Beating the Procrastination Habit

“Prodigality of Time, produces Poverty of Mind as well as of Estate.” - Benjamin Franklin

Chronic procrastination is the type of procrastination that occurs often and becomes an impediment to leading a healthy life. While all humans procrastinate to some degree or another at least occassionally (after all, we can’t be doing all of the things we’d like to at any given moment), chronic procrastination is the particularly nasty kind of avoidance which can cause us to miss deadlines, lose jobs, and which imposes a heavy tax on loved ones and relationships.

Ever since I can remember I have struggled with this kind of procrastination. In grade school, I would wait until the last possible moment to begin my homework (or just ignore doing it at all). In college the story continued, and I recall multiple occasions when 3AM would come around before starting work on an essay due in six hours. When I found my first big job, I would spend lots of my workday reading news or clicking through Wikipedia instead of working through the important business of the day.

I knew I had a problem, and all through this time I was a voracious reader of the popular self-help and pop-psychology literature on the lookout for solutions. One of my choice procrastination-management techniques was to search around the web for productivity hacks. However, this approach proved to have shortcomings. After a period of progress gained from implementing a chosen technique, I would often flop into a state of self-indulgent habitual procrastination again. These steps backward would often cause me to feel guilt or disappointment. After years of trying anything I could to overcome it, I still hadn’t beaten it. Procrastination seemed to be a permanent fixture of my mind, a defect that I could never escape. I now know that the problem I was continually grappling with was a lack of awareness about the true nature of my enemy enemy. I had thought that procrastination was something that came standard issue as part of the human operating system. Perhaps I was a bit more prone to the tendency to delay the important, but surely I just needed to find the right mental key to solve my problem. Instead, what I learned through reading is that chronic procrastination is a habit, a patter of the mind, just like chain smoking is.

What was the significance of this rather modest realization? Procrastination must be dealt with through a regimen of de-programming the deep tendencies which have been accumulated over time. It’s no use trying to paper over the problem by introducing new productivity systems, the basic underlying problem remains the same. Although you may get a boost for awhile from trying a new tactic, the power of your old ways will eventually tear through your fresh facade. For me, my procrastination habit was the prime impediment to having a satisfying work life, and productivity more generally, so it was worth taking some time to root it out and defeat it.

How did I approach the solution that ended up working? I learned everything I could about it. I learned that procrastination was an avoidance response designed to avoid encountering stress. In my case, through repeated exposure, the response had grown stronger and more automatic over time. In order to learn more about how to defeat my procrastination habit, I began to observe it. I noted when it occurred, and what it felt like. I noticed my body and posture when I did the kind of work that I was avoiding, and I noted that I was often stressed or feeling unpleasant, and that these feelings often manifested bodily. I didn’t keep a journal or anything, but I did pay special attention for a few days.

After this period of observation, I practiced being with the feelings that procrastination elicited, mindfully noting them, and letting them dissolve. Oftentimes the feelings would soften, but wouldn’t go away. When this occurred, I would often find myself deep in the old rut again with my avoidance behaviors. In light of these setbacks, which were numerous, I fell back on the power of old-fashioned positive thinking. Instead of brooding over failures, I focused on the progress I’d made in such a keystone skill of my life. The fact that I was working on the big problem that continued to hold me back time and time again fueled me to continue.

With my new mindful acquaintance with procrastination, I set to work on debugging my own mental software. I had noted that I would often procrastinate on tasks that I actually enjoy doing, and through some reading found that this was not unusual. It takes a solid chunk of time for the mind to focus its efforts on the project at hand, and this period of transition can be quite effortful, and thus unpleasant. Much like someone who enjoys swimming, but hates the shock of the cold water on the initial plunge, I would often marvel at how I was holding myself back from the activities that I enjoyed simply because I was afraid to dip my toes in. The solution was to gradually reframe the transition process from one that evoked visceral unpleasant feelings to one that felt like I was a monk preparing himself with determination and focus to undertake the meditation of the day. I added a simple ritual to cement this state of mind where I would play some white noise to block out distractions and encourage greater focus, make sure that I had a clear, manageable next task to work on, take 3 breaths to calm any pangs of anxiety I might be feeling, and then say to myself:

“By my will alone, my mind becomes a mountain. No matter how the winds howl, the mountain does not move.”

Then I set to work. This mantra has helped me to set the mood for the moment, and because it evokes positive mental states of determination and focus, it has helped me dissolve my previous procrastination response and reprogram it with feelings that are more conducive to action. The experience became a demonstration of my own inner skill to myself, as if I was daring myself, “Prove that you have the courage to take the plunge.” Nowadays, I only use this ritual occassionally, but it was critical in helping me overcome my chronic difficulties with procrastination. For those reading this with the intention to pick up some things to try themselves, please note that you will likely have to tailor the ritual to your own situation. The key parts are the noticing of what your habit feels like in your body and mind, and then crafting ways to defuse the negative emotions, by substituting them with more positive ones.

You might be thinking that the sum total of the preceding advice amounts to little more than a bit of mindfulness, and a bit of “suck it up and do it”. You’d be correct for thinking this. The banality of procrastination’s required solution, is precisely what makes it such a fiendish enemy, and precisely what has made it my enemy for years. Until I realized that procrastination was a bad habit that had been worn deep into the grooves of my mind through repeated exposure I couldn’t properly defeat it. Thinking that such a powerful force would require an equally powerful remedy, I searched for and tried dozens of productivity hacks, most with little progress. In the end, what getting serious about the nature of my enemy and doing the simple but hard work of rewriting the procrastination habit.