Mindfulness Meditation: Thoughts on Paying Attention

Want to defeat procrastination? Pay attention.

Posted Apr 09, 2008

This past summer, Ariel Rotblatt and I used videoconferencing technology to join colleagues in Peru for our biannual international conference on "Counseling the procrastinator in the academic context." With my wife in her third trimester, this technology was the only way I was getting to the conference. What a year to miss!

Ari and I presented his thesis research on mindfulness meditation and procrastination. Ari had set up an ambitious intervention study using mindfulness meditation as the "treatment" and a couple of control or comparison groups. Over 6 weeks, his participants practiced mindfulness meditation and he did pre- and post-measures of procrastination to determine its effectiveness. The details aren't important for the blog (you can hear more about this on my podcasts (see or go to iProcrastinate Podcasts on iTunes). What matters most is the research that got Ari thinking about mindfulness meditation as a route to dealing with procrastination. This research may help you see procrastination a little differently.

Here's the argument in a nutshell based on the psychological research (notably by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues):

  1. Procrastination is a form of self-regulatory failure (this is a prevalent view of researchers, and it fits with all explanations of procrastination, although the cause of the regulatory failure itself is debated, e.g., whether it's something like discounting future rewards, fear of failure, a personality trait or living in bad faith).
  2. Self-regulation is the process whereby systems maintain stability of functioning and adaptability to change. It's based on feedback loops.
  3. Self-regulation failure is largely a problem of under-regulation. We fail to regulate and maintain the feedback loop.
  4. Most models of the cognitive control of behavior through feedback begin with noticing a change that needs to be regulated in the system. These models begin with attention to the system.
  5. Therefore, loss of attentional control is a common harbinger of self-regulatory failure.

Finally, as Baumeister & Heatherton (1996) write, "Over and over, we found that managing attention was the most common and often the most effective form of self-regulation and that attentional problems presaged a great many varieties of self-regulation failure. . . The effective management of attention was a powerful and decisive step, and self-regulatory failure ensued when attention could not be managed."

In sum, Baumeister and his colleagues argue that attention works in a number of ways, including "transcendence." Transcendence is a matter of focusing awareness beyond the immediate stimuli (i.e., transcending the immediate situation). For example, you can see the present situation (there is a big piece of chocolate cake) in the context of more distal concerns (I'm trying to lose 5 pounds). Transcendence works in a few ways including delaying gratification, taking the focus off immediate negative emotions and even harnessing emotions like guilt to call attention to distal outcomes (losing that 5 pounds!).

So, with attention as his focus Ari's next question was "How can we facilitate the management of attention?" To answer this question, he turned to a different research literature, one related to meditation.

Using the work of Shapiro and colleagues (among others), Ari moved towards mindfulness as a means of managing attention, as the cultivation of nonjudgmental attention is posited to lead to "connection" which in turn leads to self-regulation. He also found research that demonstrated that people who score higher on measures of mindfulness (e.g., I am open to the experience of the present moment, I sense my body, whether eating, cooking, cleaning or talking, When I notice an absence of mind, I gently return to the experience of the here and now) reported significantly greater self-regulated behavior.

I know if Ari were telling you this story, he would start by explaining how he has meditated for years, and he knew the power of training our "monkey mind" from personal experience. The research he summarized is just another epistemological approach to this knowledge claim. In any case, Ari's experiences and his research brought him to the same place from which he defined his experimental method clearly.

Six weeks was a very short time to conduct this study. Engaging in self-directed mindfulness meditation over 6 weeks simply isn't a great deal of time to see benefits from the meditation, particularly with students as research participants. The time was constrained by the reality of the term, and of course, it affected his results overall.

He did find that scores on the mindfulness measures correlated negatively with all of his measures of procrastination. The more mindful we are, the less we report procrastinating.

He did not, however, demonstrate that the mindfulness meditation made a difference. Although there are many other studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on health, well-being and countless other outcomes, the effect on this particular form of self-regulatory failure, procrastination, awaits future research.

Despite the shortcomings in this first study, I know Ari would still recommend mindfulness meditation as a route to attentional control. He's not alone. John Kabat Zinn is a popular advocate of mindfulness meditation for stress reduction and improving well being. If you want to learn more, his work would be a good place to start (check out the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts).

Baumeister, R.F,, & Heatherton, T.F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 1-15.

Shapiro, S.L., Carlson, L.E., Astin, J.A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373-386.