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Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem

We all procrastinate, and by and large, we all know the solutions to our procrastination.

I put off writing this article (ironically, I know, and yes I know you’ll put off reading this article) by doing a bunch of smaller tasks, for example. They were less important and I knew it, but they were quick tasks and so easier than writing an article on a tough topic.

Honestly, I know the solutions: clarify what task is most important, clear away everything but this more important task, clarify my motivations for this task, break it down into something smaller and easier if I feel difficulty.

These aren’t hard solutions.

But they don’t work unless you’re aware of what you’re doing.

You can’t step back to clarify what your Most Important Tasks are unless you realize you’re procrastinating in the first place. You can’t break a task into small steps unless you realize you’re dreading the task. You can’t clear away distractions unless you realize you’ve been following the urge to go to these distractions.

Awareness is everything with procrastination. The problem isn’t finding solutions to procrastination — it’s being aware of what’s going on in the first place.

Once we know what’s happening, the fixes are (fairly) easy.

The problem isn’t just being aware of what’s going on — it’s remembering to be aware. This remembering is what mindfulness is about. Too often we forget to be aware.

So let’s talk about the awareness of what’s going on when we procrastinate, and then how to remember

Awareness of What’s Going On

So what’s going on when we procrastinate? Try these:

  • Following urges to distraction. We get the habitual urge to check email or social media or news. Or we get the urge to go to something easier, more comfortable. The urges can be beat if we are aware they’re happening.
  • Dreading hard tasks. Our minds tend to focus on the hard parts of tasks that we’re procrastinating on. Without thinking too much about them, we label these tasks as hard, scary, overwhelming, time-consuming. If we’re aware of this, we can solve each of these problems — hard tasks can be broken into easier ones.
  • Fear. Procrastination is often about fear — fear of failure, fear of success, self-doubts. But we don’t often know that this fear is even there — we just act on the fear. Fears, once we’re aware of them, can be beaten by the light of day. When we see fears out in the open, in the light, we can see they’ve been overblown in our minds. The worst-case scenario of failure is often not that bad when we really think about it.
  • Not being motivated. Lots of times we forget our motivation for doing a hard task. Why are we putting ourselves through this suffering? It’s way easier to put it off and do other “important” things instead. But when we remind ourselves of our motivation, we can focus. So we have to be aware that our motivation isn’t clear, or that we’ve forgotten what that motivation is in the face of discomfort.
  • Not being clear on priorities. What tasks are more important? It’s hard to know when you’re caught up in the flow of things, just doing things left and right, quickly switching between tasks, and so on. Everything seems important. But when we step back and think about what matters most, what will make the most difference in the world and in our lives, we can see what we need to focus on, to make time for. We can’t step back unless we’re aware that we’re getting caught up in less important tasks.
  • Compulsively checking things. Often we compulsively check email, social media, blogs, news sites, etc. We have those tabs open all the time and go and check them every few minutes. Why? What need are we fulfilling? Often it’s a need to be up-to-date on everything, a fear that we might miss something. And often it’s just the temporary pleasure of getting something new in our inboxes, of finding something interesting/pleasurable.

These are some of the more common examples of what’s going on when we procrastinate. But how do we become aware? How do we remember to be aware?

How to Remember

The problem with remembering to be aware is that we get caught up in our moment-to-moment actions. Once we open a computer, for example, a series of habitual responses kicks in and we’re suddenly in the deep end. It could be hours before we come up for air and realize we’ve been procrastinating.

So what we need are a set of tools for remembering.

Here are the ones that tend to work for me:

  1. Recognition of harm. The first thing you need to admit is that the procrastinating is actually doing bad things to you — if we think it’s not a big problem, we won’t take any of the other steps listed below. So what harm is the procrastination causing? Well, it might be stopping you from achieving your dreams or big goals, from pushing your boundaries and learning new things. It might be causing you anxiety, and making your work suffer.
  2. Commitment. Making a commitment to being aware is a great tool for remembering. What kind of commitment? You can write it on a piece of paper and look at it every morning. Or tell someone else about it. Post it on your blog or Twitter. Have someone check on you weekly. Whatever you do, commit as seriously as you can.
  3. Setting intentions. As you start an activity, like opening your email or starting to write something, or even opening your computer or starting your day, pause to think about what your intention is with that activity. Make an intention to be mindful and notice your procrastination. Setting intentions doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll actually achieve what you set out to do, but it helps. And it helps you to learn to get better at that with practice.
  4. Reminders. Every hour or two, have a reminder that helps you to check in to see if your actions match your intention, to remember to be aware of what’s been going on with your procrastination.
  5. Recognize signals. There are signs that you’re procrastinating — anxiety about your tasks, compulsively checking things, a rising urge to go do something other than the present task. These signs might be physical (tightness in your chest, for example) or they might be certain actions (checking email) — but you can learn to recognize them with time. They are flags, waving and telling you that something is going on. Notice the flags, and check in to see what’s going on.

These aren’t things you can master in one day. They take practice, and they take commitment. But if you can solve the mindfulness problem, procrastination becomes a much more manageable beast.

Zen Habits

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Leave Yourself Wanting More
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When You’re Lonely
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It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
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Why We Have Regret
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A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
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How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
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My Month Without a Smartphone
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Fear is the Root of Your Problems
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The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
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I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
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My Month of (Almost) No Internet
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Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
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How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
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How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
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A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
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My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
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Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
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A Year of Living Without
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I Failed
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The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
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Why You Should Write Daily
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A Guide to Practical Contentment
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How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
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How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
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Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
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The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
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Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
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The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
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Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
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15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
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A Vegan Tour of NYC