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How to Use Mindfulness to Stop Procrastination

When procrastination is your default mode, it can have serious implications for your ability to thrive in life. Mindfulness can counter the underlying impulse to put off what you need to do and help you feel better about yourself as a result.

Note: This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions and is not a substitute for consulting with your personal healthcare professionals.

When we feel an unreasonable aversion to doing something we know we’re supposed to do and find any reason to avoid doing it, it’s procrastination.

We’ve all been there: You plan to spend the day working on a big project you’ve been meaning to tackle but instead find yourself doing something completely unrelated, online shopping or scrolling social media, cleaning, taking multiple walks to “clear your head,” and so on.

Situational procrastination is often manageable. Even if you feel intimidated by the task before you or dread doing it—or if you simply just don’t wanna for whatever reason—most of us can usually find a way to motivate ourselves to get it done. Maybe you just need a bit more time to figure out how to approach the project. Perhaps getting through some other to-do list items is what builds the momentum you need in order to tackle this last one. Or, a looming deadline is what it might take to spur you into action.

But when procrastination is a chronic issue, it can have far-reaching consequences, impacting everything from your success at work to your ability to maintain relationships, and from your finances to even being able to take care of yourself as a functioning adult.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

We procrastinate because we want to avoid discomfort. It sounds straightforward, and in a way, it is. When we don’t look forward to something, for any number of reasons, we have a natural tendency to want to put off that experience.

Of course, as adults, we understand that there are times that we all have to do things that we don’t enjoy. Starting is often the hardest part. And sometimes even the thing you least want to do turns out not to be so bad once you just get into it.

There’s also this: When you can finally cross off that dreaded task from your to-do list, it feels totally amazing. The relief you feel is in direct proportion to the amount of energy you free up by having got it done.

But for chronic procrastinators, even reasoned arguments like the above rarely work to motivate. The aversion to uncomfortable or negative feelings is so strong, we’re willing to sacrifice just about anything to avoid them.

  • We may not believe we can succeed.
  • Perhaps we resent having to do the task or believe it’s unfair in some way.
  • The idea of not doing well or being just average might threaten our sense of self-worth.
  • Maybe the avoidance is due to fear: of the process, the outcome, or to something else.
  • We might feel overwhelmed by what we need to do and don’t know how to manage those feelings.

Whatever the driving reason behind it, when it comes to procrastination, the negative emotions triggered by the thing we’re supposed to do overrides more balanced reasoning—even when we’re aware of the consequences. This is why psychologists call procrastination a problem of emotional regulation.

What Are the Risks of Procrastination?

It’s pretty easy to think of ways that procrastinating hurts rather than helps: from myriad consequences of being late, as an example—to an event, on a work deadline, or in filing taxes on time; or postponing something unpleasant but inevitable (think: a health concern or car repairs that will worsen without attention); to the risk of disappointing people who are counting on us.

But procrastination, particularly as a chronic condition, can also be incredibly self-defeating, often resulting in dual consequences of real-world complications as well as feelings of regret, embarrassment, and shame that, over time, chip away at self-esteem.

In fact, scientists believe that low self-esteem is closely linked to chronic procrastination, and that it can be exacerbated by anxiety.

For example, if you lack the confidence that you can do the task before you, it can trigger such anxious feelings that you feel frozen, unable to act. Maybe you tell yourself that if it can’t be “perfect,” it’s not worth doing at all. In other words, you’d rather risk not trying, even being thought of as lazy, than to be “found out”—even to yourself—as falling short on skill, talent, strength, or something else.

This kind of maladaptive reasoning carries its own danger: The more we procrastinate, the greater the risk that we get comfortable with the consequences of doing so, no matter how unhealthy—and the more likely that procrastination becomes a habit that is harder and harder to break.

This highlights another key aspect of procrastination: The short-term pay-off of avoidance can be addictive. There might even be a dopamine hit involved (Yes, I got out of it!), which only further clouds the recognition that, in the long run, our procrastination is going to hurt us.

One study found that procrastination is often justified by a false belief that in the future, we’ll do better. This idealized future-self narrative, researchers explain, offers an illusion that we’re only procrastinating now, but won’t do so later on, even though past and present experience offer little or no proof that anything will actually change to make that so.

How Mindfulness Helps

The underlying mechanisms that fuel procrastination are the very ones that are most helped by mindfulness practices. It’s not a stretch to say that learning how to stay in the present moment and to befriend our emotions may be the best tools any of us can adopt to stop procrastinating.

Through mindfulness, we:

  • Develop self-awareness, which helps us to recognize when we’re feeling triggered by difficult emotions.
  • Strengthen our capacity for focus and concentration, which is helpful when we’re easily distracted or feel bored by something we need to do.
  • Gain access to our executive functioning, which helps us to view a situation with greater clarity and perspective and to strategize the best ways to tackle a problem.
  • Mitigate the stress response, which is triggered by anxious feelings and further complicates our ability to access our higher reasoning when we’re tempted to procrastinate.
  • Tone down the inner critic and instead offer ourselves self-compassion. In fact, researchers propose that fostering a sense of self-kindness and understanding may be the most effective strategy to counter procrastination.
  • Learn to stay in the present moment and to hold space for all of our emotions. When we stop trying to push them away, the intensity of emotions often lessens, allowing us to gain insight on what’s driving them and how to help ourselves.

8 Ways to Help Overcome Procrastination

Practice mindfulness meditation.

A regular mindfulness practice offers many tools that can counter the tendencies that lead to procrastination and also help you manage complex feelings and thoughts when procrastination arises.

Melli O'Brien

Mindfulness With Mental Noting

Meditation · 5-30 mins

Link to a larger goal.

When we can connect smaller tasks to something larger and more meaningful, it can give us the motivation we need even if the task itself feels aversive. You might even write down your larger goal, and refer to it often. For example: finishing a class you find difficult but that you need for your degree program; cleaning out the garage to create space for a workshop; entering your expenses into the spreadsheet so you can begin to build a budget for a downpayment on a home.

Melli O'Brien

Morning Intention Setting

Meditation · 5-10 mins

Get a good night’s sleep.

Poor-quality sleep impacts just about everything, including daytime energy, focus, and self-regulation. Studies show it also has direct correlation with procrastination, particularly among people who struggle with self-regulation in general. Striving for a good night’s sleep is essential when we have projects to get done.

Tara Brach

Relieve Anxiety / Improve Sleep

Meditation · 5-20 mins

Break down any project into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Instead of trying to tackle something you don’t want to do head-on, break it down into more manageable elements you can do in one session. You could even use a timer and commit to working on one part of the task just for the duration of your set time.

Rich Fernandez

How to Bring Mindfulness Into Your Work

Talk · 54 mins

Remove distractions.

If your tendency is to procrastinate, any (and every) distraction will hijack your attention. Set yourself up for success by removing distractions so that you can focus solely on the task at hand. Turn off notifications on your phone and put it in another room or away from you; clear your physical space of clutter; let others know that you don’t want to be interrupted.

Cory Muscara

Distracted by Distractions

Cory Muscara · 5-30 mins

Observe your reactions.

When emotions begin to stir in response to a task you don’t want to deal with, notice them. Take a few centering breaths, and tune in. What’s coming up for you? Maybe even name what you notice aloud, or write it down. I’m feeling nervous. I want to get up and move around. I’m angry that I have to do this. There’s no way I’m going to get this done in time. Without judgment, just notice what’s there.

Melli O'Brien

Four Steps to Work Through Difficult Emotions

Meditation · 5-30 mins

Be kind to yourself. 

There’s a correlation between procrastination and stress and low self-compassion. Instead of beating ourselves up when aversion rises, being kind and understanding offers a far more helpful course of action. There’s a reason why you’re procrastinating—try to listen to yourself with kindness and understanding. You might even put your hand to your heart or make another gesture of support for yourself. This feels hard. It’s OK to be nervous. You’re not wrong for feeling stressed about how to get this done.

Rhonda Magee

STOP for Self-Compassion

Micro Practice · 3 mins

Seek behavioral or cognitive support.

Therapeutic approaches, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, work on managing feelings of stress and anxiety, which may be getting in your way of accomplishing goals and finishing projects.

Rick Hanson

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

Talk · 46 mins

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