How to use mindfulness to stop procrastinating

You’ve had the same few things on your ‘to-do’ list for weeks, your inbox is piling up and the mountain of work you’ve meant to get started on keeps on growing. Sound familiar? You may be suffering from the all-too-common plight of procrastination. Not only does procrastination worsen stress and anxiety, but it generally feeds into making us feel unhappier with life in general. Procrastination can be caused by a lack of motivation and can also help us to feel unmotivated. It is a vicious cycle of leaving things because they seem like too much of a burden, which further worsens the issue, creating even more of a load on our minds and lives in general. Short-term procrastination on completing tasks makes them all the more difficult in the future, when we may feel more time-pressured and stressed. Rather than taking the first step in working on an important task, we fill our time with trivial, meaningless and often time-wasting substitutes. This may feel like we are doing ‘something’, but really, we would have been better off perhaps not doing anything at all. We may get caught up in the worry that we are not doing ‘enough’, yet at the same time feel too overwhelmed to start into what really needs to be done, and so we end up doing the things which may not have even needed to be done in the first place. So why do we find it so difficult to get started on important tasks and why do we so often fall into the procrastination trap? To answer this, we must understand that very often, people are too caught up in their own minds and thoughts to be able to think clearly and rationally, particularly in times of stress or worry. There are often more trivial reasons why people may procrastinate, such as distractions and other time- consuming habits.

Social media and procrastination

The rise of social media means that many people now feel it is normal to pick up their phone over 100 times a day, spending an average of three and a half to four hours a day scrolling. This in and of itself is a huge distraction, and as we cannot predict what we will see on social media, it may be upsetting or cloud our thoughts, affecting our mood and the ability to concentrate for the rest of the day. The amount of time spent on social media can also affect how we think and feel – about ourselves, others and about what we are doing with our lives, to an alarming degree. In recent years, scientists have started to make the connection between too much time on social media and increased negative feelings. ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ is a much-used phrase, and still holds true in society today, where we are obsessed with scrolling and portraying only the selected highlights of our lives as reality. Studies show that limiting your time on social media can significantly reduce such negative feelings. Limiting your time on your phone and social sites can also practically free up your time as well as your headspace, which in turn helps with the problem of procrastination. Being mindful of how and where we spend our time during the day is the first step to understanding how we can beat procrastination and be more productive on a day-to-day basis.

Why we procrastinate?

As opposed to subconsciously becoming distracted, psychologists argue that procrastinators may, in fact, seek out distractions. This adds another, far more complex layer to the ‘problem’ of procrastination. It has been suggested that procrastination may accompany issues relating to self-control. Rather than the common misconception of procrastinators as being lazy, psychologists suggest that perfectionists are often a large proportion of so-called procrastinators. Perfectionists often feel it is better not to do something than to do it imperfectly, so things often get pushed away rather than being dealt with at an early stage. Dismissing goals as a result of the side-effects of procrastination can lead to negative feelings. As procrastination causes us to leave things to the last minute, work which has piled up can worsen anxiety. From here, it is easy to fall into a downward spiral of feeling behind, worrying about the future, and then pushing it away again rather than tackling any small part of it.

But what about those of us who feel we procrastinate things we feel we enjoy? Even joyful tasks can be procrastinated. Why is this? Psychologists answer this by saying it is as a side-effect of poor self-regulation. When we have poor self-regulation, we go into task avoidance mode when we feel any kind of negative emotion toward a task. Combined with perfectionism, this is a perfect recipe for an expert procrastinator. Mindfulness can help to break such negative thought patterns before the avoidance cycle kicks in.

Mindfulness for procrastination

Becoming mindful of the present moment is a powerful thing, which is largely underestimated. With regular practice, this simple tool can become alarmingly effective in helping us to notice when we start to become bored, negative or pessimistic towards an event or thing. Even this acknowledgement within ourselves goes some way towards lessening the power it holds over us. Recognizing that our thoughts or feelings about something are simply an automatic response, allows us to choose to respond in a more rational, objective way. We can question why we are feeling a certain way, rather than getting wrapped up in the emotion that goes along with such thoughts.

Acceptance is also a key part of this process, as is compassion towards both ourselves and others. Perfectionists are often extremely critical in their views, as they are likely to speak to themselves critically. Unbeknownst to themselves, this can cause problems down the line as they may become overly pessimistic and closed off if their inner critic is not acknowledged and rationalised from time to time. Mindfulness is a simple place to start for the mind of the procrastinator. While it may seem difficult at first, a dedicated two or three minutes regularly can go a long way in providing the long-term benefits afforded by meditation practice.
If you want to learn how to start with mindfulness you can go to our article here.

Accepting negative feelings

Using mindfulness to help with procrastination problems essentially means accepting what you are feeling, right now. Pushing such feelings away (through procrastination) is merely an avoidance of negative emotions. Sure, no one wants to suffer or feel negative feelings. It is unpleasant and uncomfortable. However, it is also a necessary part of life and of growth in general. Nothing good ever grows from comfort zones, and to improve and move forwards, we must accept that feeling uncomfortable is ok. We can feel negative feelings, accept them, and move through them, rather than always running away from them. Because at some time or another, they are bound to catch up with us. It is better to face the music head-on, and deal with feelings as soon as they are noticed. This way, they are more manageable, and we often end up feeling better about ourselves too, just knowing that we have conquered whatever feat was standing in our way, no matter how small.

Oftentimes we underestimate ourselves. Just think about a time when you felt you absolutely could not do something; maybe it was a presentation, an exam, or some other impending event that made you want just to run away. Once completed, we often look back and laugh at ourselves, at how dramatic we were and how the task was quite simple once we just got on with it. We may even feel a slight sense of joy or even euphoria upon achieving something we had been so worried about. Procrastination and the negative feelings that go with it can be associated with the most menial tasks to the toughest challenges. The point is, we must learn how to accept that we may not always feel great about such tasks, to begin with, and that it is better to start than to not try at all.

The mindful way forward

Although seemingly simple, being mindful takes a conscious and dedicated effort, to achieve maximum benefits. This is particularly true for dealing with procrastination as this requires a high level of honesty with ourselves, which is often quite challenging to do. Being mindful of our feelings in the present moment can help us to understand our reactions to events or things in the future. From this point, we can then make the right decisions about what our next course of action should be. We learn to separate ourselves from our own thoughts and emotions, lessening their power over how we react. We feel empowered and in control in terms of how we will behave or respond to a stressor. This is a uniquely empowering technique which can prove useful in nearly every aspect of life, from the most trivial tasks to big decisions or life events. How we choose to act in the face of a challenge sets the tone for how we overcome it. Putting such tools to work in beating procrastination is an excellent way to start facing up to our challenges head-on, in a mindful and balanced way.

Filipe Bastos

About the author

Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy). I've spent the last seven years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology. I've found that besides the known benefits meditation can bring to our lives, such as reduced stress and anxiety, improved quality of sleep, decreased blood pressure; the greatest benefit of meditation is the possibility to feel at peace, despite the external circumstances of our lives.

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