Once you’ve started a task, your next challenge is to follow it through to completion. Many factors can derail you, from distractibility to forgetfulness to difficulty recovering from setbacks.
This is especially true for longer-term projects or multi-step tasks, which come with multiple opportunities to get off task.
To maximize your ability to follow through, let’s start by learning why consistent effort is so difficult and then examine some proven techniques to help you continue with a task.
As a goal quote says, “Set short term goals and you’ll win games. Set long term goals and you’ll win championships!”
The Problems With Follow-Through
Follow-through is your ability to stick with an action or a task until it’s finished.
Madison had struggled with follow-through all her life. Her apartment was filled with half-completed projects: a shelf she purchased but never hung, a half-folded pile of clothes, brownie batter that sat in the fridge for weeks but never made it to the oven. Madison would start a project but then get distracted and simply never finish.
Follow-through can be particularly problematic for people who have ADHD, as neurologically-based distractibility inhibits their ability to focus on a task long enough to complete it.
But it’s also an issue for people with depression, who run out of energy before they complete tasks, as well as people with anxiety, who have trouble coping with self-doubt and drop tasks out of worry that they won’t do a good job. Nearly all of us can get derailed when we run into an unexpected problem we aren’t sure how to solve.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to maintain consistent effort is that our brains have trouble remembering why we wanted to complete a particular task in the first place. The brain’s number one priority is to conserve energy, so it will work really hard to talk us out of doing things that will cost us energy.
This is why you’ve likely experienced random bursts of effort, commitment, or productivity when you remembered why a task mattered to you, followed by long periods of inactivity with low interest or motivation.
How To Follow Through With Your Goals
The consistent effort requires that you consistently feed your brain the fuel it needs (e.g., by eating healthy, exercising, taking breaks, etc.) and that you remind yourself why spending energy on this task matters.
A general principle for establishing consistency is to break larger tasks and goals into smaller, more manageable steps, and then schedule those steps regularly over a period of time. This type of planning and structure helps you sustain energy, which helps you sustain the effort.
In addition to that foundation, try these other proven strategies for following through and completing the tasks you’ve started.
1. Make A Plan
Sometimes, when we encounter an issue we hadn’t anticipated—we run out of materials, we need help, we don’t have enough time—our follow-through is compromised. Whenever our focus shifts from the task itself, we’re at risk for becoming distracted and getting off task.
Mitigate this risk by developing a plan that allows your task to flow as efficiently as possible, from beginning to end.
Making a plan starts with deciding which task you want to do. Once you’ve decided, consider all the steps necessary to complete the task, all the materials required, how much time it’ll take, and any help you’ll need.
For example, before you start painting your house, decide what order you’ll paint the rooms, the colors for each room, whether you’ll ask anyone to help you paint, and what types of rollers or brushes you’ll use. Write all this down so you won’t have to make the same decisions twice.
By planning every step at once, you’re lumping all the decision-making into a single unit—it’s like buying in bulk. Decision-making takes a lot of mental energy, so limiting the number of decisions your brain has to make is a huge help and ensures you have the energy you need to actually complete the project.
This strategy works best if you do it the night before you start the task. That way, your brain will have time to recover from decision fatigue while you sleep, and you’ll be energized and ready to follow the plan when you wake up in the morning.
2. Strategize Your Time
When you’re making a plan, pay particular attention to how you’re planning your time.
Humans are pretty bad at estimating the time needed to complete a task. Consider giving yourself an extra five minutes for every 30 minutes you think you’ll need, and then adjust accordingly. Having enough time will ensure that you’re able to complete the work and follow through with what you started.
Also, consider how you will divide your time. Will you dedicate consistent time to the task until it is completed? Consistency requires a lot of sustained effort. Front-loading—spending a lot of time on the task in the beginning—sometimes leads to forgetting what the project is about as you go on.
And rear-loading—focusing your time towards the end of the task— sometimes leads to inferior work or running out of time. Each approach has its challenges and can lead to problems with follow-through, so address those concerns in your plan.
Finally, consider planning larger chunks of time to complete projects.
For some projects, two consecutive hours of work (with breaks!) can be much more helpful than 10 minutes here and there. When we’re constantly switching back and forth between tasks, it’s hard for our brains to stay focused. Longer periods of engagement with a single task can enhance progress.
3. Problem-Solve Setbacks
Inevitably, as you work towards your goal, you will run into unanticipated problems. Stopping to solve these problems can be distracting—or, even worse, it can make you feel so overwhelmed that you avoid solving them altogether and just quit. That’s why it’s so important to develop a strategy for addressing setbacks.
Problem-solving has five steps. The first is to identify the problem. This part might seem so simple that you’re tempted to skip over it. But actually, identifying the problem can be surprisingly tricky. Maybe your goal is to remove the wallpaper in your bathroom, but it won’t come off.
Step one is to identify whether the problem is that the wallpaper isn’t wet enough or that you haven’t waited long enough for the water to penetrate the glue.
Step two is to generate as many ideas as possible to solve the problem: Add more water with a sponge, a spray bottle, or a water-soaked paint roller, or even splash water on the walls from the shower. Don’t censor yourself; writing down every idea, even the outrageous ones, will help your brain stay in the flow of generating ideas, making you more likely to stumble across a creative solution.
Step three is where you’ll eliminate the ideas that obviously won’t work. Quickly weigh the pros and cons of the remaining solutions and choose one strategy to try first. Here’s where you might realize that you already have a sponge handy and it’ll get a lot of water on the wallpaper, though it might also make a mess.
In step four, create a plan for implementing that idea and try it out: Soak your sponge and start rubbing the wallpaper. Finally, in step five, take a look at what you’ve tried and see if it worked. If you’ve solved the problem, great! But if not, go back to step three and try a different strategy.
Practising this skill until it becomes second nature will help you become a pro at managing setbacks. The more confidence you have in solving these kinds of problems, the more likely you’ll be to sustain your effort and follow through.
4. Talk Yourself Through Stuck Points
Sometimes, when we get stuck, it kills our momentum. Maybe you’re writing a paper and have run out of ideas, or maybe you’re fixing an appliance and you can’t figure out what the next step is.
Getting stuck feels uncomfortable, and as soon as that discomfort shows up, your brain says, “Hey, maybe you should just play video games for a while until you think of something else to write.” The next thing you know, you’ve been playing all night and your half-finished paper is due in an hour.
Get yourself unstuck by talking yourself through what you’re doing. It’s sometimes easier to generate ideas verbally than it is through writing, so if you’re stuck on a paper, read aloud what you’ve written so far, then use dictation software to generate ideas about what might come next.
If you don’t have dictation software, use the audio recorder on your phone and then transcribe your ideas later. Or simply talk aloud to yourself to generate some momentum.
Use the same strategy for other stuck points. If you run into a snag while you’re fixing the lawnmower, talk yourself through what you’ve done so far and what you know about lawn mower repair.
Having this conversation aloud with yourself can help your brain connect pieces of information and generate new ideas to get you unstuck and help you follow through with the goal.
5. Plan Rewards
Many tasks we procrastinate are just boring—like studying for exams, filing taxes, paying bills, or opening the mail. Boredom is a risk factor for not following through. If an opportunity to do something more exciting or stimulating pops up while you’re working on a boring task, you’re liable to get distracted.
You might promise yourself you’ll come back to the boring task later, but that thought process perpetuates problems with follow-through. Instead, manage boredom-induced distractibility by planning a reward for completing the task.
Maybe the best reward for you is grabbing a couple of boxes of candy or microwave popcorn, renting a movie, and planning a stay-at-home movie night. Maybe it’s treating yourself to a fancy coffee drink or allowing yourself a guilt-free soak in the bathtub with some candles and a magazine.
The specific reward doesn’t matter—only that it feels rewarding to you. Having something exciting to look forward to can help us persist through the boring discomfort of following through.
6. Use An Accountability Partner
An accountability partner is someone who checks in with you regularly and helps you stay committed to a goal. Knowing your accountability partner will ask you for an update each week helps you continue to follow through, even when you’re tempted to give up or avoid. They help you maintain your motivation during the tough moments and ensure that you follow through to reach your goals.
Some things to keep in mind as you select and work with an accountability partner: Choose someone you trust to check on you consistently and call you out when you’re off task. Work with your partner to specify what you want to accomplish and identify any rewards that might be appropriate if you’re staying on task or reaching your goal.
Agree to check in with each other at a regular time and occasionally review your goal and your progress to make sure you haven’t drifted off course.
7. Set Intermediate Goals
It can be especially difficult to follow through with long-term projects that occur over several days, weeks, months, or years, such as learning a new language or musical instrument.
Consequently, we can get distracted from our goal in favour of shorter-term or more urgent tasks or activities. But setting smaller, intermediate goals can make it easier to follow through with longer-term goals.
If you’re learning to play the piano, you might set a goal to learn a Mozart piece by a particular date. This helps reduce the overwhelm that comes from focusing on a monumental goal. Smaller goals help you recognize that long-term projects are manageable when you focus on these intermediate objectives.
Set goals as often as necessary. If you’re writing a book, you might have daily writing goals; if your goal is keeping in touch with friends, you might have weekly check-in goals. If your larger goal is saving for retirement, you might have monthly savings goals.
Setting these goals and scheduling periodic check-ins with yourself to review your progress can help you follow through to completion.
8. Accept “Good Enough”
Perfectionism is one of the greatest threats to following through. We may get excited about a goal and get started on it, only to begin to worry about whether we’re making mistakes or working hard enough.
Those doubts create anxiety, which we avoid by disengaging from the task. Once disengaged, it’s difficult to reengage and follow through.
Just because pursuing perfection is a possibility, that doesn’t mean it is necessary, or even that it’s preferable or advantageous. Confront your perfectionism and challenge yourself to adopt a “good enough” approach.
I’ve noticed the phrase “good enough” seems to have a negative connotation—almost like the definition of “good enough” is “not good enough.” It seems that we’ve equated “good enough” with “lazy” or “inadequate.” But “good enough” means exactly what it says—good.
What counts as “good enough” depends on the task. If you’re an accountant doing taxes or a surgeon performing a coronary bypass, “good enough” needs to basically be perfect. But if you’re making a cake for your child’s third birthday, finishing a workout, or trimming your hedges, “good enough” likely has an entirely different meaning.
Be clear with yourself about what is actually necessary, preferable, or advantageous with your particular task. And remember that perfection is an illusion. Don’t let the pursuit of something fictitious be a roadblock for following through.
Now that you know how to follow through with the tasks you’ve started, there’s just one more piece to the puzzle of overcoming procrastination: making sure you actually finish those tasks.
This can be difficult if you’re afraid of more responsibility, pressure, or expectations on the other side of success. But you’ve worked so hard—it’s time to let yourself get to the finish line.
So, let’s develop some strategies for finishing what you started.