BOOK REVIEW: How to learn self-discipline | Fin24
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BOOK REVIEW: How to learn self-discipline

Nov 08 2018 05:45
Ian Mann

Finish What You Start: The Art of Following Through, Taking Action, Executing, & Self-Discipline by Peter Hollins

Hollins' central message is that you can create the life you want or settle for the life you currently have.

'Finish what you start' is his answer to the question of why we don't follow through on what we either know we should, such as acquiring advanced skills, or achieve the goals we desire, such as a particular lifestyle.

People often start such projects with enthusiasm but end up with alibis.

The reason we don't follow through is a function of two factors: inhibiting factors and psychological roadblocks.

Bad goals

One of the inhibiting factors is setting 'bad goals'. This is not unlike consulting the wrong map for a road trip. We are prevented from getting to our destination because the directions are skewed and confusing. The goals to be 'healthier' or 'successful' are too abstract. They don't clarify and specify what we mean by healthier or successful.

"We find ourselves looking up at an impossibly high ladder without rungs," Hollins explains.

Another inhibiting factor is indulging in temptations and distractions. Following through on everything we decide to do that should be done, would be easy if we could rid the world of temptations and distractions. But the path is inevitably lined with "all sorts of shiny trinkets, glittering detour signs, and inviting rest stops."

The gift of time

If we are aware, we can manage the situation through avoidance, or healthy, moderate use. We could access our social media accounts in scheduled blocks of time, so we can be logged out while we focus on our work more comfortably.

Time management is the practice of using time in a way that maximises productivity and efficiency. With insight and good judgment, we can acknowledge which tasks are best done at what times, and schedule them accordingly.

There are an enormous number of possible psychological roadblocks obstructing what needs to be done, but fortunately no one suffer from all of them. Consider these roadblocks I come across regularly - in different measure - at different stages of people's careers.

We seem to be "exceptionally talented" at procrastination - delaying work until we absolutely need to do it. Only when faced with a deadline that is too close for comfort, do we take the action we knew we had to. (See Tim Urban's humorous Ted Talk: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.)


Many people don't accomplish what they set out to achieve because of a fear of another's judgment or rejection if they fail. This pleasure at other's failure is so common we even have a term for it - Schadenfreude.

As such this particular psychological roadblock is an act of self-preservation, a way to save oneself from not only the pain of failure, but the ridicule of others. If you can't be evaluated or judged, we also can't be rejected. However, by not following through, we have already judged and rejected ourselves even before we've started.

To keep going requires motivation - external or internal.

External motivators are most often about avoiding negative consequences, whether they involve disappointing your family or colleagues. Positive external motivation is a form of self-bribery, but can nevertheless be very helpful.

Use fear – be accountable

Having an 'accountability partner' is a way of using this fear of disappointing others to great advantage. This could be a friend or a professional who you have reason to want to avoid disappointing, and so you don't.

Internal motivators, on the other hand, work best when they are clearly and regularly articulated. Studies show that a written reminder did not remind participants as well as a visual cue - so swop the saying for a graphic. Writing your motivators down every few days with different phrasing seems to be more helpful than re-writing the same phrases repeatedly.

Everything we do has an opportunity cost. Every act takes time that could have been committed to something else. "The motivation must mean more to you than the things you sacrifice, to make you feel that this is all worth it."

Hollins suggests a set of rules that will assist in following through with what you know needs to be done. These include a regularly observed schedule of self-evaluation, so that you don't find out you have failed to execute when it is too late.

His rule #5 is "Think in Terms of 10-10-10". This rule helps you realise the price you pay for short-term pleasures and distractions.

How will you feel in 10 minutes, 10 hours, and 10 days from now? After 10 minutes, you may be feeling good; after 10 hours you may feel shame; after ten days you may be consumed by regret.

His rule # 6: "Just 10 Minutes" is useful for anything that is negative, harmful, or detrimental to your follow-through. It entails waiting at least 10 minutes before doing it. By simply choosing to wait, you remove the "immediate" from immediate gratification and build "just 10 minutes more of willpower".

Some of his suggestions appear counterintuitive but have a place in your personal toolkit nevertheless. "Start with the easiest tasks first."

The rationale is that this may avoid procrastination by making the first step as easy as possible, and so break your inertia and enable you to gain momentum.

Others are, well, common sense, such as minimising distractions around you before you settle in to work. If you are surrounded by distractions, you succumb to temptations without even giving yourself a chance to exercise your willpower.

Finishing what you start, if it were correct in the first place, is clearly the difference between those who make progress and those who don't.

The value of reading this book lies less in novel ideas that you have never encountered before, but rather as a reminder of what you probably know, but either have stopped using or never did. This could be a useful, easy read over the upcoming year-end break in preparation for 2019.

Readability         Light +---- Serious

Insights                High ----+- Low

Practical               High +---- Low

Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works and Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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