depend on the wind. You have to learn how to row.”

What sets follow-through masters apart is that they place their intentions in the driving seat.

In my opinion, it would be liberating to be able to stand before any hairy, audacious goals I set for myself and know that I have what it takes to accomplish it. Knowing that I have a fair chance of competing because I have a system in place that would ensure I follow through is starting to seem like a more sensible approach than hoping I always feel enthusiastic enough to keep going.

Becoming a follow through master would help me become more focused. I am often caught in the trap of doing too many things and some times, the root cause is that I am simply not confident that plan A would work out and so I dabble into other things…just in case. Knowing that I can do what it takes to achieve success in whatever is important to me will help me to firmly resist distractions that detract me from the already decided-upon goal.

Taking Your Intentions Seriously

Our intentions become compelling when we treat them as law or a solemn promise we’ve made to ourselves to follow a particular course of action (for the sake of protecting our own best interests against the tyranny of the urgent or our feelings).

Doing so requires us to carefully evaluate the many things that we can possibly be engaged in and narrow down to the most important elements that would contribute most significantly to our success. It is this kind of careful consideration that helps us stick it out because we know we have thought things through and decided that this was the best thing to do.

Adopting “half-formed intentions” is detrimental for 2 reasons:

  1. It’s easy to quit when the going gets tough
  2. Quitting over and over weakens our resolve, damages our credibility with ourselves and introduces doubts into our minds about our ability to do what it takes to achieve our goals.

Be specific about what your intentions are. Carefully think through the many things you could be doing to zero in on the most important tasks that’ll help you accomplish your goal and then commit to those only. It’s impossible to hold yourself accountable on an intention that isn’t specific because as long as there is wiggle room, you’ll most likely take it when it becomes hard.

Steve says, “Instead of just promising to “do a better job,” you could promise, for example, to “spend at least one hour a week reading about the latest developments.” Making your intentions more specific—eliminating wiggle room—makes you feel more accountable, and that will help you do what you intend to do.”

Ignore the misleading feeling of confidence that you would act on an idea or intention simply because it sounds like the right thing to do or because you feel fired up about it. If you haven’t taken the next step to implement a specific plan that plots how you’ll ensure you follow through, including how to keep the intention top of mind, you have a potentially failed intention in the making.

How to Give Your Intentions all the Power they Need

The way to turn our good intentions into action is to put as much power as we can behind it and/or put as little resistance as possible, in front of it.

Here is Steve’s advice on how to accomplish this: “The secret to following through is to essentially trick yourself into actually feeling—not just thinking—like you must do the same thing you’ve decided you should do.”

“How successful you are in doing what you intend to do depends less on how much willpower you have than it does on how wisely you use the willpower you have.”

Willpower can be likened to physical strength. Just like throwing my physical strength alone (without using a jack) behind a car in an attempt to lift it seems foolish, just throwing my willpower at tasks without using the right tools to channel my willpower for maximum results is equally senseless.

“Honestly, it’s plain foolish to rely on willpower to fight battle after battle when you can just take one smart action now to end the war.”

What are these smart strategies we can employ? The first involves putting more power behind my intention:

Turn up the Heat

Planning (scheduling my action steps) + System of accountability = Follow through

Remember that the key to action is to make yourself feel like you must do what needs to be done. The first strategy therefore involves deliberately putting yourself in a jam that you can only get out of by doing what you intend to do.

Here are a couple of examples Steve shares:

  • Chris who turned his intention of becoming a keynote speaker by signing a legal contract that involved putting a lot of money on the line that would be lost if he didn’t follow through
  • who turned her intention of completing a project she needed to by promising her nephews and nieces that she would give them treats as soon as she finishes. Not wanting to appear as a slacker before her family was all she needed to turn up the heat under her.
  • Lisa who finally made good on her intention of painting her office by smearing some paint on the office wall…something she wouldn’t want prospective clients to see. That was all the motivation she needed to follow through.
  • who committed five $10 bills to his secretary each week that would either be returned if he completed his 10 sales calls each week or shredded, while he watched, if he didn’t.

All these examples just go to show that by having a compelling reason that you can feel in your gut right now, you would be forced to follow through. This is the kind of friendly pressure we need.

The second strategy involves reducing the resistance I feel towards doing what I intend to do:

Detoxify Dreaded Tasks

This strategy is based on the idea that for the tasks we often dread and run away from doing, there is usually one or a combination of elements that are running from and it isn’t necessarily every aspect of the task that we detest doing. Therefore, by breaking down the task to it’s basic form, we can detoxify it by only committing to doing the first step and nothing more.

The effectiveness of this strategy lies in these two factors:

  • By only committing to taking the first step, we immediately overcome the resistance that often keeps us away from taking action.
  • We can start to develop the consistency that makes this become a habit.

This strategy is based on the idea that even our most dreaded tasks have a portion that we don’t mind doing – usually the basic starting point. All I need to do is break down this task and only commit to doing the easy part, the basic stuff and nothing more. If I want to continue after taking the first step, I’m free to do so and if I dont want to, I’m equally free to call it a day without feeling bad about it since I didn’t commit to any more than I have done.

I’ve found this strategy powerful for the following reasons:

  • It helps me overcome inertia because I’ve only committed to the part I don’t feel threatened by and so taking action becomes easy.
  • It remedies the problem that avoidance usually creates which is that I never get to the point of building the habit that makes the task easier. So by becoming consistent after the task has been detoxified, I eventually get to the place where I have built the habit.

Steve used this same strategy to follow through on his intention to exercise every day. Before applying this strategy, he found it hard to follow through because he just couldn’t handle the thought of having to endure the boredom of pedaling for 40 minutes each morning. However, after deciding that all he would commit to was putting on his exercise clothes, sitting on the bike and putting his feet on the pedals, he didn’t see the need to avoid this task anymore. Keeping his promise every day now came easy. He often found that once on the treadmill, it wasn’t a problem pedaling for a few minutes and sometimes for longer. Before he knew it, he had built the habit of exercising 40 minutes a day.

“Remember, the key to getting good results with this strategy is to never set any requirements as to how much you must actually accomplish beyond a simple initial step. If you start to insist on doing more than you feel like doing, you’ll wake up the Avoidance Monster, and it will all be over.”

And here is the last strategy Steve discussed,

Buy Follow-Through Help

Buying follow-through help involves paying someone that I can delegate the task to or paying someone who amongst other things, keeps me accountable for doing the things I know I need to do to achieve results (like a coach).

Even though this strategy would not always be my first point of call, it is still an important tool to have in my arsenal. Rather than allow the effectiveness of my intentions to be weakened because of follow-through failures, I can wield this weapon to keep my follow-through rate at 100%

“Even if you’re good at something, if you’re unlikely to be good at following through on it, consider delegating it to someone else who will follow through.”

Maintaining Follow-Through Mastery

Developing a follow-through plan for every intention I adopt is the way to maintain 100% follow-through rate.

Always have well-defined intentions and a clear plan of action. And actively manage and track how well you are sticking to your intentions.

If after careful consideration, you decide that an intention you have originally committed to is no longer necessary or just isn’t serving me anymore, consciously take them off the list.

This approach to diligently managing my intentions is necessary because as Steve says, “the worst thing you can do is leave a promise on the books if you’re no longer fully committed to keeping it. If you just ignore it, you run the risk of reducing the credibility and clout of all your promises.”

Finally, “there’s a good chance that you’ll be tempted at some point to go back to just relying on your good intentions to implement themselves. Please, please, please don’t do it!”

If you enjoyed my summary of ‘The Power to Get Things Done’, then please check out some of my other book summary articles below

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