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.

Leave a Reply