Doing nothing: The cure for procrastination

Have you ever passionately thrown yourself into a strange, unrelated task at work simply because you didn’t want to do your real assignment? Or has your partner ever asked you for help… only to have you snap at them that you were working on something “really important?” For years I found myself procrastinating by deflecting too. Why did I convince myself I was being productive? Thankfully, the practice of mindfulness is here to give you that time to discover why your mind wanders from “the boring task.”

In fact, it weren’t for the process of silently cataloging my thoughts (cough meditation cough) I never would have come to terms with my twin tendencies towards perfectionism/procrastination. Only in the quiet of my mind was I able to realize that I was obsessively pursuing “passion projects” because the real task scared me. But I’ll share with you how powerful humility is. I’ll also share how accepting your tiny, task-based fear can make you more productive than you ever imagined possible.

But hey, if you’re still living happily in Avoidance Town, you’re in good company with many other highly productivity procrastinators:

“I procrastinated so much I finished a 33-page book proposal instead of writing the talk!”
~ Dina Kaplan, Forbes constributor

Heck, I’ll admit it, I am a procrastinator. That’s not to say that I’m not successful. In my day job as a programmer, I am a very productive and revered coworker– but I was (am) a procrastinator. The worst part of my early career in procrastination is that I didn’t even know how much time I was wasting and how happy I could have been. Bosses and mentors tried to help, but nothing truly helped me change until a mindfulness coach shared with me this secret:

Do nothing.

No, I don’t mean you should skip work. What I mean is that when your brain tells you “I don’t want to do this thing” then give your brain the ultimate reward. Do nothing at all.

How to “do nothing” well

And here’s why this counter-intuitive advice is so successful: Doing nothing can get boring fast. But you’ll get that dose of pure procrastination that you were aiming for. You’ll find that silence can be painful at first, but that there is incredible value in the attempt at doing nothing. Try it sometime to see how quickly your brain starts to (seemingly) rebel against you:

  1. Sit there in your work chair
  2. Don’t look at your phone
  3. Don’t listen to music
  4. (if you can) close your eyes to remove visual stimuli as well.

After a minute or so of “rewarding yourself with nothing,” you might find that thoughts are popping into your head.

“Crap, I’m doing it wrong. I thought meditation was about not thinking anything?!?” Not true.

You may discover that the thoughts that enter a quiet mind are incredibly informative. So why be frustrated at what you discover in the silence?

“[Awareness] is there to recognize and identify thoughts and feelings, not to judge them as good or bad, or place them into opposing camps in order to fight with each other. Opposition between good and bad is often compared to light and dark, but if we look at it in a different way, we will see that when light shines, darkness does not disappear. It doesn’t leave; it merges with the light. It becomes the light.

To meditate does not mean to fight with a problem. To meditate means to observe.”

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

So as you can see, stopping and listening to yourself can give you incredible insights into why you’re procrastinating.

If Perfection Is The Enemy Of Done, Then Meditation Is The Enemy Of Perfection

Before meditation, I continued to fight against the truth that I wasn’t actually as productive as I thought. I couldn’t see that my dilly-dallying was giving me constant, nagging anxiety. Like many people, my worst tendencies continued to resurface because of a personal mythology that I thought was core to my persona. I used to tell myself the ridiculous story that I could only be productive on something if I was super engaged. That I was best at work when I could get obsessed with it. If a task wasn’t engaging to me, then I needed to find something that spoke to me. But as my bosses were quick to point out, work doesn’t always align with your passions. If all work was fun, then they wouldn’t have to pay you. What my bosses were trying to say is that I didn’t have balance, and mindfulness is all about balance. But when you’re young and motivated like I was, you don’t crave balance… you perfection. Ultimately, it was my now-wife and then-girlfriend who helped me to look inward and realize that my drive towards perfection was ultimately making me unhappy and how I might be able to find joy in completing small tasks. As the web designers at my current job often say: perfection is the enemy of done. With the help of meditation, I can confidently say that I go to work and I get things done. I get things done, even when they’re not perfect.

Relapsing & Continuing To Put Real Effort Into Nothing

So… has mindfulness cured me of my procrastination? No. Did I achieve meditation once and immediately learn the errors of my ways? No. It’s okay that habits slide sometimes (and we have advice on how to forgive yourself of that too).

However, there is a reason why Buddhist writers call meditation “practice.” To get benefits from meditation, you have to continually work at it. And with any practice or discipline, I have become more skilled over time at quickly identifying when I am about to procrastinate. I wish I could reach out to me in my twenties, to my inner child, and tell myself that some day you will be happy, productive, and free.

But freedom is not a permanent resource– it takes effort. Not grueling, boring effort like you see in Hollywood representations of meditation. You earn freedom every day by doing the enjoyable, carefree work of being mindful. So when my procrastination energy returned a few weeks back, I applied the skills I’ve learned.

An Algorithm For Identifying Your Fears

I often know when I’m procrastinating because I can feel my chest binding up. In this particular scenario, I was furiously researching some new technology and I wasn’t feeling the normal joy that comes with exploring new technology. The mindless part of my brain told me, “just keep surfing the web.” But I quickly recognized the familiar, anxious feeling; and so, I took a few seconds (that’s all it takes) to close my eyes, listen, and try to be a friend to my inner child:

  • Inner Child: “I don’t want to fix that bug.”
  • Meditative Me: “It’s okay to feel that way. Why don’t you want to fix it?”
  • Inner Child: “I do, but I’m afraid that I can’t.
  • Meditative Me: “You probably can fix it. You’ve fixed lots of bugs before right?”
  • Inner Child: “What if I’m not smart enough to fix it?”
  • Meditative Me: “Maybe you’re not currently smart enough. But you can ask for help.”
  • Inner Child: “If I ask for help, then the people around me will think I’m dumb.”
  • Meditative Me: “There’s only one way to learn– to accept that you don’t know something so you can open yourself up to learning.”
  • Inner Child: “What if I don’t fix it fast enough?”
  • Meditative Me: “Well the longer you wait to start it, the longer it will take to finish it. You don’t want that. What you want is to get happy. Imagine how happy you’ll feel when you’ve completed the task. Imagine how great it would be if you started it right away. Maybe the fix is easier than you think?”

I opened my eyes and I was amazed at the clarity of the conversation I had in my mind. This clarity is only possible because of years of quieting my mind. I didn’t need that dopamine hit of surfing the web… what I needed was to stop and “do nothing.”

And you won’t believe it. The bug took 5 minutes to fix, and I felt good. Really good.

Feeling good is what CubicleBuddha.com is all about. So I hope that you procrastinators, former procrastinators, and maybe-once-again-later procrastinators can remember that you deserve peace. Gift yourself the time to simply do nothing. It’ll be the most valuable time you ever spend.

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