You know that thing where you set out with these amazing goals and ideas for things that you would like to accomplish and then, when it comes time to actually do the steps it takes to get there, you just… don’t? For me, right before bed, I have all these great ideas for how I’m going to wake up early and make a really nice breakfast for my family and then get a workout in before starting my day. Ambitious, eh? Literally, every morning what I actually do is drag myself out of bed about 20 minutes before I’m supposed to start work, sleepily brew some coffee, and pour a bowl of cereal. Sleep will always be my choice in the moment, no matter how many plans I make for productive early mornings.
Maybe you’re really great at being productive and feeling jazzed when you wake up in the morning, and your follow-through issue presents itself in a different way. Like, let’s talk about how long you’ve been putting off calling in that dentist appointment. Or that closet you have a whole Pinterest board of organization ideas saved for, but you haven’t even opened the door on that mess in 6 months? When did you do your Christmas shopping this year?
Ok ok, you get it – we all procrastinate. We, as a human species, have been doing this for centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers called this phenomenon akrasia. Why do we do this? Our brains are actually designed to prioritize instant gratification over future rewards.
The act of setting goals or having that “to-do list” is actually you setting goals for your future self. When you plan to organize your closet, you are setting a goal for your future self to have a more organized home. When it comes time to actually get elbow deep in whatever is piled up in there and you find yourself opting to binge 3 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy instead, your brain has shifted from caring for your future self to prioritizing your present self. And the present self is really, really into instant gratification. This behavior is ubiquitous and is known as “time inconsistency”. Your brain is literally wired to value instant rewards over long-term ones.
Learning how to delay gratification and resist the pull of instant gratification can make you more successful in life, create healthier patterns of behavior across personal and professional areas of life, and even impact your quality of sleep and ability to practice self-control in every part of your life.
Here are some ways to overcome procrastination and follow through on your goals:
There are a lot of different ways to accomplish using a commitment device. It can be anything that works to influence your future actions and/or limit your choices for immediate satisfaction or distractions. There are typically three categories of commitment devices: Social – adds a social cost of not following through on a long-term goal, Friction – creates a hassle when you don’t follow through, and Financial – adds a financial cost to not following through.
I might need a social commitment device to get up early. If I promise my three-year-old that I will make chocolate chip pancakes in the morning, you better believe I have to follow through on that or I’ll never hear the end of it. Maybe you’re regularly distracted by your phone or TV, and you need a friction commitment device. Set a screen limit on your phone at certain times of the day so you really can’t use it. Need a financial commitment? Make a purchase to get yourself started on the project – head to the Container Store or buy those fancy running shoes. Use a social/financial combo and pay a friend $5.00 for every day you put it off.
A friend of mine wanted to spend all of 2021 improving her roller skating skills, so she committed publicly on her Instagram account to posting a reel of her roller skating every day of the year. The social pressure to follow through helped her accomplish a year-long goal, even through traveling, being sick, bad weather, and more obstacles.
Need some ideas? Here’s a database of commitment device ideas for all sorts of specific situations from Habit Weekly.
Getting started is the hardest part, right? Give yourself an “easy in”. Setting the mood goes a long way to settling into a task that you aren’t excited about. Make a fun drink to have during the chore, play some music, and get into it! If you’re nervous about a phone call you need to make, start by writing out a script for what you want to say. Even if you only get as far as sorting things into piles or writing out the script, breaking an intimidating project into smaller, more manageable tasks is proven to be a great way to increase productivity and follow-through. Master the art of showing up before you put too much emphasis on your results.
Humans work really well on schedules. If you have a daily planner, calendar, journal, notepad on the fridge, WHATEVER – use it! Writing down specific times you are going to do specific behaviors makes you 2-3x more likely to follow through.
Becoming more in control of your goals, habits, and follow-through takes some serious intention. Our brains simply do not function to prioritize long-term happiness. If your goal is something that’s really important to you, try these three methods and see if you can make a change. Remember – starting is the hardest part, accountability goes a long way, procrastination is often more painful than the task itself, and you’re way more likely to do it if you write down your specific intentions.
Now, go! Get it done!
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