The Psychology of Being Reliable

I was late a couple of times recently, and I didn’t like it.

Being reliable is one of the most valued traits in a person. Put simply, being reliable means that if you say you will do something, you will do it. People who can be trusted to follow through in the little things are the people we trust with the bigger things.

When you tell someone that you’ll be somewhere at a specific time, they should know that you’ll be there by that time and not a second later. For relaxed personalities like mine, it’s tempting to brush off timeliness as relatively unimportant. What’s a few minutes or even a half hour? It’s not a big deal.

Or is it?

We don’t merely schedule things with others, we plan to do things ourselves. Reliability is the difference between living how you want to live and being dominated by your whims and bad habits. When you plan to do something, can we consider it done or will we have to wait and see if you’re in the right mood or motivated enough to do it?

The Rippling Impact of Unreliability

Unreliability hits hardest in the mind, away from related events. If you are unreliable to yourself or others, you will know it. You will feel it. It’s the feeling that you don’t really have any control over your behavior. If you can’t be on time to a simple Wednesday appointment, how are you ever going to get in shape, direct movies, or be a great parent, friend, or spouse?

Missing appointments, rescheduling at the last minute, making promises that you have to excuse later, and being known as the person who’s always late can ripple negatively into your life. It’s all about trust.

Reasons We Aren’t Reliable

#1: Unspecific Expectations Cripple Your Intention (Your Most Powerful Weapon)

To be reliable, you must know exactly what is expected of you (whether the expectation is from yourself or others or both). Sometimes, when people say they’re meeting at 6:30 to watch a movie, the expectation is to show up whenever, mingle for a bit, and start the movie at 7:00 or even later. Other times, the movie is starting right at that time and you’d better be there or you’ll miss the previews!

In the same way, if you set a goal to exercise today, you need to be very specific about what constitutes exercise.You can’t intentionally work out unless you know what working out is. Is it a mini habit? Is it a minimum time of one hour? Whatever it is, you need to define exactly what you expect from yourself in order to be reliable. It’s uncomfortable at first to get extremely specific about what you expect after being so nonchalant for so long, but when you make the switch, you gain a superpower.

There’s a superpower called intention. Intention is a superpower because it cuts through excuses. If you specifically intend to do the electric slide in your room at exactly 5:22 PM PST tomorrow night, then it’s a LOT more difficult to explain your way out of it, because general excuses don’t work against specific targets. “I was tired” seems awfully weak against such an explicit target, doesn’t it? And yet, that excuse seems acceptable for more casual intentions like, “I’ll go dancing tomorrow night.”

Specific intentions don’t only kill excuses, they are the reason you do anything. If you don’t specifically define your aim, then it’s like an archer saying, “I’m going to kind of aim near one of those 15 or so targets in the general area sometime.” Is that the guy you want protecting your castle?

Setting your target so precisely lets you prepare your arrow to strike it exactly. We all understand the concept of archers improving their accuracy, so it should be exciting to understand that the same concept applies to setting specific intentions. The moment you define and commit to hitting a single bulls-eye, your brain begins reverse engineering your way to success, and over time, it gets better at this process.

If I need to be in my bed, under the covers with the lights out at 12:14 AM, then I’m naturally going to develop some sort of plan to get everything done before that time. But the time needs to be specific and rigid, because any flexibility here (“I’ll try going to sleep around midnight tonight”) is weakness that you can and will stretch to 5 AM (I won’t tell you how I know this).

To be reliable means setting specific targets to hit. Reliability means precision.

#2: Inadequate Preparation Results in Severe Compromise

I can’t tell you how ironic this is. I started writing this article earlier in the week, and somehow, I had forgotten to write the newsletter just before I needed to send it. This has two lessons in it.

First, I would have had to send a mediocre or extremely short newsletter because I wasn’t prepared to reliably deliver it. This is the type of compromise that comes with being unprepared, and it means that even if you desire to be reliable, you aren’t able to be reliable because you weren’t prepared and now you don’t have enough time to make it work.

Have you noticed how people who are late sometimes appear like they’re trying harder than anyone else to be on time, yet they are always late? Well, they are trying harder, but they’re so ill-prepared to be on time, that they have no chance to be reliable, even if they want to be.

Being prepared means that you know what you need in order to accomplish the task. Know what you need, and set specific intentions strategically along the way to get those things. This is part of reverse engineering a result as discussed in #1, but it’s also more than that. It’s being cognizant that you can’t move forward without certain prerequisites, and planning to get them done.


  • For me to send this newsletter, I need to have thought about a topic and judged it worthy of publication, and I need anywhere from 2-10 hours to write and polish it. This week, I was almost unprepared, but I was saved by my systems in place for capturing ideas and running with them. I was prepared, but not through my merit, through my systems.
  • In the morning, most people need to groom themselves, which takes time. If someone is late, they neglected to do this or another prerequisite that they couldn’t skip.
  • Before bedtime, you brush your teeth. For such a trivial and small task, if you get to yours specific deadline (in bed at 12:05 AM) and you haven’t met this simple prerequisite, it can really throw you off. It’s a slippery slope.
  • I have the honor of being a best man at a wedding this year. I have a number of things I need to prepare for, and I can’t leave them up until the last minute or I’ll be the worst best man. I want to be the best best man!

#3: Sudden Demands Freak Out the Brain

There is more to this one than you might think. I’m not talking about leaving enough time to get ready (as that’s covered in the prior two). I’m talking about giving yourself a mental buffer when needed.

Mel Robbins wrote a bestselling book called “The 5 Second Rule,” which I believe is basically counting down from 5 and then doing something. I also wrote a post about how a 10-second countdown can defeat procrastination. The specific timing of a countdown matters some, but it isn’t as important as the concept behind it.

The reason Mel’s book became a hit and my post was shared over 5,000 times on Medium is because it works. Giving yourself a countdown not only provides greater immediacy of intent, it also gives you a slight buffer between decision and action. Let me rephrase that—it give you a buffer between obligation and action.

Obligation is what you feel the moment you’re on the hook for something. If you’re not ready for it, obligation feels like dread. You’ve said that you will do XYZ, and now it’s time to come through. This is how I feel when I have to get up early in the morning because of a commitment, because I am NOT a morning person (in case you didn’t get that hint earlier).

Picture it: I’m in bed, the bed feels nice, and I don’t usually have to get up at any specific time, but stupid yesterday Stephen said he’d be there this morning. Now I feel the obligation of a prior commitment, and my groggy brain is throwing all kinds of excuses at me. Tell them you feel under the weather. Tell them you are swamped with work. Do whatever you can to cancel, because sleep is life, bro. My brain is an idiot, but I have no option B.

This is a key moment, and I’ve found it extremely difficult to consistently pick the best choice, which is to stick to the commitment I made. (If I can’t meet a commitment, I shouldn’t make it.) The countdown is one of the most effective ways I’ve found to get up when I don’t want to do it.

Given the “Sorry I’m late” chain reaction that will occur if I don’t get out of bed with enough time to prepare, being able to force action is paramount for reliability. The countdown works because it doesn’t startle your brain. When I try to order my brain to get up in the morning, it’s goes like this…

Me: “I have to get up right now. I have an appointment.”

Brain: “What?! Hey, easy dude! You slurred so much I couldn’t even understand you. Whatever you said, you aren’t in any condition to be making decisions. Just sleep for a minute or two and try again.”

*15 minutes later*

Me: “Oh no! I’m really running late now. I don’t even have time for a full shave. I’ll have to use the trimmer or something. But I must get up now.”

Brain: “You can probably stretch it 5 more minutes. If not, traffic was horrible. I mean, it’s really bad out there.”

Me: “You’re so smart when I’m drunk-tired.”

See how my brain was a deceptive and smooth manipulator up there? That whole thing was triggered because I put a gun to its head. (This analogy is getting confusing. Does my brain have its own head? I digress.) Here’s the better way to do it.

Me: “Look, I have to get up soon, so I’m going to count down from 10 and when I reach zero, I’m going to put my feet on the floor.”

Brain: “Oh, interesting. Um…

Me: “9…8….7”

Brain: “But uh… Slee–“

Me: “5…4….”

Brain: “Oh $#@$, I better prepare myself for this.”

Me: “Zero.”

Brain: “Well played.”

Me: “I feel like several tanks ran over my body as I slept, but I’m up and zombieing over to the shower. Cool. I’m going to be on time today.”

Quick Recap

Reliability is one of the most important skills you can develop. It will bring you more success and happiness in business and relationships. Just think about how good it feels for something to think they can trust you with important things compared to how bad it feels to not be trusted. That tells you all you need to know.

To be reliable…

  1. Always set sharp, clear, strong, iron-clad, FDA-approved, and specific intentions. Set the time (to the minute), the location (to the room), and the expectation (to the unit). Leave no question marks, unless they are a part of the expectation. A mini habit for example, is to do one push-up, but you can always do more. The core expectation is one, and that is your target to hit. Anything else is a bonus. That’s what makes mini habits the greatest system ever!
  2. Know what must be done first to enable you to meet your intentions when the time comes. If you must give a speech about pottery at 3 PM today, you must first learn about pottery! This means, in order to be reliable, you need to read a book about pottery. That’s a strange, but accurate way to think about reliability. Reliability is often (but not always!) more than simply showing up.
  3. To give your brain a chance to process and ease into your obligation, utilize a 10-second countdown. If you are to give a speech and feel as nervous as Jimmy does before asking Beth to the prom, allow yourself to feel the fear and nerves for 10 seconds and begin the countdown. If you’re trying to get out of bed, start the countdown. If you know you should go, but are tempted to make an excuse and be unreliable, start the countdown.

Now go, and be reliable. I’m counting on you!

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