Tackling goals—whether at work, at home, or in fitness—can be challenging. But if you take care of the mind, it can help you take care of everything else.
Lots of people have a personal catch phrase. Homer Simpson has, “D’oh!” James Bond has, “The name is Bond, James Bond.” For many years, I feared that mine was, “I’ll get to that later.” I was the self-proclaimed Queen of Procrastination, and I still slip back into my former crown from time to time.
Take writing this very article for example. I was excited to write it and dove immediately into outlining the piece after my pitch was accepted. I blocked off an entire afternoon to compose my thoughts and commit them to paper. I even treated myself to iced coffee from my favorite local café as emotional bribery to get to work. But production quickly came to a screeching halt when I made the mistake of opening Pandora’s box, otherwise known as my computer.
Thirty minutes ticked by as I obsessively refreshed my Facebook feed, catching up on high school acquaintances’ foodie pictures and my great aunt’s favorite inspirational memes. I checked my email account multiple times and opened every piece of junk mail available, studying each message as if it were a sacred scripture. I did some online shopping, caught up on recent news with the Kardashians, and painted my nails while watching YouTube tutorials on how to use InDesign software. Phone calls were made to old friends, new hairstyles were tested, a shower was taken, and many snacks were consumed while my first sentence sat lonely and bored on the page.
Procrastination is a hard habit to break. Tim Urban (who has given a TEDTalk on the subject) explains that the procrastinator’s brain houses the “Rational Decision-Maker” and the “Instant Gratification Monkey.” This monkey thinks only in the present, and constantly harasses the rational person, undermining his self-control. When the monkey takes control, the procrastinator often ventures into what Urban calls the “Dark Playground.” This place is “where leisure activities are not supposed to be happening.” The procrastinator can’t truly enjoy these activities because they know that more important responsibilities are being neglected at its expense. Therefore these activities, like online shopping or checking Facebook instead of meeting an important deadline, are tinged with “guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.”
When the negative feelings grow too extreme, the brain’s “Panic Monster” is awakened to restore mental order. He’s the one that pushes a procrastinator to write an entire thesis in a single night. I know all these three characters very well, and wish we weren’t so closely acquainted. Yet it should be noted that procrastination isn’t all bad. As millennial career coach Beth Kuhel points out, delaying a task allows one to entertain other ideas or options that deviate from the original plan. Leonardo da Vinci was a noted procrastinator who started and stopped work on the Mona Lisa several times before finally completing the piece toward the end of his life in 1519. While delaying progress on his most famous work, he spent his time “dabbling with optical experiments and other distractions [that] turned out to be vital to his originality.”
On the whole, my procrastination hasn’t been as positive for me as it was for da Vinci. I’ve needed to find ways to manage this tendency or risk succumbing to the “Dark Playground” for good. There are many methods to overcome this pesky mental trap, but it’s ridiculously easily to slip back into old behaviors.
Meditation has proven to be my only effective defense against procrastination. Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl argues in his book The Procrastination Puzzle that this habit of delaying tasks “is a self-regulation failure.” He maintains that “effective self-regulation relies on emotional regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness.” Meditating before the undertaking of a major task or project allows me to maintain my focus, rather than slip into the hands of the “Instant Gratification Monkey.” I keep my emotions in check and limit myself from veering off the rational course of action.
This planned mindfulness is a new habit to erase my old process. I’ve given my work cycle more deliberate structure and am in essence attempting to reprogram parts of my thinking. Dr. Pychyl backs this up, saying, “If we can cultivate mindful awareness and acceptance, we can better understand when and why we’re motivated to procrastinate, and this in turn can promote for willful attempts to exercise the control necessary to stay in the course until the initial emotions pass.” During my meditation, I name my blockers to the upcoming task: it seems like too much effort, I lack the skills, I can’t craft a good story—whatever it is, I call it out and move beyond it. Those inhibiting feelings of dread and self-doubt are left behind me as I focus on my strengths and the ability to successfully accomplish my goal.
If I neglect this new pre-project meditation, I slip back into my old habits faster than one-click shopping on Amazon. It is such a vital practice for me, and the difference between the two methods of working with and without it as my first step is truly night and day. Dr. Pychyl claims that mindfulness “may be one of the only entry points available to us to break the cycle of avoidance.” While I love knowing the political opinions that kid from my ninth grade Biology class is sharing on Facebook, I’d much rather finish my work a few hours earlier and celebrate with friends in the real world instead. Meditation has returned so much empty time to my life, all for a few starting moments of intentional thought. Not a bad exchange rate at all.