Follow Through On Assignments

Perhaps you may have heard the adage, “what gets measured gets improved.” I would propose a parallel principal: “what gets tracked, gets done.” This is especially true when it comes to delegation.

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Early in my career, I had an experience that burned this into my psyche. As a first-time supervisor, I didn’t want to be guilty of micro-managing my staff. I had been managed this way, and found it to be incredibly demotivating. As a result, I went to the opposite extreme: I delegated tasks and never followed up.

One day I was sitting in a marketing meeting with one of my company’s authors. I was his assigned marketing director. In a previous meeting, I had committed to him that I would follow-up on a problem he had with a report we had sent him. I told him I didn’t know the answer, but that I would research it, and share what I learned at the next meeting. I delegated the task to one of my staff members—and forgot about it.

In the meeting, the author, who was a copious note-taker, started out the meeting by asking me to report on the issue from the previous meeting. I looked at the colleague to whom I had delegated the task and watched the color drain from his face. It was obvious to everyone that he had not completed the assignment. It was a very awkward moment.

It would be easy to blame him—and I did. But as the leader of my department, I was also responsible. I was the one who made the commitment, and delegating to someone else, didn’t erase my own accountability. I was embarrassed and purposed that I would never find myself in that situation again.

Over the course of the next few years, I learned that I had to make delegation work, I had to take five steps:

  1. Assign the task to one person. Ask them to confirm that they understand the assignment and have accepted responsibility for it. Until this is done, the hand-off is not complete. In American football, it’s called a “fumble.”
  2. Articulate a specific outcome. In other words, what exactly are you expecting the other person to deliver to you or for you. I always start the assignment with a verb (e.g., “Call,” “Notify,” “Write,” “Order,” etc.) and finish it with an objective “deliverable.” You have to be able to tell whether the task was completed as assigned.
  3. Include your delivery timetable. Some projects have hard fast deadlines. For example, I might tell someone I need a task done by “the close of business on Friday.” Others are not as time sensitive. I might say I need a task done, “anytime in the next two weeks.” Regardless, you have to express your expectations and be clear.
  4. Make yourself available for consultation. You want to be a resource, but you don’t want to micro-manage the other person. The best way to do this is to stay focused on the outcome rather than the process. I personally don’t care how the other person gets the job done (assuming it is ethical); I only care about the end-result.
  5. Track the delegated task on a to-do list. This is crucial. Not everyone you delegate to will have a good task management system in place. Perhaps those directly under your supervision will—because you trained them—but what about the others?

There are at least four ways to track delegated assignments:

  1. Use a page in your journal. This is the simplest, most low-tech solution. I used it for years and still know people who prefer it to automated solutions. If you are using a Moleskine Notebook, you can dedicate several pages at the end of the notebook. Divide each page into three-columns. In the first column, note the date you made the assignment. In the second column, note the first name of the person to whom you delegated the task, then the task itself. In the third column, note the due date (if any). I don’t use a due dates unless a specific date is mission-critical.
  2. Use Outlook, Entourage, or Mail folders. Nearly all of the assignments I delegate happen via email. If I make an assignment in a meeting, I follow-up with an email confirmation. Regardless, an easy way to keep track of these assignments is simply to drag a copy of the sent message to a “Waiting For” folder. If you need to check in on the status of a project, you can forward the original message to the person you delegated it to as a reminder of the assignment, and ask them for a progress report. When the task is complete, you can delete the message from the folder.
  3. Use Outlook, Entourage, or Mail tasks. This kicks the level of automation up a notch. It puts your delegated tasks in the same spot that all of your other to-do lists are, so you will be more likely to review them. If you follow David Allen’s methodology as recommended in Getting Things Done (a.k.a., “GTD”), you can set up a “@Waiting For” task category. In the Task field itself, you type the name of the person, a dash, the assignment, another dash, and the date you made the assignment. For example:
    CategoryTaskDue Date
    @Waiting ForLindsey – Notify Andy Andrews contest winners – 7/17/6/2010
    @Waiting ForVicki – Renew my Admiral’s Club Membership – 7/78/1/2010
    @Waiting ForDavid – Review Jesse Sparks book proposal – 7/6

    If you want to explore this methodology in greater depth, I highly recommend that you buy one of David Allen’s Setup Guides. It will walk you through the process of using GTD on Outlook, Entourage, and Lotus Notes. Even if you use Apple Mail, as I do, you can learn a ton from the Entourage guide.

  4. Use a dedicated task manager. This is the method I personally use now. A dedicated task manager is a more robust tool than any of the ones I have mentioned above. I am personally using Things for Mac. Nozbe is also excellent, as is OmniFocus. There are literally dozens of others. I have written an AppleScript that allows me to delegate a task via email and add it to things automatically as a Waiting For task. (I hope to share this in a future blog post.)

Someone once defined delegation as “the art of getting things done through other people.” This is true, but only if you track the tasks you assign to others and make sure they are completed as assigned.

Question: How have you been managing the tasks you assign to others? What has worked best for you?

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13 Ways To Help Students Do What They Say They’re Going To Do

by Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman

There are two types of people.  Those that follow through and those that don’t.  I’m not a lifetime member of team follow-through…yet (bonus points for channeling Dweck’s growth mind set here).  For instance, I consider following through with my doctor’s iron vitamin recommendation.  But, won’t follow through with my son’s before bed plea for bottom-less cups of juice.

Following through is tough.  It’s difficult because:

  • 50% of us live in the Unwillingness Trifecta: Unmotivated. Forgetful. Commitment Phobia.
  • 20% of us use majority of our time on YouTube cat clips
  • 15% of us serve as master blame ninjas asking, ‘Why didn’t you remind me?’
  • 10% of us avoid saying (and spelling) ‘accountability’ as much as humanly possible
  • 5% of us stockpile excuses for our future non-follow-through binges

And even worse, student follow through is an epic challenge for teachers .  It starts with the frustration when students don’t respond- or half-heartedly respond to feedback.  Then moves to the shame that such few students fail to follow through.  And, lastly, it’s the blame- we blame ourselves when students won’t commit to revising or reworking their assignments.

I know what you are thinking:  But…it’s the students’ responsibility.  But…what about holding the student accountable?  Yeah, that’s true, but there’s nothing wrong with improving the odds for your students to follow through.

So, how can teachers improve the odds?  Easy.  We’ll simply expand our teensy-weensy follow through repertoires.  We’ll add strategies that have been successful before and strategies that are supported with research.

With that in mind, I compiled a list of 13 quick strategies to equip students with a little follow through swag.

13 Shortcuts To Improve Student Follow-Through

1. Default Choice

Adopt the stance that follow through tactics such as revision/edits are expected unless the student puts into writing why the assignment deserves to stand as-is.

2. Specify Time

Ask students to identify a particular time/day they will dedicate to follow-through efforts.  In one study about health-related behaviors, almost 30% individuals followed through with a vaccine when encouraged to select a specific time to do so (compared to 3% that followed up after only talking about the effects of the vaccine).

In addition, determine how much time is really available for follow-through efforts.  For example, have students map out their daily schedule.  This schedule must account for breaks and mishaps in time management. In addition, the schedule should include how long it will take to complete the follow-through task.

3. Eliminate Yes/No Planning Questions

Ask students open-end questions about their follow-through plan.  For instance questions about how they will follow-through, who will help them, and when (see item #2).  In a study to increase voting efforts, individuals were more likely to follow-through with casting a vote after answering open-end questions about their plan vs. isolated yes/no questions.

4. Create a Commitment Device

Yes, struggling to follow through is common, but one hack (thanks to James Clear for sharing this) is to decrease obstacles that get in the way of accomplishing your goal.  For instance, when committing to a deadline for completing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the author locked his clothes in the closet (decreased likelihood to stop writing and leave home).  For the classroom, the trick is to decrease obstacles that get in the way of student follow through. Talk to the student to identify the biggest obstacle and develop ways to decrease the pressure of the obstacle.  Research identifies common obstacles for student follow through as:

  1. a) lack of clarity of expectations
  2. b) over-reliance on instructor
  3. c) upset that how to improve was unclear
  4. d) belief that the ability to improve was limited

5. Eliminate All-or-Nothing Philosophy

Thinking in extremes (such as attempting to revise every mistake or believing you’d never be able to follow through) overwhelms the student.  Reassure students that it is possible to follow through even with only small steps- small behavior changes.  For instance, in revising a paper, the student may begin the process by starting with grammar concerns and then later take steps to address the remainder of the revision needs (organization, thematic issues, etc.).  Research shows that a series of small behaviors influence people to follow through and maintain behavior changes in the future.

6. Develop a Checklist

Dr. Atul Gamande compiled fascinating research on the power of checklists to facilitate behavior.  He explains how a 1 to 5 minute checklist prevents individuals from dropping the ball and makes follow-through easier.  In the classroom, the checklist can include common reasons students have not followed through with the particular assignment in the past.  The checklist may involve a time-line of check-in points to ensure the student remains on track.  The checklist may also include a list of questions that the student needs answered in order to properly follow-through with the assignment.

7. Say No

Encourage students to consider ‘What can I say no to, so I can say yes to following through?’  Further, ask students to make a quick list of the things that stand in the way of their follow-through efforts.

8. Acknowledge Task Difficulty

Allow students to vent and express how following through is a challenge.  Help the student explore the tough elements required in following through.  Ask the student if they are able to commit to following through even if they do not earn the grade they want or if the process takes longer than anticipated. Research indicates that when individuals acknowledge task difficulty and the personal sacrifice required to face the task, commitment is significantly more likely.

9. Scaling

Ask students about their motivation to follow-through.  Allow students to use a scale to describe their intention towards actually following-through.  For example, ask, “On a scale of 1-10 how important is following-through to you?” Next, try to match their level of commitment.

For instance, if their scaled number is low, you and the student may agree to be more lax in terms of the follow-through expectations.  If the student’s number is high, the expectation may be more rigorous in nature.  Relationship research reveals that if people share an equal investment in a task, their commitments to one another are more likely to last.

10. Pin-point the Root

Are students to blame when they don’t follow through?  New research shows that the structure of the brain influences unresponsiveness.  Specifically, data shows that in some cases, the brain has to work harder in order to turn decisions into actions.  With this in mind, if a student shows a lack of interest in follow through behaviors, we must consider biology (not their attitude towards following through) as the culprit.  Instead of assuming the student is indifferent or unmotivated, begin a dialogue with the student about how to make follow through efforts feel less draining.

11. Identify Magic Time

Writer Craig Ballantyne discusses how we each have a time during the day that we are most productive- the magic time.  Help students identify this time and encourage them to align their follow through efforts with this time.

12. Address burn-out

Are your students burned out?  Signs of student burn-out include late work, incomplete work, irritability, etc.  Talk to students that appear disengaged because this would decrease the likelihood of quality follow through.  Researchers link feelings of burn out with avoiding decisions (procrastinating with their follow through efforts) and making irrational decisions (deciding not to follow through even though this will negatively impact their grade).

13. Model Commitment

The best way to to encourage students to follow through is when you demonstrate and model the behavior daily.  In one study where a school committed to maintaining clean classrooms, student actions toward this goal increased as their instructor’s commitment became more visible (as the instructor modeled picking up trash during class and praised students for picking up trash).


  • Association for Psychological Science. (2011, May 18). Want lasting love? It’s not more commitment, but equal commitment that matters. ScienceDaily.
  • Fredenall, L.D., Robbins, T., & Moore, D. (2001).  The influence of instructor leadership on student commitment and performance.  Education Research Quarterly, 55.
  • Robinson, S., Pope, D., & Holyoak, L., (2013).  Can we meet their expectations?  Experiences and perceptions of feedback in first year undergraduate students.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38(3), 260-272.
  • Rogers, T., Milkman, K. L., John, L. K., & Norton, M. I. (2015).  Beyond good intentions:  Prompting people to make plans that improves follow through on important tasks.  Behavior Science & Policy, 1(2), 33-41.
  • University of California – Los Angeles. (2012, February 1). Here is what real commitment to your marriage means. ScienceDaily.
  • University of Chicago Press Journals. (2012, September 11). Want to encourage eco-friendly behavior? Give consumers a nudge (Don’t tell them what to do). ScienceDaily.
  • University of Oxford. (2015, November 13). Brain structure may be root of apathy: Can’t be bothered to read on? It might be due looser connections in your brain. ScienceDaily.

13 Ways To Help Students Do What They Say They’re Going To Do; image attribution flickr user sparkfunelectronics

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