On college campuses across the country, ‘tis the season…to procrastinate. Mindfulness offers a strategy to get moving.
It’s that time of year again, final’s week at many of the colleges around the country; the time when a semester’s worth of procrastination finally kicks you in the butt. For the lucky student, awareness that she has reached the bitter end will catapult her into efficient activity that allows her to complete all the necessary tasks on time. The less lucky student may find himself trapped in a paralysis of panic, weighed down by anxious dread as he sees clearly the train coming down the tracks towards him.
Of course, not everyone procrastinates, but in my experience it is pretty common. Procrastination is just one of the many ways we learn to avoid discomfort. We get very practiced at avoiding discomfort. Our smart phones are an ever-present distraction, saving us from even a minute of boredom or restlessness. It seems practical, avoiding discomfort; what could possibly be the problem with avoiding discomfort? The savvy reader already knows the answer: not all discomfort can be avoided. Life, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not just a non-stop series of delightful events.
Somewhere along the way, we humans got the idea that if we got everything organized just right we would be able to avoid all discomfort. If we can make the work easier, the homes more comfortable, the food more tasty, the sex more available, the internet even faster, then we won’t ever have to experience unpleasantness.
Most of us have gotten pretty good at constructing a life that minimizes our contact with things we don’t like. Unfortunately, that leaves us unpracticed at managing the disappointments and losses that life will inevitably serve up. If we aren’t practiced at managing disappointments, then we easily get overwhelmed when troubles arise. We don’t have a strategy for dealing with the discomfort; even more problematic, we don’t trust that we can cope with whatever challenge comes our way.
One advantage of learning mindfulness meditation is that it helps build your capacity for tolerating unpleasantness without getting overwhelmed. If you are always avoiding discomfort, your capacity for holding difficult feelings shrinks very small, down to the size of an espresso cup, or a shot glass. When you have only a very small cup to hold tough feelings, your cup is easily flooded, and you quickly become overwhelmed. If you can increase the capacity of your cup to hold difficult feelings, say up to the size of a Starbucks’ Trenta, then you can handle a greater degree of discomfort without your cup flooding over. It stays more manageable. Meditation helps you increase the size of your cup.
For me personally, this has been one of the most tangible benefits of my meditation practice. Over time I have developed the ability to sit quietly, still-ly, and watch the way difficult feelings come and then go again. I’ve learned that if I just breathe and watch, everything moves on. I’ve seen over and over and over again that my thoughts can grab onto a situation that has produced an unpleasant feeling, and review it endlessly, forcing the unpleasant feeling to last indefinitely. Or, I can just let it go. Watch my breath. See what’s next. Maybe the feeling comes back. Or not.
I’ve been meditating long enough that I’ve developed a small amount of skill at doing this. I can do it now even when I’m not meditating, like when I’m in a rush and the light turns red. Or when I’m just about finished writing an article, and the computer crashes. I’m not even close to perfect at this trick of course, but it comes easier these days. Perfection was never the goal, anyway.
What does all this have to do with procrastination? Typically, underlying procrastination are some negative thoughts. I don’t want to do this stupid paper. I’ll never get it done. I don’t know where to start. I’m a horrible writer. This is a waste of time. What if I fail? These thoughts breed anxious dread and are of no practical use when completing a task. Rather than just tolerating these unpleasant feelings and carrying on, we try to avoid them by avoiding our work.
So how might mindfulness help with this? If you can bring some mindfulness to these moments, you might become aware of the thoughts coming up, notice the accompanying anxious dread and also notice the feeling of your feet on the floor, your fingers on your computer, your breath going in and out. The thoughts about your potential failure and your feeling of dread need have no more significance than the feel of your body in the chair. They are just thoughts passing through. You don’t have to make the negative thoughts and doubts go away, just leave them alone. Tolerate the discomfort without fretting about it. It’s OK to have those thoughts. And you also don’t need to be controlled by them or wait until your mood changes to get started. Just turn your attention to the work at hand and begin.
With practice, you can learn to notice your distracting doubts without getting caught in them or taking them too seriously. You can feel the discomfort they cause without having to react to them. You move on. The work gets done. It’s no big deal.