Monthly Archives: August 2014

  • Why We Procrastinate And How Mindfulness Can Help

    You’re sitting at your desk, you have a task you should be getting on with, but you tell yourself you’ll start it right after you’ve checked Facebook. Or maybe you’re deciding what to eat for dinner, you consider eating something healthy, but then you tell yourself no, you’ll have pizza today and start eating healthier tomorrow. Part of you may know exactly what will happen: that you’ll get stuck on Facebook for the next half an hour, or that you’ve been deciding to “eat healthier tomorrow” for the past two months. Yet, you can’t seem to stop putting things off, even when it’s something you’d quite like to get done. Why is that?

    What Makes Us Procrastinate?

    We may sometimes feel like we know why we’re procrastinating. If we’re in a job we hate, we’d naturally not want to complete our tasks each day. Or if the house needs cleaning but it’s sunny outside, it makes sense that we’d rather go to the beach. However, the fact that some of us procrastinate even when it comes to things we’d like to do, such as joining a dance class, learning a new language or decorating our home, suggests that it’s not so straight-forward. Even when we think we know why we’re avoiding tasks, the real reason may be a little more complex.

    Timothy A. Pychyl, author of ‘Solving the Procrastination Puzzle’ explains that procrastination is in fact a self-regulation failure. When we’re faced with tasks that prompt any kind of negative emotional response, even very subtle feelings of frustration or boredom, and we have low self-regulation, we go into task avoidance mode, i.e. “I’ll do it later” or “I’ll just do this other thing first”. We feel unable to simply sit with our feelings of wanting to do something else, and instead feel that we must constantly act on them.

    Poor self-regulation isn’t just a problem when it comes to getting things done. Procrastinators are also more likely to lie to themselves about how they really feel (for example, “I won’t do this until next week because I work better under pressure”), and are more likely to develop addictions or compulsive behaviours.

    Procrastination is a learned behaviour, not something we’re born with, which means that we can take steps to unlearn this way of coping with unpleasant emotions. Pychyl points out that “effective self-regulation relies on emotion regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness.”

    Mindfulness Helps Us Regulate Emotions

    Ruby Wax describes mindfulness as an “internal weathervane”. This internal weathervane is crucial when it comes to regulating emotions. Without it, we have no hope of even knowing what we are feeling, let alone regulating it.

    Although becoming mindful of this moment right now will bring some instant benefits, it’s only with regular practice that we can fine tune that internal weathervane, helping it become more and more sensitive to the subtle emotions which come and go throughout our day.

    Michael Inzlicht from the University of Toronto sums this up: “Mindfulness as a practice cultivates the ability to maintain focus on the present moment. This present-moment awareness provides sensitivity to sensory cues—like that negative emotional “pang” we might feel when facing an aversive task.”

    In other words, mindfulness gives us the ability to notice when we start feeling uncomfortable, bored, frustrated or even scared by a task. Then, rather than acting on unconscious drives to check emails, have a cigarette or take a trip to the vending machine to distract ourselves, we can kindly acknowledge and accept the feeling, but also make a conscious effort to stay in control. We may not always succeed; lifelong habits are hard to change overnight. But with awareness comes choice; without which we’d have no hope of doing things differently.

    Remember, mindfulness isn’t just about being aware. Compassion and acceptance are equally important. In fact, in a study by Inzlicht and Rimma Teper they concluded that people who were better at controlling their behaviour were probably able to do so because they were “more accepting of their errors and associated conflict.”

    Being a procrastinator might make it difficult to get into a mindfulness meditation practice at first. But that’s okay. If you find that you keep putting it off, for now just try and be aware of your resistance, accept it, and try to notice what feelings arise when you think of sitting down for a few minutes to meditate.

    When you’re ready to start meditating, why not check out this list of free guided mindfulness meditations or check out our upcoming workshops and courses here.

  • The Mindful Way Through An Interview Or Presentation

    When we are facing an interview or a presentation, often what happens is that our minds start to ruminate about what might go wrong. You might have the thought: “I could blush, maybe even stutter, and what if I give terrible answers?!” Often these thoughts lead to yet more anxious thoughts and all those thoughts then lead to the bodily symptoms of anxiety, i.e. sweaty hands, increased heartbeat, faster breathing. Those bodily sensations then might trigger even more thoughts, which lead to more anxious feelings, which lead to more anxious thoughts …! So no wonder our anxiety builds and we end up blushing, stuttering and giving terrible answers!

    In mindfulness we don't try to change those thoughts or try to get rid of the anxious feelings. Instead we train our minds, so that when those thoughts occur we can come back to the present moment – to the here and now. The fact is there's no point in creating an apocalyptic presentation or interview scenario in our heads before the actual event. Why? Because all this ruminative thinking will only make us more anxious!

    But how do we train our minds? By practising mindfulness on a daily basis. By doing so, we strengthen our ability to catch our minds when they drift off into ruminative thinking and gently escort them back to the present. Over time, we become so skilled at this, that it only takes a few seconds to notice when we've drifted – we have become the master of our mind.

    Mindfulness also teaches us to turn towards uncomfortable bodily feelings (i.e. anxiety). After all, anxiety is a natural feeling – especially when we face an interview or a presentation! But humans have the tendency to want to push things away that feel uncomfortable. However, it does not help to do this. As mentioned, anxiety is a natural part of human life. Thus if all we want for 'it' is to go away, then we will actually not really get to know it. The interesting thing is that once we start observing our symptoms of anxiety, we will notice that our anxiety is simply that – anxiety: increased heartbeat, sweaty hands, etc. What makes anxiety so bad is all the ruminating thoughts around it, which lead to the vicious cycle of more and more anxious thoughts and feelings.

    Let's imagine you have a presentation or interview tomorrow. Someone who practices mindfulness will notice thoughts popping up, such as “I could blush, maybe even stutter and what if I give terrible answers?!” They might also observe bodily feelings of anxiety arising. However, they will soon catch their anxious thoughts and bring their attention back to the present moment, where there actually is no real threat. They will also turn curiously towards and observe their bodily feelings of anxiety, i.e. Exactly how fast is my heartbeat? Where in my body can I feel it? Only in the region of my heart or does it even spread out into my fingers? If we approach our anxiety in a mindful way, it will loosen its grip over us with time and practice.

    Now imagine that if you don't spend all your time on what could go wrong and on trying to make your feelings of anxiety go away, you'll have loads of time to actually prepare yourself for the upcoming event! But don't forget: even the most experienced mindfulness practitioner will at times get anxious thoughts arising during an interview or a presentation. But he/she has the mindfulness skills to come back to the here and now – the presentation he's/she's holding or the interview he/she is giving – and that will make the likelihood of stammering, blushing and giving terrible answers a lot smaller!