Following Through

Andrew Forsythe

THERE ARE MANY virtues, but one of the rarest is persistence in following through. In our complicated world, often you can’t get something done on the first go. Instead, you have to revisit the task, sometimes more than once. This is true not just of financial decisions but also many other aspects of our lives.

In fact, if you’re trying to get folks to do something, often their first defense is to stall—because they know that, after a while, most people will simply give up.

I’ve given up on tasks because I became convinced it couldn’t be done, or the costs outweighed the benefits, or I had a change in my thinking. But I try to make it a rare case to abandon something because I’m not willing to put in the effort needed to follow through.

For me, one key to this is a calendar and to-do lists. I’m a bit of a fanatic about both. There’s been a calendar on my desk for the past half-century—and, to my wife’s great amusement, I still have them all. What about to-do lists? I have multiple versions on my desk at any given time: long term, medium term, this week and so on.

If a task is on the calendar or on a list, it has to be addressed. Before it’s crossed off, I’ve got to get it done, or made a conscious decision not to do it, or have it relisted for a future date on the calendar or on a new to-do list. No task ever simply disappears.

There are certain rewards for this obsessive behavior. For one, you get a lot of things done. Second, if you have repeated dealings with the same folks, they learn that you won’t give up, so maybe it’s easier to just resolve the issue quickly and spare themselves the ongoing headache. Finally, for the obsessive among us, it allows us to relax a bit, happy in the knowledge that the task has been dealt with.

I still remember when our youngest daughter came home one weekend after starting college. She was taking an introductory course on psychology, where she learned, among other things, about various mental disorders. She related how, when the professor got to the section on obsessive compulsive disorder, she’d almost shouted out loud, “Oh my god, that’s Dad.”

I’m not arguing that staying on-task is always good. In fact, I’ve known numerous people who have a lot of bad ideas but who often fail to follow through. The latter usually saves them from the consequences of the former.

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