The Mental Health Aspects Of Focus & Procrastination You Can’T Afford To Ignore

Increase Your Focus And Avoid Procrastination

If you want to build better habits, avoid procrastination, and learn a really simple exercise so you can increase your willpower, avoid procrastination and improve your focus, pay close attention to this interview with Ryan Engelstad.

In this episode you will discover:

  • The mental health aspects of focus & procrastination you can’t afford to ignore
  • The biggest challenge people face today when dealing with technology?
  • How should young adults deal with social media?
  • What’s the best advise if you struggle with focus?
  • A simple exercise to increase you willpower in less than 2 minutes
  • A great complimentary exercise to relax and restore your willpower
  • The best apps to improve your focus
  • How to overcome the biggest challenges for someone struggling with procrastination?
  • The exact thing you need to do if you procrastinate
  • How to avoid procrastination even if you do not feel like it
  • The best techniques to build better habits
  • The most destructive activities for mental health
  • What influence does technology have on our society, especially in the western world?
  • Should you delete our social media accounts?
  • A short case study that sums up the interview at the end

About Ryan Engelstad

Ryan Engelstad is an expert in mental health and a therapist based in Princeton, NJ writing about mental health and behavior change. 

About five years he was mostly doing group therapy in inpatient units both for substance abuse and also general mental health.

He primarily works with young adults and is an expert in mental health for about 12 years now. Over that time he started working with people who had problems with substance abuse.

This issue is a very difficult struggle that people have but it ties into focus issues as well. Over time he transitioned more and more to general mental health. We are helping people with things like depression, anxiety, family stress, job stress and school stress in Princeton. I have a lot of Princeton students and graduate students in high school that hope to go to Princeton one day.

That means they are under a lot of pressure in that environment. The students are coming to me to deal with some of those pressures.

What Do You Think Is the Biggest Challenge People Face Today When Dealing with Technology?

Technology is tough especially for young adults because they use it in schools as well. Often time it’s a requirement in a lot of their classes. They are provided with laptops or tablets and it’s expected that they use these technologies to work and to study. At the same time, it’s the access point to all of their less productive uses whether that is social media, games and videos.

I get high school students who get tablets starting at the age of 13 and these students I expected to make the differentiation between you then this technology for work and playing around with it. Of course, playing around is far more tempting at that age and that’s why it is big struggle for sure.

How do you think we are able to face these challenges and cope with them because it’s pretty hard to resist Facebook, YouTube and all the services that are designed to be addictive?

When I work with my patients on this topic I make sure that they are intentional with the services and technologies they are using. For example, if they are on their laptop or their tablet I teach them to recognize why they opened it in the first place? If they opened it to do something relaxing or to do something fun, that’s great (if they set a time limit).

If they can stick to that amount of time, there’s no problem. On the other side, if their responsibility was to do homework or to study then it is an issue and might be a sign of internet addiction

If you find yourself getting distracted by social media or a funny video again and again have the mindset of coming back to your original intention.

When I work with my patients I make sure that they are intentional with the services and technologies they are using.

Of course the stressors that come with social media are the whole different story.

How Should Young Adults Deal with Social Media?

It often happens that people are mindlessly scrolling through their Twitter or through their Facebook newsfeed or nowadays use things like Snapshat, YouTube and Netflix videos where you do not even have to press a button to play the next video. It just starts the next episode for you without the need to make a conscious decision.

If you're opening Facebook ask yourself:   Why you want to use Facebook in that very moment?  Do what you wanted to do and then leave Facebook and do something else.

If you’re opening Facebook ask yourself why you want to use Facebook in that very moment? Do you want to connect with a friend? Do you want to communicate with your marching band group or do you want to send a message to your mom?

Do what you wanted to do and then leave Facebook and do something else.

If you are using Twitter you are probably just looking for news or looking for what’s going on in the world. That is fine but it is very easy to get distracted because it refreshes every five seconds. That means you are bombarded with new information, new things to read and to consume basically any time you open it.

That’s extremely addictive and very tempting for people who – let’s face it – in some cases want to avoid the work that they are doing.

Therefore, if you want to use twitter read the most recent article or the most recent spots story that’s going on. Immediately close it afterwards and get back to work. If you need help with this you might want to try an app like Selfcontrol for Mac

if you want to use twitter read the most recent article or the most recent spots story that's going on. Immediately close it afterwards and get back to work.

The goal is to use the computer more intentional because it’s still the place where most work gets done. Put your mobile phone in the drawer and use it as a phone. Instead schedule the times when you want to watch a video on YouTube on Netflix.

What’s the Best Advise If You Struggle with Focus?

The best way to stay focused is to improve your mindfulness so you can be present in that very moment. This works for anxiety and depression as well. Typically, if you are depressed you are sad about something that is happening not where you are right now, maybe you are dealing with the relationship issue or maybe you are dealing with the loss of a job. It does not even have to be a specific trigger sometimes it’s just a generic predisposition.

If you are struggling with depression or anxiety your focus is on the future. You focus on the things that could go wrong and focus on the problems that eventually could happen. You are not thinking about what is happening right now. Instead you are worrying about all these possible problems that you could experience.

If you want to improve your focus and come back to that present moment there are different mindful exercises that help.

My favorite exercise is square breathing.

This is a very simple exercise where you have your focus on your breath.

You inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds and then exhale for four seconds.

That is a very simple initial exercise to test yourself. If you have difficulty with this simple exercise it tells you a lot about your desire to check your phone or your desire to turn on the TV. If you cannot focus on your breath for two minutes you’re in trouble. You will have a really hard time doing your homework or study for an extended period of time if you cannot even focus on your breath for two minutes.

This exercise has a lot of other health benefits as well and is recommended by some experts as the easiest way to increase your willpower.

A Great Complimentary Exercise You Can Do

Another similar exercise is called progressive muscle relaxation. It is a body focused exercise where you alternate between tensing a muscle for five seconds and then relaxing it for five seconds.

Don't let anything slip between the mindfulness exercise and the thing you want to accomplish.

This turns away your focus away from what you might be anxious or depressed or distracted by and on to your body. The other benefits this exercise has is that it will lower your parts and blood pressure. If you are able to bring yourself back to the calm and body focused place you want to go immediately into the activity that you want to be focusing on.

Don’t let anything slip between the mindfulness exercise and the thing you want to accomplish.

Are There Any Tools or Apps That Help Increase Your Focus?

There are a lot of really good mindful meditation apps. The best ones are probably Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer.

There are some advantages and disadvantages to all these apps.

Headspace comes with a very limited free meditations but they use a subscription model.

Calm is free but much more limited to the variation of meditations.

Insight timer is pretty good. It’s basically free and links to a hold variety of mindfulness meditation. Some of these focus on things like anxiety and focus. However, you’ll find somebody focus meditations there as well.

What Are the Biggest Challenges for Someone Who Wants to Overcome Procrastination?

I sometimes struggle with procrastination myself when I have 8 to 10 therapy sessions throughout the day because I have to take a lot of notes. If I don’t do them right in that immediate moment and then I’m left with an hour or more during the notes at the end of the day when I should be driving home.

If you want to beat procrastination you need to recognize that procrastination is avoiding something that you perceive as being uncomfortable or painful.

In case of homework, you don’t want to do it immediately because you had a hard day at school. Or for me as a therapist taking notes, I don’t want to do this immediately because I had an intense conversation with somebody for 50 minutes and would rather like to relax.

It’s okay to feel that way, but you need to remind yourself that by delaying that activity you will have more pain in the future.

Recognize That the Pain Is Not Going Away If You Avoid the Task

I remind myself it’s okay to feel this way but I don’t want to be stuck at the office for another hour at the end of my work day. Therefore, I do it right away even if it does take an extra five or 10 minutes after my session to really finish all that information.

It’s the same thing with homework. Especially when kids come home from school the last thing that they want to do is sit down and do another hour or two of homework because they studied the whole day. Now they don’t want to deal with more frustration, especially when they have access to their friends, to the television and to mobile phone. All these things that are much less painful.

All of us want to avoid this pain of discomfort but ask yourself:

Is that avoidance going to make that pain later easier to deal with?

In most cases the answer is almost always know. For example, in the case of homework they half to deal with that late at night after dinner, when they would rather be going to sleep.

If you want to beat procrastination you need to recognize that procrastination is avoiding something that you perceive as being uncomfortable or painful.

In his book Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely presents some scientific experiments that proof that all of us are really bad at estimating how we feel in the future. This is true even if we conceptually know about this human bias.

How to Avoid Procrastination Even If You Do Not Feel the Pain Right Now?

A good place to start is to remember the story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens where Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by different ghosts of the past the present and the future. After their visits Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man.

You can think about a ghost like this which can tell you how bad things will become in the future if you don’t change your behaviour. You can activate your energy and willpower and in some cases the anxiety might motivate you to procrastinate less.

Picture yourself in that future. For example, I don’t want to be stuck at my office doing notes at nine or 10 at night when I would rather be driving home. Rather I finish them now so I don’t have to deal with that pain and frustration later on.

Are There Any Techniques or Apps to Build Better Habits?

To build better habits and establish a routine and especially to deal with the pain and discomfort even something simple like a Pomodoro timer can be really useful. Often times you overestimate the pain. You think it’s more intense than it really is. Breaking it up with a Pomodoro timer is something that is easier to commit to.

It’s easier to commit to do 10 minutes or 15 minutes of homework as long as you can take a break after that. It’s something you probably can handle because you committed to give yourself the time to check Facebook or twitter or to watch a YouTube clip. Maybe you want to treat yourself with the snake or go to the bathroom. If you convince yourself that you have that break makes the 10 to 15 minutes of work much more achievable.

To help you get started you can use a website blocker like FindFocus. In this app you can create a Pomodoro sequence and block distracting websites or only allow certain websites.

This will help you to commit and stick to you intentions.


For example, you can allow your word processor to practice deep work or do the homework for 15 minutes and then allow five minutes for YouTube video. The best thing is that you commit in advance. That means after five minutes (or whatever you can commit to) the software will block YouTube again and you are forced to go back to work.

What Are the Most Destructive Activities for Mental Health?

The biggest problem for students, especially in terms of anxiety, is the tendency to do what is called catastrophizing.

Let’s imagine you are worried about the homework that you have to do. Suddenly you think if you don’t do the homework right now your grades will go down. Then you will have to do even better on the next exam but you don’t. You worry about failing for the whole semester and you might need to take the class all over again. If you have to take the class again you won’t be able to enjoy your summer. If I’m not able to enjoy my summer I might…

It goes on and on and on…

Catastrophizing thinking cannot only take you away from the activity that you are trying to accomplish. It can make you more and more anxious. If thinking into the future, especially the long-term future, is not motivating you to act it can paralyze you.

It’s something you have to be aware of. You have to catch yourself doing this because a lot of the times we catastrophize is when we plan or organize things.

These activities should reduce our anxiety.

Unfortunately, this is the time when people get into the state where they would rather watch YouTube on Netflix for hours on end.

They don’t want to think about all the things that could go wrong if they don’t do the things they should be doing.

It’s almost like a snowball effect

It’s almost like a snowball effect of things getting worse and worse if we do not pay attention to where negative thoughts can take us.

The first thing you really need to be able to do is to catch yourself when you’re thinking this way. It might be the moment you open Facebook or Netflix.

Look out for any physical signs. A lot of people have unconscious behaviors that they perform when they are anxious or the moment they give in to a distraction.

If you can spot these behaviors you can catch yourself a bit more easily. Oh I just noticed that I’ve opened Facebook again for 10 minutes…

Look Out for negative thoughts

What is bothering me right now?

Or if there’s something I should be doing that I am avoiding?

If you spot these moments, pay attention to your negative thoughts. Are they leading you into the future where browsing Facebook is helping you to avoid that.

Think about something else as soon as you catch yourself.

That’s the moment ideal time to do the breathing technique to become focused on your body or do a mindfulness meditation.

It's almost like a snowball effect of things getting worse and worse if we do not pay attention to where negative thoughts can take us.  The first thing you really need to be able to do is to catch yourself when you're thinking this way. It might be the moment you open Facebook or Netflix.

This will help you to go back to a place where you have the willpower. It will give you the energy to refocus on the work you want to do.

What Influence Does Technology Have on Our Society, Especially in The Western World?

Just yesterday I did the training on bullying with some students where technology is being used to hurt people. Whether it is fake news or just in the way people treat and talk to each other on social media. That is something to be very concerned of.

It’s a big question that technology companies deal with very differently whether it is banning people who break the rules or use hate speech. There does not seem to be a solution yet.

However, on a local level working with schools outside of the technology sphere it is important to work with families and with kids so they understand how to best use technology. It’s important to educate kids starting at a young age how to use technology in a way that is helpful as opposed to getting sucked into the negative stuff that is hurting us.

Especially if we look at the social media feeds of Facebook, Twitter & Instagram it seems everybody has the most awesome life ever. If you look at the bigger picture you see it’s just a polished screenshot of their life.

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Source: Youtube Are You Living an Insta Lie? Social Media Vs. Reality by DitchtheLabelORG Published on Feb 20, 2017

Maybe they cleaned their desk but the room they are sitting in is a complete mess. Of course, they don’t post pictures showing this.

Should We Delete Our Social Media Accounts?

For people who have problems and are dealing with the negative aspects of social media I absolutely told some of my clients to leave Facebook or to leave Snapchat. Instead I recommend to focus more on text messaging where they can be really intentional and communicate with one person at the time.

It’s much easier to have a civilized conversation instead of getting sucked into break group chats or twitter wars where you don’t have any control over the conversation.

Sometimes, five, 10 or 12 kids all gang up against one kid. All day this poor kid is getting notifications from them, being tacked in memes and stuff like that. It can be really hard to leave this problem behind unless it deletes the app.

Ask yourself is the app or the technology use giving you more problems than it is giving you benefits. Take a step back and look at what you really need. If you need to support from their friends find a better way to communicate with them in a way that works for you.

For a lot of people, it’s not social media but news in general that is the problem.

Don’t get caught up in the news cycle

A lot of patience struggle with the news cycle. They are getting racked up watching them for hours on television or seeing it on social media. Of course, there’s plenty of good news out there but you have to really look out for it. For example, you can shape your twitter feed to the positive stuff.

Unfortunately, people’s natural tendency is to pay attention to sensational, scary and dramatic stories which often tend to be really negative. Decide what type of information you want to surround yourself with. Technology has the benefit that you can create whatever you want for yourself.

An even better way than consuming positive stuff is to sit down and create things yourself. Maybe you like to write a novel or do a podcast like this.

Technology makes this really easy. For example, this podcast is hosted on a free app called anchor that makes it really easy to start a podcast.

It’s much more fulfilling to create something them passively consume. Even if it’s a great movie or new season on Netflix.

If you use a social media app like Instagram, use it to enhance your own creativity. Focus on what you can share with the world like pictures of meals that you are making are pictures of you and your friends doing fun stuff.

Have the focus on what you want to contribute positively instead of what you are consuming which is often negative.

Is There A Case Study Or An Example That Sums Up The Interview?

One of my patients had problems and was isolating himself.

A lot of people who have negative mental health issues tend to isolate themselves but they still have access to their phone and their computer and the television. So how much are they really isolating themselves from negative events?

In certain cases, isolating is perfectly fine as long as you stay connected to your family (which this client was).

We found ways for him to interact with the world. For example, he started having video chats playing card games with his family who lives across the country.

He connected with people he knew to play video games online directly interacting with one person that he wanted to interact with. He isolated himself from stressors at school and friends he had conflict with but replaced it with something positive.

Over time this guy found that he had a lot more control over the things that made him happy and the things that caused stress and enhance his anxiety.

For him it’s consistently leading to positive results and positive days and weeks. Even if he is by himself in his dorm room he is still connected with the people he enjoys spending time with.

That’s a great way to use technology.

What Final Insights Can You Share to Improve Mental Health and Get Rid of Procrastination?

It always starts with self-awareness. If you are listening to the podcast or read this blog post these are issues that you care about.

Find a way to track something that is important to you whether you want to improve mood or practice deep work.

Know how much time you spent working and how much time you have been scrolling through -Twitter or watched videos on Youtube and Netflix over the course of the week.

When you have that information whether you use an app like ResueTime for tracking it or a notebook like the Phoenix planner or may the one-page productivity planner use it. 

Review this information and find the small changes that you can make and see what kind of benefit you can experience from that.

Any first step starts with the ability to track data that might lead you to new insights and opportunities to improve yourself.

More Information

Learn more about how you can improve your mental health by listening to Ryan’s podcast TheBest Medicine or

Follow him on Medium @RyanEngelstad or 

Read his answers on quora

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