I’ve recently noticed the juxtaposition of tasks getting harder as they get easier. It’s a strange duality that has been magnified over the past few years. With the introduction of more ways to tackle challenges, we’ve simultaneously introduced more roadblocks that initially seem easy to overcome but require an incredible amount of willpower to do so.
For example, self-education has become readily available to anyone with an internet connection. Companies such as Udemy, Skillshare, Lynda, and Coursera have made it as simple as signing up for a low-cost subscription to receive access to their library of educational content. From coding to writing, you could be learning a new skill in a matter of minutes. So why is it so hard to finish the courses we sign up for?
A study done from June 2012 to June 2013 by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education analyzed a million users across sixteen Coursera courses offered by their university. One of the key findings of this study was that “course completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses and ranging from 2% to 14% depending on the course and measurement of completion.” These are similar findings to another study done by an Open University doctoral student, Katy Jordan, that found that the current average completion rate for massive open online courses (MOOCs) was 15 percent.
What's interesting is that, in most cases, MOOCs are free; the only time you'll find a MOOC provider charging a fee is when a certificate of completion or some other credential is being offered. This means that even when the barriers to entry are simply creating an account, individuals still have a hard time justifying completing a course despite it being offered by a prestigious university.
I believe that this inability to finish courses isn’t because of a boring professor or topic; it’s due to people’s trouble with willfully working on mentally challenging, valuable tasks. I’ve experienced this in my career when attempting to study a new skill as well as have witnessed and heard accounts from colleagues—it’s difficult to sit down and learn.
We find a similar problem in creative endeavors. For example, it’s common for writers to have a tough time completing their daily word count, which is odd because it’s become easier to write. Writing was a profession that used to require using a machine—typewriter—that forced you to type exactly as you intended or else you’d have to manually erase your mistakes. Now we have word processors that can cut, copy, and paste entire essays; however, some writers still find it difficult to write, so much so that they’ve given this condition a name: writer’s block.
To be honest, I did have a bit of writer’s block before beginning this article. But I’ve realized that there’s always a sort of “blockage” whenever you start something moderately difficult (even when starting the difficult task is easy). Once you take action, however, things that were initially obstructing your work tend to become manageable. Still, as simple and beneficial as it is to start something like my writing process—all it requires is opening up a word processor and getting to work—it’s an overall daunting task.
I have to rely on my discipline to get the words on the page. I have to rely on my concentration to think through the ideas and insights I’m trying to convey. And I have to rely on my ability to research so I can create data-backed connections to the points I want to make. My writing process requires just as much (if not more) brainpower as studying.
The problem is that, although it’s become easier to get words on a page, research topics, or study, it’s become more difficult to concentrate and complete valuable tasks. I believe this is mainly due to dopamine-inducing alternatives such as social media, streaming services like Netflix, or gaming. By the time I’ve opened up my laptop, my brain is firing off better, entertaining options. And the worst part is that all these options are readily available on my phone and laptop.
So we’ve hit a point where we’ve simultaneously made both fun, distracting products and serious, beneficial products accessible. You can either spend your money and time binging on a Netflix series or a coding boot camp; it’s completely up to you. And this article is not to judge you if you prefer the former to the latter, but I do want to present to you with an opportunity.
If we take a step back and see the whole picture as opposed to a piece of it, we find that we’ve come to a fork in the road: Take a left and we go down dopamine-filled, consumer lane, or take a right and we go down productive, consumer/producer lane. Every day, we have a choice to become a user of entertaining products or a user/producer of valuable ones because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s never been easier to learn new skills and create things such as an article (and the same can be said for creating other things like websites, films, apps, and software).
It all comes down to your personal goals. But you should know that if you choose the right lane, you’ll find yourself excelling further than a vast majority of society. Let’s go back to the studies mentioned in the third paragraph of this article. If you had completed one of the courses that was being researched by either the University of Pennsylvania or Katy Jordan, you’d be part of the 14 percent or below statistic cited in both studies.
Rather than focusing on the large portion of users that didn’t complete their courses, reverse your focus and you’re now looking at a minority—around 14 percent of participants did complete their courses. Going back to my example of writer’s block, rather than being part of the large group of writers that find themselves with this condition, begin to work and you’ll automatically join a special category. By switching from someone who completes time-wasting activities to someone who completes valuable ones, you’ll enter a small percentage of people who get important things done.
To summarize, it’s become easier to get distracted at the same time that it’s become easier to get valuable things done. It’s easier to study a course and create content in the form of a podcast episode, YouTube video, or article like this; it’s easier to build an e-commerce store, and it’s even easier to read (with a click of a button, I can have a book sent right to my Kindle). However, it’s also easier to binge on social media and streaming services as well as spend hours on some of the fun, addictive games that have come out these recent years.
Watching and experiencing these two lanes get built alongside each other has been interesting. But I’ve noticed a huge opportunity for those who take advantage of the more useful, less-traveled road. Only you can decide which road you’ll take.