Out of the seemingly millions of articles and blog posts on following through and how to stop procrastinating, you somehow found mine. Lucky you.
Why lucky you? Because this post isn’t going to say the same thing as a lot of the other posts you read. Chances are you already know what procrastination is, are aware of the causes, and have heard a few strategies for how to stop procrastinating.
If not, you might want to check this out and then come back.
Now that you know what procrastination is and have some general ideas about how to stop it moving forward, I’m gonna give you the realest shit you’ve ever heard about it.
Okay, you might disagree in the end but at least give it a shot.
If you really drill it down, avoiding discomfort can be found at the root of all forms of procrastination. And while that has remained unchanged, much of our world has.
The way we communicate, do business, enter & manage relationships, network, schedule our time, and everything else. Things are not remotely the same today as they were 20 or even 10 years ago.
Why does that matter?
It matters because modern people operate differently. And because we operate differently, we procrastinate differently. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are procrastinating.
Other times, we beat ourselves up for procrastinating and it’s not even what’s really going on.
Because of that, It’s time for a contemporary discussion on how to stop procrastinating and start following through in modern times.
Ready? Okay. Let’s do this.
Following Through vs. Getting Started
Let’s first make a distinction between following through and simply getting started. Getting started is the most obvious defense against procrastinating initially but it does not stop procrastinating.
Following through does. It is the active, in the moment, constant beat down of procrastination. It shows procrastination no mercy.
Many people might say that getting started is the opposite of procrastinating. While I don’t totally disagree with that, I do believe you can very easily “get started” and still fall into procrastinating mode quite quickly.
Because of that, I consider following through the opposite of procrastinating.
Why? Because anti-procrastinating behavior is not only starting, but continuing to do what you set out to do. Further, it requires continuation for the amount of time you set out to do it.
I might plan to go work out at the gym from 5-7 pm.
Putting my shoes on, getting into the car, driving, and arriving at the gym at 4;45 pm would be getting started.
Kudos to me for getting to the gym because that’s further than a lot of people get.
However, actually beginning the workout at 5pm and finishing up at 7pm is following through.
What if I get to the gym at 5, call my best friend and talk until 5:30, hop in the sauna until 6:00, then exercise from 6:15 until 8:15? I’ve completed my task but didn’t really follow through on what I said I was going to do.
In essence, I’ve let procrastination slip in and 75 minutes of my time have seemingly disappeared.
This is no good. Especially if I had other things on my agenda that evening.
See the difference? Just because you start something with the best of intentions, doesn’t mean you won’t get distracted and start procrastinating along the way.
Now, more than ever before, it’s easier to start off strong but not follow through.
Why Following Through is Harder Today
This will probably come as no surprise to you, but distractions are rampant these days.
Distractions are procrastination’s best friend and the bitter enemy of following through.
In fact, it’s nearly impossible to totally rid yourself of distractions short of complete isolation with no electronics nearby.
Which is quite the conundrum because much of our most productive work in modern society requires electronics. But I digress.
Distractions can be internal or external and can take on many forms. The difference today is just the sheer availability. Mainly the availability of yourself to other people and the availability of attractive distractions to you.
Availability to Other People
When my parents got out of college and started work in the real world, there were only two ways they could be reached quickly. Either in person or calling them on a land-line telephone.
If you didn’t know their location or had the phone number to where they were, my parents were completely inaccessible.
When I got out of college and started work in the real world, it was a little bit different.
I could be reached on a land-line or my cell phone, you could send me an email, you could come see me in person. If I was online at the time you could send me an instant message via AOL.
So I was much more available than my parents, but still nowhere near as available as I can be today.
The smartphone essentially changed the game forever. Email and instant messaging existed when I first started college but I still had to be at my computer to access those things.
Today, there is no form of instant communication that is available on the computer that isn’t also available on your smartphone. Hell, most instant communication is available on your wrist now.
Lesson: The more available you are, the more opportunities there are for you to be distracted. The more opportunities for distraction, the greater the chances of procrastinating or starting but not following through.
Availability of Attractive Distractions
Have you ever stopped to think about just how many attractive distractions there are available to you in the modern world? Most significantly due to the internet, smartphones, and merging of the two.
I just took a look at my iPhone. I don’t consider myself to have a ton of apps but it turns out I have 91. And that’s not even including the ones that are grouped together in categories!
That means each time I pick up my phone and unlock it, there are at least 91+ ways to distract myself. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
On top of that, designers specifically create app logos with the intention of getting you to click on them. So not only are they there, but those little square icons are actually made to draw you in.
After all, getting you to download it isn’t enough, they want you to use it as much as possible.
And those are just apps. The entire internet is available on your phone. As far as consumption goes, you can consume anything on your smartphone that you can on a computer.
It’s pretty crazy.
I just typed the word “distractions” into Google and 175,000,000 results were returned in .52 seconds. That’s one hundred and seventy five million results in just over half a second!
I’m not saying there are 175,000,000 different distractions out there. Just using that as an example of the overwhelming amount of content and information that is available. And how quickly you can get to it.
Which brings up another good point.
You can find the answers to any random question that pops in your head. Even the most unimportant crap in the world. Chances are you don’t need to know the entire filmography of Will Smith while you’re working on your resume.
Back in the day that might just be a fleeting thought. Today, you can pull out your phone and find the answer in seconds. Chances are though, once you do, that phone won’t be put down for a while.
Bottom line, the modern digital world is an infinite source of information and distraction. And it wants your attention badly.
Procrastinating Then vs Procrastinating Now
Procrastinating has existed since the beginning of time. It is not a new concept by any means but it has gotten easier to do. I’d say the reasons to avoid tasks have become more seductive over time as well.
Think about this for a second. You’re in 1910 (yes, I’m going way back) and are overcome with dread about starting the next chapter of the book you’re writing.
You have writer’s block, you’re feeling unmotivated, you have a hangover from last night. Whatever it is, you just don’t want to start.
What are you going to do?
Play a board game? Go dancing? Play an instrument? Exercise? Read?
Seeing as how it’s 1910, your options aren’t too extensive. While you might be actively avoiding a task you need to complete, you’re still likely procrastinating effectively
In other words, you aren’t completely wasting your time, energy, and mental activity.
Of course, you could still waste time in non-effective ways such as getting drunk or overeating. However, the complete time wasters were much less prevalent in 1910.
Today, you could pick up your phone, slide into Facebook and waste hours just reading comments from two idiots having a political debate.
You could get lost for hours in Instagram looking at photos of complete strangers.
There are so many ways to get caught up in your smartphone that it’s baffling.
Just imagine the rabbit holes you could go down if you jump into your email and start clicking links.
The point is, there are a lot more mind numbing things in the world today and it’s extremely easy to get caught up in them. It’s all at your fingertips and you’re constantly being persuaded to click, watch, and engage with it.
This is no accident either. There are brilliant people out there whose entire lives revolve around digital marketing. They are paid to grab and keep your attention.
In this day and age, you have to be extremely intentional and skillful with your attention because everyone else is after it.
Following Through in Modern Times
There’s a phrase/quote I frequently say to myself when I am avoiding getting started or have gotten started, but feel an urge to do something else. That is:
Lean into the discomfort rather than the distraction.
It developed out of a concept I first read about in Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection.
While she doesn’t really use the concept as a way to follow through and fight procrastination, I believe it’s very applicable.
As you know, procrastination is generally caused by some form of avoiding discomfort.
Fear of failure, unfamiliarity with the task, not knowing where to begin, etc. are all more specific reasons we procrastinate. The list goes on but underlying them all is a general feeling of discomfort.
Future you knows that proceeding will be beneficial but present you wants to feel good right now.
In order to feel good, you have to move away from the discomfort. You can’t simultaneously be uncomfortable and feel good. The two things don’t go together.
Most of our modern distractions make it easy to quickly get away from discomfort. And they serve at least two purposes in general:
- They take the place of thinking about whatever it is that’s giving us discomfort, anxiety, etc.
- They usually make us feel good.
This is all good in the present, but both of the above are short lived and usually followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and regret.
Unless you continue to dive deeper into the distractions, which might postpone the feelings of guilt, shame, and regret a bit longer. However, once you find your way out of the distractions, those feelings will only be more pronounced.
I’m sure you get what I’m talking about but here’s a quick, easy to understand example:
- You need to start an assignment for school or work and you feel anxious about it.
- You said you would start at 5pm sharp, but the uncomfortable feeling is too strong so you say “I’ll just watch one episode of *insert favorite guilty pleasure show* and start at 6pm”.
- The episode is incredibly entertaining, ends with a cliffhanger, and you easily slide into a second episode.
- Before you know it, it’s 11pm and you haven’t even begun, and since it’s already so late you figure you might as well finish the last two episodes of the season.
- You finally go to bed at 1am.
- The next morning comes, the alarm goes off and you feel absolutely terrible about yourself.
What happened here?
You gave into the distraction, it felt good, and that good feeling was easy to continue. Once you postponed starting on the assignment or project, it was even harder to get back to.
That’s why you have to lean into the discomfort right away. You have to engage with it and force yourself to push through it for a certain amount of time.
Once the time is up, you can give yourself a break and then get back to the task.
A fantastic way to do this is the Pomodoro Technique, originally created by Francisco Cirillo. You can get a free copy of the full PDF here.
It’s a fairly lengthy read but worth it if you struggle with productivity, keeping focused, or staying on task.
All this to say that in modern times you really have to force yourself to lean into the discomfort because modern distractions are everywhere, are more enticing, and have a very strong grip once they get you initially.
Be aware when uncomfortable feelings arise and you feel the urge to distract yourself. Then remember “Lean into the discomfort, not the distraction”.
Sometimes it Isn’t Even Procrastinating
We like to beat ourselves up when we procrastinate. It’s not a good feeling. As I mentioned before, it usually results in a mix of guilt, shame, and remorse.
Of course, this can be eliminated by never procrastinating, but who are we kidding.
It’s going to happen at some point, but it can be helpful to remember that it happens to everyone and not get stuck ruminating on negative thoughts.
In fact, a study was done that showed students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on one exam were less likely to delay studying for the next one.
Those who couldn’t forgive themselves failed to study again.
Sometimes we don’t get started or fail to follow through because of reasons outside of our immediate control. It has nothing to do with procrastinating, but we still feel the same guilt.
There is a time management matrix made famous by Stephen Covey that sums up all of our activities as important or urgent.
Most of the time we neglect the things that are important but not urgent because, well, they aren’t urgent.
Some things are both important and urgent, while others are urgent but not important. Then there are the pleasure filled activities that are neither import or urgent.
Every now and then, life can hit us with several things that are both urgent and important in a short period of time. These are the crises that must be attended to. In other words, the fires that must be put out.
These things put a wrench in the best laid plans in the world. They can’t be ignored. They can be mitigated in the future by careful planning but never completely eliminated.
It is important to recognize when these events are the cause of delays. Both in failing to start something or being unable to follow through once you do.
It isn’t the same thing as procrastinating and you shouldn’t treat it as such.
Tying it all together
The point of all of this is that fighting procrastination and following through is harder than ever in our modern world.
When we feel anxious about starting a task, or while doing a task, we look for distractions. That is a key mark of procrastination and is true whether we realize it consciously or not.
In our modern environment, we don’t have to look very hard for those distractions.
This is because we are far more available, always connected, and enticing distractions are always at our fingertips.
These modern distractions are also meant to hold our attention, keep us entertained, and pull us in deeper and deeper.
That’s why it is crucial to force yourself to lean into discomfort rather than distractions. The phrase I silently say (or sometimes out loud) to myself is “lean into the discomfort not the distraction”.
Here’s how it usually occurs:
- I feel a sense of discomfort about starting a task or frustrated about the difficulty of the task I am already doing.
- Then there is an urge to pick up my phone, grab a snack, or some other pleasurable form of distraction.
- I remind myself that I need to lean into the discomfort rather than the distraction.
- I refocus and get back to the task at hand, even though it doesn’t feel good in the moment.
Might sound silly but this actually works. It does, however, require a general sense of awareness to first even recognize the urge to go for the distraction.
Mindfulness training can be extremely beneficial in this regard.
Even if you can’t stop it before you get caught up in a distraction, you can force yourself back to the task after you realize it.
Just know that it is more difficult to get out of a distraction than to resist getting caught up in one to begin with.
Lastly, don’t get caught up in negative self talk if you find yourself procrastinating and not following through.
Acknowledge it and make an effort to do better. That’s all you can do. Berating yourself has no positive benefits whatsoever.
And remember that sometimes the reason for not getting things done has nothing to do with procrastination.
Life just happens and every now and then we get bombarded with things that are both important and urgent. We can’t ignore them and other things get postponed as a result.
So what do you think? The realest shit you’ve ever heard regarding procrastination?
Perhaps not. Even if you got one or two nuggets from this, consider sharing it with someone else who might benefit from it.
If you thought it was awful, please share with me and tell me why!
Until next time, adios amigos.