10 tips to improve your follow-through at work

Improving the follow through on your promises is integral to work success. Dr. Goulston shows how to strengthen this ability and deliver results.
This is a photo of Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark Goulston, M.D.

follow-through (noun):  The completion of a motion, as in the stroke of a tennis racket. The portion of such a motion after the ball has been hit. The act of continuing a plan, project, scheme or the like to its completion.

That seems simple enough. So why don’t people, including you, follow through?

Is it a lack of self-discipline? Is it a lack of doing something long enough to become a habit and routine? Is it laziness? Is it flakiness?

Initially many people make promises with good intentions, but then run into what it will actually take to get it done that they hadn’t considered. And within a short period of time, the law of entropy intervenes, which means that after your initial enthusiasm around the idea fades, to actually get something done takes work and along with that motivation to do it leaves and you go back to your usual activities.

Imagine making a footprint in the sand and imagining it will remain after the next wave hits. The only way to keep the footprint from being washed away or for you to stay true to your good intention is to fortify it from the inside and outside.

To fortify your promise, you have to commit to integrity – i.e., keeping your word – as being a core value that you don’t veer away from. It is something people will notice, respect and tell others about you if you have it and especially if you don’t have it.

Integrity is simply doing what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it and at the first sign that you will not be able to do it, repairing any and all damage to everyone that will be negatively impacted before you move on.

And the lesson?

Do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it.

Realize that when you say you are going to do something, that is perceived by others as a promise, a commitment and something in their minds they feel entitled to rely and count on you for and hold you accountable.

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Now of course no one is making you actually do it – unless not doing it gets you demoted, causes you to lose a raise or get fired – but not following through means you’re having to face the consequence that others will stop relying on you, trusting you, having confidence in you, respecting you and liking you.

And if you say, that’s not fair.  I beg to differ.  It’s completely fair whether you accept it or not.

After you have fortified your promise from the inside by wanting to be viewed by others and yourself as having integrity, here are 10 other things to help you fortify it even more.

  1. Make sure it’s not just important, but that you care enough about it.  People don’t do what’s important; they do what they care enough about.
  2. Be careful what you promise. Before you say, promise or commit to doing anything, pause and ask yourself: Are you willing to pay the consequences of lost trust, confidence, respect and liking for you and even greater conflict, if saying “Yes” was a way of avoiding it, if you don’t follow through? Add to that other people not wanting to do things with you or for you in the future and instead pass you by and do those things with other people.
  3. Expect your mind to change. What will you do when the initial enthusiasm you had when you made the promise fades, and you calm down?  Will you be stuck with a promise you no longer care enough about to keep?
  4. If following through causes some people to push back against it, how will you stand up against them?
  5. Don’t confuse reasonable with realistic. Reasonable makes sense, realistic is what’s likely to happen. Realistic also means the way to make it happen is doable, and the other people it affects will cooperate versus resist it.
  6. Write it down on your calendar. Putting something into your calendar when you act on your promise increases your commitment to doing it.
  7. Use the buddy system. Reach out to a friend who wants the best for you and also wants to improve himself or herself and say that you are working on a program to keep your commitment and ask him/her if you can hold each other accountable.
  8. Ask someone whose respect and esteem matters greatly to you, that you see at least once a month, to do you a favor by asking you if you are keeping your promises.
  9. Eliminate energy vampires. Research shows that people fall off the wagon with diets, exercise and other commitments when they spend too much time with high maintenance people who are difficult to please and easy to upset. That’s because the last thing you want to do after being with such a person – which is exhausting – is do something that is hard for you, such as keeping a commitment.
  10. Stick with it. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step Programs, the reason they give out a Red Chip after 30 days of sobriety – i.e., following through on your commitment to sobriety – is because that is the amount of time it takes for a change in behavior to become a habit. After it becomes a habit, it is much easier to maintain. And if you can keep it up for six months (which gets you a Dark Blue Chip), you will start to internalize it into your personality.

Maybe the simplest way to remember it is… follow through means never having to say you’re sorry.

Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

Connect with Dr. Goulston through FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn. His books are available on Amazon. Check out his videos on YouTube or take advantage of free resources available at

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