Overcoming Procrastination: Why Mindfulness is The Key
use mindfulness to overcome procrastination

Overcoming Procrastination: Why Mindfulness is The Key

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a procrastinator.

It’s a dreadful habit that prevents me from reaching my full potential. Which is why I’ve been actively working on reducing my extreme procrastination for years.

I’m not lying when I tell you that I’ve tried every trick in the book. Some tricks worked; some didn’t. The ones that worked I’ve probably already mentioned somewhere in my previous articles on procrastination.

If I could only give you one piece of advice for overcoming procrastination, I would point you to the article you’re reading right now. I’m about to show you exactly what procrastination boils down to, the #1 skill you need to overcome it, and exactly how to obtain this skill. Sounds good?

When and How Do We Procrastinate?

Procrastination happens when we feel negative emotions – anxiety, boredom, frustration, overwhelm – toward a task. Because these emotions are uncomfortable (they literally cause pain in our brains!), we try to avoid them. Hence, we procrastinate.

It’s always the same story. We want to do something, but end up doing something else that feels better. In other words, we run away from our negative thoughts and emotions.

At its very core, procrastination is an emotion management problem. It will always come down to that all-important moment of facing a task, experiencing the negative emotions associated with it, and doing the task despite those negative emotions.

That’s the #1 skill needed to overcome procrastination: taking action despite experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. Taking action even if you don’t feel like doing it, even if you feel anxious about doing it, even if you feel overwhelmed, even if you feel stressed out.

We need to understand that our thoughts and emotions don’t have to dictate our behavior. But first, let’s have a closer look at exactly how our thoughts and emotions get us into trouble in the first place…

How Your Thoughts & Emotions Convince You to Procrastinate

Newsflash: You are not your thoughts. And you are not your emotions. Thoughts and emotions just pop up, they come and go like clouds in the sky. They are like the weather. Sometimes it’s sunny; sometimes it rains – sometimes you feel happy and motivated; sometimes you feel sad and depressed.

Let’s try an experiment together. Notice what pops into your head when you read the following statements. Don’t make any effort, just watch what happens:

  • Blondes have more…
  • Every cloud has a…
  • Plenty more fish in the…
  • Children should be seen and not…

See what happened there? Without any effort of your own, the “right” sentence completions just popped into your head. “Blondes have more…FUN!” “Every cloud has a… SILVER LINING!”

You didn’t author these thoughts – they just popped up out of nowhere. That’s what thoughts (and emotions!) do. That’s their nature. They pop up and then they disappear. They come and go.

Just as the word ‘tank’ pops up when you encounter the phrase ‘Plenty more fish in the…’, negative thoughts and emotions will pop up when you’re trying to accomplish a challenging and somewhat uncomfortable task.

If you’re trying to finish your essay, meditate, hit the gym, or do anything else worthwhile, chances are that negative thoughts and emotions will pop up. You feel a sense of anxiety, you feel overwhelmed, you feel stressed out, and you certainly don’t feel motivated. Your mind is telling you to do the task tomorrow. That’s when you’ll feel like it, that’s when you’ll be motivated.

You see, your mind is a reason-giving machine. It will rationalize the shit out of anything that’s just a little bit uncomfortable and create endless excuses as to why you shouldn’t do something now. Those excuses are irrational, but sound superficially reasonable. Some common examples are:

Common Rationalisations and Excuses of The Mind

  • “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow!”
  • “I work better under pressure.”
  • “I’m too tired. I’ll do it later on or tomorrow. I’ll have more energy then.”
  • “I’m trying, but it’s not working. What’s wrong?”
  • “There’s even more work after this. I can never get it all done.”
  • “Damnit! I should have started earlier. Now it’s too late. I might as well give up.”
  • “I need some more preparation before I can start.”
  • “I’ll feel more like doing it after another cup of coffee.”
  • “I’m too jittery to get work done. I shouldn’t have drank that last cup of coffee.”
  • “It’s already 4pm. Now it’s too late to start. I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
  • “Today is Sunday. It’s okay to rest and do nothing. I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
  • “I’m not motivated. Let me google how to increase motivation. I’ll do the other stuff tomorrow.”
  • “I can’t concentrate well today. It would be a waste of time trying to get anything done today.”

Do any of these sound familiar? Of course, right? It’s these thoughts and the accompanying emotions that lead us to procrastinate and keep us from engaging in healthy behaviors such as meditation, regular exercise, and so on.

You see, it’s always the mind (thoughts and emotions) that gets in the way. You want to meditate, but your mind tells you to start tomorrow. You want to get up early, but your mind urges you to hit the snooze button. You want to finish your project on time, but your mind prefers to watch TV.

Now, here’s the good news. Like I said earlier, thoughts and emotions don’t need to dictate your behavior…

Stop Letting Thoughts & Emotions Dictate Your Behavior

Emotions and thoughts influence us to act in certain ways. Under the influence of strong emotions, we commonly make changes to our posture, voice, facial expression, and behavior. This is known as an ‘action tendency’ – when we feel angry, we have a tendency to shout, clench our firsts, and lash out physically or verbally.

The key word here is tendency.

Yes, we may have the inclination to do something, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it. We can feel angry but act calmly. We can feel afraid but act courageously. We can feel discouraged but keep going nonetheless. You can take action and do the thing despite experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. You can do things whether you feel like it or not.

David Reynolds refers to this as ‘becoming a mature human being’ in his book Constructive Living:

“The mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible. Knowing that you are the kind of person with that kind of self-control brings all the satisfaction and confidence you will ever need. Even on days when the satisfaction and confidence just aren’t there, you can get the job done anyway.”

How to Beat Procrastination

As I mentioned earlier, procrastination is an emotion management problem.

When we procrastinate, that simply means we let our thoughts and emotions control our behavior. We run away from negative feelings and give in to feeling good. It always comes down to this. Do we stay put, experience the negativity, and act in spite of it? Or do we run away, give in to feeling good, and procrastinate.

It’s always that moment that counts. We can either do the thing or run away. If we want to beat procrastination in the long-run, we need to get better at this. We need to take action and follow through despite experiencing negative thoughts and emotions.

So, how do we get better at this? How can we loosen the grip our emotions and thoughts have on us? How can we do the thing whether we feel like it or not?

Step 1: Become Aware

The first step is to become aware of any negative emotions you feel and the myriad of excuses your mind is telling you right when it’s time to work on a task.

When your mind tells you stuff like “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow” or “I’ll first check Facebook; it’ll only take a minute,” you need to become aware of such thoughts. Recognize that it’s just your mind trying to keep you from doing what you want to do.

When you’re feeling anxious, bored, restless, or frustrated, you need to become aware of those feelings. “Oh, I’m feeling resistance towards this task. I feel an urge to procrastinate.” When you feel the urge to check emails, go on Facebook, have a cigarette, or run away in some other form, you need to notice that as well.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a famous mindfulness teacher, puts it well in his book Wherever You Go There You Are:

“If we are unaware of what we are doing a good deal of the time, and we don’t particularly like the way things turn out in our lives, perhaps it’s time to pay closer attention, to be more in touch, to observe the choices we make and their consequences down the road.”

If you don’t know that you’re about to procrastinate, how are you going to prevent it? You’ll just follow your unconscious urges and before you know it, you’ve wasted an hour dillydallying on Facebook.

The point is, we need to become aware of what’s going on. Only then can we change something. It’s like they say, with awareness comes choice. Once you see your thoughts, feelings, urges, desires from a certain distance, you can choose a different response. And that’s step 2…

Step 2: Learn to Deal Effectively With Emotions

Our natural tendency of coping with negative emotions is avoidance – we feel anxious, frustrated, or bored when faced with a task and we run away. We distract ourselves with something that feels better; we give in to feeling good, we procrastinate.

This is clearly not a healthy coping mechanism. So, what should we do instead? We must learn to tolerate negative emotions. We must realize that emotions are not the end-all-be-all. They are merely bodily sensations. Yes, they may feel uncomfortable. So what? They are just emotions. They come and go. We don’t need to react to them. Instead, we can just accept them and do the thing whether we feel like it or not. Remember, emotions are just ‘action tendencies’. We can feel angry but act calmly. We can feel anxious but act courageously. We can feel unmotivated but do the thing anyway.

That’s the whole secret to overcoming procrastination. Become aware of negative thoughts and emotions. Let them be there. Accept them. Do the right thing despite them.

Isn’t that great news? It means you’re no longer at the mercy of your thoughts and emotions. You’re no longer at the mercy of your motivation. No longer do you need to “feel like it”. You can just do the right thing – whether you feel like it or not. That’s freedom. That’s maturity.

Now, the remaining question is: how do you get better at this? How do you become more aware and how can you learn to deal with those negative thoughts and emotions?

Your Strongest Weapon in the Procrastination Battle

The best way to get better at what we’ve been talking about so far in this article is the practice of ‘mindfulness’. The dictionary defines mindfulness as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’

Mindfulness is all about maintaining a non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of whatever is happening in the present moment. This involves awareness of bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, and the surrounding environment. The non-judgmental part is important because it entails acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them. We watch them without labeling them as “good or bad”, “pleasant or unpleasant”.

Mindfulness is the very thing that allows us to do what I’ve described in this article. It allows us to step back and watch our thoughts and emotions from a certain distance, without identifying with them. It allows us to feel negative emotions without freaking out and without reacting to them.

Bringing it back to procrastination, it allows us to take action despite experiencing negative emotions. First, it raises our awareness of what’s going on. Second, it lets us stay with negative emotions without reacting to them, giving us the opportunity to do the right thing, regardless of how we’re feeling.

And that’s not everything that mindfulness will do for you. Research has shown that it will make you happier, healthier, more self-compassionate, more self-disciplined, better at tuning out distractions, and much more – all things that have been proven to lower procrastination.

All in all, mindfulness offers the following benefits regarding procrastination:

  • It raises our awareness.
  • It lets us act regardless of whatever emotions or thoughts we’re experiencing.
  • It makes us more self-compassionate (read why that’s important here).
  • It improves our self-control and emotion regulation abilities.
  • It helps us tune out distractions (read more about distractions and procrastination here).
  • It makes you a better entrepreneur.
  • And much more.

This isn’t just wishful thinking by the way. Research has proven that mindfulness is an effective strategy for dealing with procrastination. Here’s how procrastination researcher Timothy Pychyl puts it in one of his articles:

“What I want to emphasize and make clear in this post is that effective self-regulation relies on emotion regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness. There is clear evidence that mindfulness is related to less procrastination (including a thesis that is just wrapping up in my research group now).”

My own experience supports this 100 percent. As I’ve said multiple times in previous articles, mindfulness is the #1 most important skill we can ever learn in our lives. Regarding procrastination, it definitely makes a huge difference for me – for all the reasons we have discussed in this article.

It makes me more aware of my thoughts, emotions, urges, and drives, allowing me to consciously choose to either react to them or not. It allows me to stay with negative emotions and thoughts, and to just let them kind of be there in the background while I’m doing what needs to get done.

In addition to that, mindfulness improves my self-control, makes me less self-critical, and reduces feelings of guilt after procrastinating – all things that help with procrastination. I could go on, adding more and more reasons, but suffice to say, mindfulness is one of the most important tools to have in your procrastination toolkit.


At its very core, procrastination is an emotion management problem. When we face uncomfortable tasks, we feel negative emotions – anxiety, boredom, frustration, overwhelm – and our strategy for coping with them is to run away and distract ourselves. That’s when we procrastinate, as a tool to relieve negative emotions.

We sincerely want to study harder, exercise regularly, meditate daily, or do our taxes on time. But because these tasks make us feel so uncomfortable, we end up delaying them.

The key to overcoming procrastination is not to get rid of negative thoughts and emotions, but to act in spite of them. We need to learn to do the thing whether we feel like it or not. To make that happen, we need to cultivate our mindfulness. We need to become aware of when we’re about to procrastinate, stay with the negative thoughts and emotions, and then act in spite of them.

Mindfulness, therefore, is one of the most important skills needed to overcome procrastination.

One of the best ways to strengthen our mindfulness is of course meditation. If you’re not yet in the habit of meditating daily, I highly suggest you get started as soon as possible. My recommendation is to simply download the Headspace app and start with their 10-Day Journey – that’s the best way I’ve found to learn how to meditate and establish a daily routine.

P.S. Want More?

Mindfulness has been one of my strongest weapons in my battle against procrastination. But there's more...

I've just created a brand new guide with over 30 proven tactics for overcoming procrastination for good. You can download the 17-page guide for free by clicking the link below:

==> 33 Proven Tactics to Procrastinate Less and Get More Done

Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.

  • Eric says:

    Great tips … it’s so easy to just put things off. Will institute some of these in my life … hope it yields good results!

  • This insight is fire! I love it. So many people can use this insight to better themselves and get more done during the day.

  • i can count more than a few of those rationalizations on my list too. great post! thank you.

  • I’ve done Vipassana to be more aware as well. Awareness is something I cannot stress enough when it comes to overcoming procrastination and improving ourselves in general.
    Thank you for the post!

  • Jason says:

    Great insights. Mindfulness is the key to many things, procrastination being one of them!

  • You’re absolutely right Nils! Mindfulness is the key and not just for procrastination. If we aren’t aware of the emotions that arise when we procrastinate, we won’t be able to overcome procrastination.

    I love Brian Tracy’s definition of self-discipline: “the ability to make yourself do what you should do when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.”

    We can all be productive when we are in a good mood and excited about the task we’re working on, but the key is to be able to do what we should do whether we feel like it or not.

    Perhaps, the first step to overcome procrastination is to realize that feeling the need to procrastinate is a perfectly normal thing, but that we don’t have to be enslaved by our feelings or emotions. As you mentioned we are not our mind! If we don’t take control of your mind, our mind will control us.

    An effective way to overcome procrastination might be to start a task while giving ourselves the permission to give up after 5 minutes. That may be enough to build some momentum and get in some kind of flow.

    • Totally agree, Thibaut! It’s all about doing the thing whether we feel like it or not. And just getting started and allowing us to quit after 5 minutes is a great approach. Completely aligns with my strategy of just getting started that I talk about here: http://www.njlifehacks.com/get-started-beat-procrastination/

      Reminds me of this great quote by David K. Reynolds:

      “The mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible. Knowing that you are the kind of person with that kind of self-control brings all the satisfaction and confidence you will ever need. Even on days when the satisfaction and confidence just aren’t there, you can get the job done anyway.”

  • Daniel Gross says:

    Reading your Extreme Procrastination article was an eye opener. It is exactly how I feel. I went to start an online company and didn’t realize how much power Procrastination and lack of will power had. I’ve been unable to do the things I need to do recently and until I read that article, I didn’t know why. Same educational background and upbringing. Never studied. Never had to . Went to a top school. Went on my own and I’m failing. I hope these articles and the guide I’m downloading help. Any other info or advise would be hugely appreciated.. Feel free to email me…

  • Deone says:

    I’m blessed to be smart. I love to learn. My “goals” are ridiculous in number to the point where my wife simply laughs (good-naturedly) when I tell her of a new thing I want to learn.

    Luckily (or maybe unluckily) I learn fast. Early school was easy for me, but by highschool I had chosen the alternative path. I never really learned grit. Instead, I learned to quit.

    Procrastination eats me alive from the inside, daily. Through (intermittent) mindfulness I have primarily beaten the more extreme forms of anxiety (the type with physical manifestations) but procrastination is the one thing that keeps bringing back the less intense anxiety.

    I once began an online therapy program (essentially just chatting with a counselor) to try and “fix” the problem. We ended up talking about relationships mostly, and I quit after three sessions.

    I’m sick of accomplishing nothing near what my ego leads Me to be capable of.

    I’ve improved over the years, drastically I suppose; but it’s so extreme that I often think it must be something wrong with the wiring in my brain.

    I know that’s a cop-out. It is a curse to have the knowledge and drive to be a high performance individual, but lack the follow-through.

    Sorry for the rant (I’m procrastinating and a bit desperate). Thank you for the article. Hopefully this will be another post in the foundation I need to finally come into my own and beat my greatest weakness.

    • I feel you, Deone. I’ve struggled many times with the “I’ve got so much potential but can’t make anything happen because I just can’t get over myself.” Oh well. The key, I’ve found, is to stay at it and keep trying to improve. It’s a long journey if procrastination is severe and chronic.. however, there is light at the end of the tunnel. That’s at least what my experience has been. Best of luck! 🙂

  • Tamara says:

    You hit every nail on the head in this article Nils. I typically don’t even “like”, much less comment after reading any articles;
    (I probably should) but your article was so good I just had to let you know!
    I’m finding it hard to focus (especially during this crazy time) on my outstanding tasks. I thought it might have been easier now because my excuse used to be “I just don’t have the time! But when I do, I’ll get to it!”. Well now I have lotsssss of time alone and it’s even scarier!
    Anyway, thanks again for this, it’s comforting to know that we all experience this, and I’m not the only person in the whole world who feels extremely defeated and annoyed with themselves :/
    Be well and stay safe!

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