I remember when I tried to take on the habit of procrastination (to reduce it, not increase it), and I couldn’t figure out why I kept failing. Procrastination was an ages-old habit for me, going back for as long as I could remember, and I didn’t understand why it had such a strong grip on me.
I would tell myself that I had to write an article, or work on my book, and then I’d almost immediately check email or go read something online. I’d find excuses to clean, or start playing an online game, or watch videos. Anything but what I needed to work on.
It was like I had no control over myself. I felt horrible, of course, because then I felt like I had no self-control, no discipline. This is the cycle of urge-act-guilt that we’ve all felt.
How do you overcome this cycle? The first part of the cycle is actually invisible to most people. The urges act in the dark. And so the most important step in breaking the cycle is to take away the invisibility. Shine a light on the darkness. See what’s going on, so you can consciously change it.
That’s what I did with procrastination. I would stop myself before going to check email (for example), and just pause for a second. Then I’d watch this urge to switch from my writing to another task. What was this urge like? It was a strong feeling that seemed to come from nowhere, and I’d feel it in my chest, rising up my neck into my head. What a strange sensation!
Then I’d watch what would happen if i just sat and didn’t follow this urge. It would get stronger, and I’d sometimes panic a little, like I needed to act on this urge immediately! But then it would go away, and I’d calm down.
I was shining the light of mindfulness on these invisible urges. They are incredibly powerful when they’re invisible, and we just act on them without thinking. But with this mindful spotlight, I could turn them from invisible to visible, and watch them in action. When they’re visible, these urges lose their power. Now they’re just ordinary feelings, that come and go.
Amazingly, this works on any habit. Every habit seems to come with unbidden urges to procrastinate on the habit. If you want to write, read more, wake early, meditate … you’ll also have the urge to go do something else, to put the habit off. And when you use the spotlight of mindfulness on these urges, you can take their power away and rationally decide what you’d like to do.
Mission: Watch your urges
Today as you do your habit, mindfully watch any urges that come up. Do this every day, if you can remember, and then journal about these urges. Be curious about them: what do they feel like? What happens if you don’t act on them? Can you delay for just a minute or two when they come up?