So last week, I attended a talk by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who shared this story:
Back in the day, Christensen used to work with the Boston Consulting Group. Now as you know, consultants pretty much live and die by their presentations. Christensen’s team had a critical presentation to a client coming up on Monday, so his boss asked the team to come in to work on Sunday.
This was bad news for Christensen. He’s a deeply religious man, and had previously made a commitment that he would spend every Sunday worshiping God. This meant that he couldn’t work on Sunday. He had no choice but to tell his manager.
His manager pulled him aside and went, “Look around you. Every single person in your team is coming in to work on Sunday. This is an important presentation; you’ve got to do it. Just this once, under these extenuating circumstances, you’ve got to break your commitment. Then you can ask for forgiveness and go back to your regular routine after that.”
Christensen politely declined. His manager got really furious, yelled, and stormed away.
A couple of hours later his manager came back and said, “Ok. I’ve changed the meeting. Everyone’s coming into the office on Saturday at 2pm instead.”
This was bad news for Christensen. He had previously made a commitment to his wife that he would spend time with her on Saturdays. He had no choice but to tell his manager.
His manager got even more furious and went, “You’ve got to be here. If you’re not here, we’re finished. If your part of the presentation isn’t polished and perfect, our client will absolutely fire us.”
Christensen politely declined. He manager went almost hysterical. He yelled some more, screamed, and blustered away.
A couple of hours later his manager came back and asked, “Do you happen to work on Friday?”
The Trouble With “Just This Once”
We’ve all been tempted to break our commitments.
As Christensen writes:
“Most of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules just this once. In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of these things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. The marginal costs are almost always low.”
But it never really is just about marginal costs, right? At the backs of our minds, we all know that breaking a commitment “just this once” makes it a helluva lot easier to do it again and again. When we make a decision, we also need to think very carefully about the total costs involved.
It’s a lot easier to commit 100% than it is to commit 98%.
It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s easier to completely commit to something rather than doing it partially. The problem with committing 98% is that it introduces more decision-making. Whenever we’re faced with an “exceptional circumstance”, we’ll always be deciding if it falls into the other 2%.
Management consultant Peter Drucker once wrote that the most effective executives are the ones who make as few decisions as possible. Whenever they encounter a new situation, they commit to how they want to deal with it in the future, and then they never have to make a decision on it ever again.
Committing 100% takes the decision-making away from you. It leaves no room for ambiguity. It’s clear, it’s transparent, and it’s a whole lot easier than doing 98%.
Three ways to stick to 100%
I’m no expert at committing 100% of the time either. But through my ongoing LifeTests, I’ve found some tricks to help me get a little closer to it:
1. Be selective
You’d be far better off if you make less commitments, but be extremely focused on the ones you do make. For starters, pick just ONE and stick to it for 28 days.
2. Define the rules
3. Make it a system
Make it as automatic as possible by taking control out of your hands. Want to stick to your savings goals? Set up automatic transfers (check out my free ebook for more details). Want to organize your life? Schedule everything. Want your diet to succeed? Hold yourself accountable through StickK.
How To Stop Working On Weekends
Christensen soon became known as the guy who didn’t work on weekends. You’d think that having a reputation like that would kill a consultant’s career, but Christensen found that it didn’t. (He’s now a HBS professor, best-selling author, and co-founded a management and investment firm that consults for Fortune 500 companies, so I think he did pretty okay).
He attributes his success to the fact that he made a 100% commitment to dedicate one day a week to God. In return, God rewarded him with success in the other areas of his life.
I’m not saying that you have to be a religious person. But try making some 100% commitments and you might not only find yourself kicking ass at them, but also in other parts of your life as well.
Try it for a couple of weeks and see where that takes you. You might just surprise yourself.