Practical Philosophy

Making plans but not following through

I have a problem. I am pretty well organised and I like to plan the future. It makes me feel organised. But sticking with the plan and following through with completing tasks is much more difficult.

Take for example, daily planning. Cal Newport’s Deep Work got me all excited to use daily plans. I would begin my day with a 20 minute planning session. At first, I did it, and it felt great. But after about a week, I stopped. Even though I planned my days in the morning, I would often deviate from the plan to do more rewarding and creative activities.

Funnily enough, I’ve recently discovered why.

Recently I’ve been taking the Discovery Personality course with Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. As a first step, we complete the Big 5 Aspects personality test. It’s apparently got a lot of empirical evidence behind it, so I took the results seriously.

What explained everything was my level of Conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is disposition towards our work and organisation. Having a high conscientiousness score is second biggest predictor of success, just behind IQ.

Now I’m moderate in Conscientiousness. But within that score are two sub-factors which explain my great ability to plan but unwillingness to follow through.

I am high in orderliness. This is my preference for keeping things well organised. But not in a Marie Condo kind of way… But a simple, usable way. I like clean designs, simple layouts.

I like things to be easily accessible and simple. This is true. I hate it when I have too many desktop icons, for example.

Jordan Peterson says the root cause of orderliness is our sensitivity to disgust. We want to keep the bad things (like pathogens) out. We do this by building walls, keeping things organised, protected and predictable. Interestingly, orderliness is a predictor of authoritarianism.

People high in orderliness are well suited to management positions. Unpredictability is scary. It’s chaos. It is the unknown. We like to keep chaos under control by articulating it into order. We like to explain the unknown – why did X client leave us? Can we systemise our work? Can we create a daily plan to optimise our productivity? Is there a framework to do this?

But just because you love organisation doesn’t necessarily mean you follow through with your plans. That requires industriousness.

Industriousness is the other sub-aspect of conscientiousness. It is the ability to execute on plans. The self-drive. The willpower. The tenacity of getting things done.

I’m in the 27th percentile when it comes to industriousness. In other words, out of 100 people, I am the 27th most industrious. No wonder I have a hard time getting things done.

People with low industriousness tend to fail in academia and business because they don’t put enough effort into their work. Tragically, people with a high IQ but low industriousness are typically recognised as under-achievers. High potential but without follow-through. Lost potential. Yikes.

The result of moderately-high orderliness and moderately-low industriousness is that while I like to plan and create goals, I often fail to follow through with them. It’s an odd combination.

So what am I to do? Luckily, somebody asked Dr. Jordan Peterson in this question at the end of the course.

To summarise his advice: Make your goals small enough to complete. This may be embarrassingly small, but it’s about making plans sure you are actually following through with your plan.

If my I cannot achieve my goal of “follow my daily plan”, then I should shrink the goal into “check my to-do list first thing in the morning”.

This idea of focusing on smaller, incremental gains, is also mentioned in ICanStudy, a course on learning how to learn efficiently. Focus on making 1% incremental gains each day. Over time, this will tally up and you will have made massive improvements.

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