• 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.

     

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  • 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.

     

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    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!

     

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  • Not Wanting To Be Here, Now

    -- If you’re thinking about suicide or need someone to talk to, help is available. Please call the Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK), The National Suicide Prevention Lifelife (US) on 1-800-273-8255, or find a suicide helpline in your country via IASP or Suicide.org --

     

    Many of us, at some stage of our lives, have experienced a feeling of not wanting to be here anymore. This may have been triggered by a traumatic event which caused painful feelings and thoughts we’ve wanted to escape from, or we may not be able to link it to any one reason in particular – it’s just a general sense of discomfort or pain that we’d rather not experience.

    Bringing focus and acceptance to these thoughts and feelings may at first feel counter-intuitive. Accepting the fact that we don’t want to be here, or that someone we care about has expressed such a feeling, may feel dangerous and challenging. There are certain corners of our minds which seem too dark and scary to look at.

    However, studies have shown that mindfulness can be used to not only help people after suicide attempts or suicidal urges, but can also offer significant preventive effects too.

    It’s More Common than You Think

    Despite increasing awareness and understanding of mental health issues, suicide is still a taboo subject, and many of us don’t like to talk about it. We don’t want to bring other people down or worry them, we don’t want to look like a ‘failure’, and we don’t want to look ‘crazy’.

    The truth is that suicidality affects people from all walks of life, and is increasing in frequency. It not only occurs in people with psychiatric diagnoses, but also in people with no diagnosable conditions at all. So there is really nothing ‘abnormal’ about suicide. Finding life difficult to bear is actually a common ground which many of us share.

    Experiential Avoidance

    A number of studies have directly linked the desire to avoid negative or unwanted thoughts, feelings, or sensations with suicidality. Our unwillingness to accept and allow emotions such as anger, sadness or guilt can result in us feeling we need an escape from them.

    A study by Baumeister (1990) found that the majority of suicide notes expressed the person’s need to escape from emotional pain as the reason for ending their life. When we don’t know of any other way to ease that pain, suicide can start to look like the only effective solution.

    Mindfulness is the antidote to experiential avoidance, because far from exacerbating difficult feelings, it helps to ease their weight. In the same way a distressed child needs a loving hug, our painful emotions need loving acceptance.

    Compassionate mindfulness enables us to step out of dangerous avoidance. By journeying through our pain, with clarity and acknowledgment, we stop needing to run away from it. Facing it becomes the escape we crave; only this way we are able to continue our lives.

    This principle of acceptance is just as important in the aftermath of a suicide or suicide attempt. When a loved one takes their own life, or tries to, we find ourselves dealing with a range of difficult emotions.

    Anger, guilt and regret are common reactions, including when it’s ourselves who have made an attempt. We may feel enormous guilt at causing pain to our family and friends, or we may feel guilt for feeling angry at someone for putting us through that pain. It’s a difficult time for everyone involved, and we are likely to feel many conflicting emotions.

    Mindfulness helps us stay connected to us each other during these painful times, provides a much-needed anchor to the reality of the present moment, and will make the healing process easier and more rapid.

    It doesn’t necessarily mean we share our every thought with others – that may not be appropriate – but taking the time to breathe, to compassionately acknowledge our own emotions without feeling attached to them, or creating stories about what they mean about us, will allow those feelings to arise and fade naturally within us.

     

    The Mindfulness Project runs a range of courses and workshops. Please note, these are not suitable if you are currently experiencing a mental health breakdown.  

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  • Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing

    Wouldn’t it be lovely to be happy all the time? Waking up with a big grin on our faces, bouncing out of bed and skipping into work every morning for a whole day of joy and laughter.

    Unfortunately, our minds aren’t designed like this. However naturally positive we are, it’s impossible to be in a state of constant pleasure all of the time. Our brains have evolved to preempt possible threats (a leftover from when our ancestors were struggling to survive in a dangerous world) and, sophisticated though they have become, still have a tendency to act like Velcro for the bad stuff and Teflon for the good.

    There will always be times when we are fearful, angry, bored or sad; and depending on our upbringing or genetics, some will experience these feelings more than others. The challenge arises when we do not welcome and accept these natural human tendencies and instead try compulsively to shut them out or make them go away.

    In the attempt to be happy, many of us try all sorts of ways to avoid uncomfortable feelings. For example, when sitting in the car in a traffic jam, we might turn on the radio or start texting a friend - anything to avoid potentially feeling bored or irritated.

    In a more extreme example, we might turn down an interview for a dream job because we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we might be anxious or embarrassed.

    As well as trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings, many of us also chase after enjoyable ones, such as pleasure and excitement. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to hold on to these feelings of happiness, they will, at some point, change or slip away.

    When inevitably they do, we leave ourselves open to disappointment or despair, or a neverending quest for the next high. In fact, as Russ Harris in 'The Happiness Trap' writes: "The harder we chase after pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression".

    So where do we go from here? Mindfulness-based approaches work on the belief that true wellbeing comes when we learn not to avoid uncomfortable feelings or chase after happiness, but to accept what is. By observing our minds and bodies, and how they react to situations, we practice a kind of self-awareness that allows us to be with challenging thoughts or feelings without allowing them to erode our quality of life.

    So if we’re sitting in the car and notice thoughts and feelings of boredom or loneliness, instead of trying to distract ourselves, we can consciously turn towards these sensations with an attitude of non-judgemental friendly curiosity.

    We might ask ourselves: What exactly is my mind’s reaction to this situation and what kind of feelings do I experience in the body? Instead of immediately grabbing the phone to send a text, we can become mindfully aware of the arising thoughts and feelings and then make a conscious choice of whether we want to check the phone or instead be with what is.

    The more we practice this, we learn to respond in a more mindful and attentive way to unpleasant experiences, accepting them as just thoughts and feelings that will, as with everything in life, pass away. By noticing and accepting as they arise and pass, we reduce their pull over us. We learn to 'welcome everything and push away nothing'.

    Developing this mindfulness skillpower will mean we don’t have to go through life desperately trying to avoid challenging situations or chasing an impossible dream of constant happiness. It means we can have a choice of how we want to approach the circumstances we find ourselves in... and this will ultimately lead to a richer and more meaningful life.

     

    Learn more about mindfulness on a course or workshop. 

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  • Stories Like These ...

    Depending on what we have experienced in our early childhoods, we hold certain beliefs about ourselves and the world and these ‘stories’ then become firmly established as we grow up. As an adult, we may, for example, hold the belief that bad things are going to happen to us, so (perhaps without realising) avoid tricky situations or anything that might present a risk.

    Or we may believe everybody will eventually abandon us or let us down, causing tensions in our relationships or even a tendency to avoid getting close to others. We all have such painful 'Achilles Heels' - our soft spots that can hold us back in life or even cause us suffering if we believe them to be true.

    A psychologist called Jeffrey Young of Columbia University has identified 18 themes - what he calls personal ‘schemas’ - that can help us recognise our sore points.

    While reading through them, you might try bringing a mindful awareness to the thoughts and physical sensations you experience when you come across ones that you identify with. Try not to judge yourself or beat yourself up, but just kindly observe any physical reactions you have to the thoughts.

    Abandonment / Instability: My close relationships will end because people are unstable and unpredictable.

    Mistrust / Abuse: I expect to get hurt or be taken advantage of by others.

    Emotional Deprivation: I can’t seem to get what I need from others, like understanding, support and attention.

    Defectiveness / Shame: I’m defective, bad, or inferior in some way that makes me unlovable.

    Social isolation / Alienation: I’m basically alone in this world and different from others.

    Dependence / Incompetence: I’m not capable of taking care of myself without help on simple tasks and decisions.

    Vulnerability to Harm / Illness: Danger is lurking around every corner, and I can’t prevent these things from happening.

    Enmeshment / Undeveloped Self: I feel empty and lost without guidance from others, especially from people like my parents.

    Failure: I’m fundamentally inadequate (stupid, inept) compared to my peers and will inevitably fail.

    Entitlement / Self-centeredness: I deserve whatever I can get, even if it bothers others.

    Insufficient Self-control /  Self-discipline: I have a hard time tolerating even small frustrations, which makes me act up or shut down.

    Subjugation: I tend to suppress my needs and emotions because of how others will react.

    Self-sacrifice: I’m very sensitive to others’ pain and tend to hide my own needs so that I’m not a bother.

    Approval-seeking / Recognition-seeking: Getting attention and admiration are often more important than what is truly satisfying to me.

    Negativity / Pessimism: I tend to focus on what will go wrong and mistakes I’ll probably make.

    Emotional Inhibition: I avoid showing feelings, good and bad, and I tend to take a more rational approach.

    Unrelenting Standards / Hypercriticalness: I’m a perfectionist, am focused on time and efficiency, and find it hard to slow down.

    Punitiveness: I tend to be angry and impatient, and I feel people should be punished for their mistakes.

    Once you’ve identified the two or three schemas that are most resonant for you, see if you can notice when they reveal themselves in your life. You might find noticing them easier if you have a think beforehand of how these schemas manifest for you - the kind of thoughts, emotions and behaviour they trigger.

    Then, when those schemas or beliefs appear, see if you can recognise them for what they are: simply stories swirling around our heads. And although these stories might at times feel very real and can bring us much suffering, they might not always be true.

    Do also remember that we all hold such beliefs and can therefore suffer at times. So don’t judge yourself for having them; instead, when they show up, be kind to yourself. By recognising the stories as simply stories and by holding them in a loving space, they will eventually loosen their grip.

     

    Learn more on a mindfulness courses or workshops.

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  • Random Acts Of Mindfulness

    Some of the most simple activities - from having a beer to taking a shower - can give us opportunities to develop our practice. Another way to develop mindful awareness is to bring a bit of the ‘random’ into our lives and see if it gives us a new perspective...

    Now, we aren’t suggesting that you should stop that daily shower (those close to you will not thank you for that!) but by doing things differently or trying something new, we can naturally become more mindful and present. So, using the shower example, you could use a different hand to grab the soap than you do normally, take a bath, or even take a short, brisk walk before you start your morning routine.

    Mark Williams and Danny Penman, in their bestselling book ‘Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World', suggest these ‘habit releasers’ as a way of cultivating our innate curiosity and awakening the ‘child’s mind’ in us. We open up the opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes, finding joy in unexpected places. By breaking free from tradition, and the daily routines we go through (often unconsciously), we can also potentially free ourselves from any negative thinking patterns we might be stuck in.

    Even tiny changes can make a big difference. Here are a few suggestions…

    Change up the commute: Take a new route to work or to somewhere else you go to regularly. You may discover a whole new part of town (or, admittedly, you may get very lost as I did when I was trying it the other day!).

    Play musical chairs: If you have a set place that you sit every day, whether in the office, on the bus or at the dinner table, try somewhere else and see what the world looks like from your new perspective!

    Talk to a stranger: Instead of buying your groceries and counting out your money in silence, why not strike up a conversation with the person on the check-out or behind you in the queue, or the person sitting next to you on the bus? In London, we can see the same people every day without ever even acknowledging their existence. Who knows what you might have in common?

    Go for a wander: As Penman and Williams say, having a good walk, “can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves.” Even if you’re walking a route you go regularly, see if you can see it with new eyes. Take in the little details, the sounds and the smells. Feel the sensations of walking in your feet and your legs, and the air on your face.

    Do a random act of kindness: Bake a cake for an elderly neighbour, stop and have a conversation with a homeless person, send a handwritten letter to an old friend, leave a good book that you’ve finished reading on the bus with a note in it to whoever finds it... There are countless ways we can do something for someone else, just for the sheer joy of giving.

    You could choose a different habit releaser each week, try it every day and note how it makes you feel, whether it brings up new thoughts or emotions. Who knows what exciting new landscapes await!

     

    Find out about our courses and workshops, guided by our experienced mindfulness teachers.

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