How Mindfulness Can Reduce Procrastination
The concept of “beginning again” can help people stop procrastinating.
Posted April 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Research demonstrates that the more mindful we are, the less we procrastinate.
- The three most important words in mindfulness meditation are “simply begin again," and these are key to reducing procrastination as well.
- If we have to begin again and "just get started" a thousand times, that's OK; we will still get our stuff done.
So much is made of mindfulness as a miracle cure or panacea for all things that ail us that I’m somewhat reluctant to add to the chorus of voices singing its praises. Yet the truth as I understand it is that mindfulness is an effective practice to address the needless delay we call procrastination.
Research has certainly provided evidence of a link between mindfulness and procrastination. Correlational studies with self-report questionnaires show that the more mindful we are, the less frequently we report procrastinating. Similarly, a few (some yet unpublished) experimental studies where mindfulness meditation is used as an intervention demonstrate subsequent reductions in procrastination. As a researcher, I see much promise in these data and eagerly await more studies to replicate and test these effects more rigorously.
There’s also research that explores possible mechanisms in the relation between mindfulness and procrastination. For example, in a previous post, I’ve summarized research linking mindfulness to emotion regulation, which I argue is at the heart of procrastination—procrastination is an emotion-focused coping strategy. I summarized research in this area by noting...
“Although research will continue to investigate these links, I think it is intuitively obvious that mindful awareness and acceptance are fundamental first steps in the self-regulation necessary to initiate goal action when procrastination may be the habitual response. 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 more willful attempts to exercise the control necessary to stay the course until the initial emotions pass. I would add that research clearly shows that progress on our goals fuels well-being, so this initial “priming the pump” for action may well be the mechanism by which we move from initially negative to more positive task-related emotions.”
Given these and other studies, it seems clear to me that mindfulness is deserving of even more attention in relation to procrastination. So, as I return to my blog after a rather lengthy hiatus, my intent is to more thoroughly explore the implications of mindfulness practices and how they may help us live more intentionally and reduce procrastination.
In contrast to years of writing in the Don’t Delay blog to date, where I often presented lengthy summaries of research studies and their implications, my upcoming posts will be short reflections on mindfulness-related practices. I will draw on some of my favorite meditation teachers and their writings to bring forward concepts central to mindfulness, and then I will explain how each is relevant to reducing procrastination, with links to research as relevant. I close today’s post with an example.
As I noted in the subtitle of this post, mindfully “beginning again” is central to overcoming procrastination. For those of you who are acquainted with mindfulness training, “begin again” is a key phrase. In fact, Joseph Goldstein, eminent meditation teacher and a co-founder of Insight Meditation Society, says that the three most important words in mindfulness meditation are “simply begin again.”
For example, when we sit focused on our breath, we realize very quickly that our attention wanders. Often this happens in seconds (it certainly does for me), and we can get lost in a train of thought without awareness. However, at some point we typically “wake up” to the fact that we’re no longer focused as intended. The moment we recognize that we are no longer focused on the breath, Joseph teaches us that we can actually delight in that moment of awareness rather than judge ourselves for having been lost. It’s in this moment that we renew our focus and “simply begin again.”
The parallels are obvious for me, as they may be for longtime readers of my blog. For years, I have argued that the three most important words for overcoming procrastination are “just get started.” In fact, it was the topic of my second blog post back in 2008! The thing is, we may often need to “just get started” over and over again. This is the spirit of “simply begin again” that was inherent to my mantra of “just get started,” but I have never made explicit enough.
What I think is most important to realize is the delight that Joseph speaks of with the moment of awareness that we are no longer on task, no longer focused as intended. In fact, in her guided meditations, renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg explains that the moment you realize you’ve been distracted is “...the magic moment, because that’s the moment we have the chance to be really different, not judge ourselves, not put ourselves down, but simply let go and begin again.”
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She adds, “If you have to let go and begin again thousands of times, that’s fine. That’s the practice. That’s the training. Just one breath at a time.”
Ultimately, one of the things we learn through meditation is that there isn’t a gap between the cushion and the rest of our lives. Where Joseph argues that the three most important words in mindfulness meditation are “simply begin again,” I want to add that these are the three most important words for overcoming our procrastination as well.
As we struggle throughout the day with our procrastination, when we recognize that we are caught up in thinking, ruminating, worrying, and trying to plan our escape instead of engaging in our intended task, we can acknowledge this without judgment and simply begin again. We just get started again.
Cheung, R.Y.M. & Ng, M.C.Y. (2018). Being in the moment later? Testing the inverse relation between mindfulness and procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 141, 123-126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.12.015
Pychyl, T.A., & Rotblatt, A. (2007). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for academic procrastination. Paper presented at the biannual conference, Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings, Catholic University of Peru, Lima, Peru.
Schutte, N.S. & del Pozo de Bolger, A. (2020). Greater mindfulness is linked to less procrastination. International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 5, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41042-019-00025-4
Sirois, F.M. & Tosti, N. (2012). Lost in the moment? An investigation of procrastination, mindfulness, and well-being. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 30, 237-248. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-012-0151-y
Teper, R., Segal, Z.V., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Inside the mindful mind: How mindfulness enhances emotion regulation through improvements in executive control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(6), 449-454. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413495869
In addition to the research references above, if you want to begin a meditation practice, I recommend the Ten Percent Happier app by Dan Harris and his team. Although there are many resources for mindfulness meditation, this app is well structured with excellent teachers, including Joseph and Sharon.