There’s a saying out there in the world of wisdom that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step (Lao Tzu). Kind of a pull from the “obvious files,” since all journeys do, no matter how many (or few) steps they require. But of course, the idea is that when the task at hand seems daunting, just dive in and focus on one step at a time, which is in fact a very mindful approach to tackling your to-do list. So why is that first step so hard to take, then? Why do we spend twice as much energy avoiding projects by deliberating, hesitating and procrastinating when it would probably be easier just to get them done? It’s pretty simple actually.
Because you. don’t. wanna. Because everything else in the world seems more interesting, from the real time arrival of weather updates on your phone when you’re sitting right next to a window, to the layer of dust that’s been on your bookshelves for three months, but has suddenly become a household emergency. You’ll do anything to avoid that studying, essay writing, document reviewing, and numbers crunching. Some of you will downright impress yourself with your sudden ability to do almost anything other than your nemesis project-in-waiting. You’ll bake, fix things, organize your closet, and break world binge-watching records for shows so old, you had an enforced bedtime when they first aired. Avoidance feels like such a relief when you’re doing it…until later, when it doesn’t.
There are few feelings worse than that end-of-the-day-that-I-got-nothing-done-even-though-I-really-needed-to mix of regret and self-loathing. Knowing that you did it to yourself even though you didn’t feel in control at all is the worst. You pull it together, though, and make great promises and commitments to yourself about tomorrow, and go from there. Sometimes that works, but sometimes you find yourself in a procrastination cycle, wondering why no one will give you credit for at least excelling at that.
So here’s some real talk to help us understand how mindfulness can help: you’re not avoiding the project, you’re avoiding the discomfort the project will cause you to experience. You either don’t like the work required, or you don’t feel like you’re good at the work required, and that feels bad. You prefer to feel good, so you turn your attention outward in search of preferable things. In their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Harvard professors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir share some pretty fascinating research on how perceived resource limitations impact decision-making. Among the material resources they consider, they also include time. They noticed a common tendency to prefer short tasks that we can quickly feel the satisfaction of completing over projects that require longer engagement, or even more so, that need to be to chipped away at over time. We want to feel productive, which in turn – as we avoid the big stuff – ends up making us less productive. Sigh.
One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it helps us manage difficult thoughts and emotions. It doesn’t make them disappear, but it makes it more possible for you to acknowledge them without allowing them to overcome you. Since the only way around those pesky projects you’re avoiding is straight through them (uh-uh, put the TaskRabbit away…this one’s yours), this little side effect is super helpful in the face of procrastination. A regular mindfulness practice builds your mental and emotional stamina, and makes it more possible for you to recognize stalling behaviors, identify and acknowledge the discomfort you may be feeling (without judging yourself for it), and continue past them in pursuit of your goal. And you know what? That last step is gonna feel so good. So take a breath (or ten), and get out of your own way. There’s no time but the present.
Photo credit: Ales Krivec