Dismantling Procrastination with Yoga and Science

by Janet Arnold-Grych

Most of the time, I pride myself on delivering in advance of deadlines. I will organize, anticipate, and sweat the small stuff in order to beat the clock and triumphantly cross off that to-do item. Deadlines and I are fine—unless the topic is a sticky one. Then procrastination raises its head.

Maybe that stickiness involves an impending encounter that I know will be strained, or a project that feels daunting, or even a task I simply don’t enjoy. The more I nudge those types of situations to the bottom of the to-do pile, the stronger the samskara, or conditioned response, becomes moving forward. All is not lost. When we combine ancient yogic principles with recent research on goal attainment, taming the procrastination beast can become easier.

Fear and procrastination are often two sides of the same coin. Both take us out of the present moment, causing us to seek refuge in the past or become entangled in projected scenarios that might or might not occur. “When we imagine that it will be difficult to start the process of goal pursuit,” says Caroline Adams Miller, Positive Psychology coach, author, and educator, “we over-imagine all of the challenges that are in front of us and can give up in our minds before we even get going.”  

That’s where yoga comes in. Yoga can help to ground us where we are, bolstering our ability to serve as a wise witness and choose our actions, rather than becoming the victim of emotion.

In his wonderfully accessible translations of yogic writings and philosophy, Eknath Easwaran reminds us that “the goal of yoga is freedom”—freedom from our impatience, apprehension, and knee-jerk reactions. Using yoga to observe the body and breath, as if through a window, enables us to better choose. We can step into harmony with the present moment and our desired action, leaving the mental and physical commentary outside. 

Yoga can help us to begin from a more grounded, equanimous place. Behavioral science can complement that orientation, helping translate intention to outcome. Research conducted at Stanford University highlights that when a goal is easy and there’s motivation to achieve it, using a “flexible approach,” or giving yourself space to be creative, can be highly productive. You’ve already opted in and are ready to roll. When that difficult activity comes with foot-dragging avoidance, however, research suggests a more circumscribed execution plan better propels action. That’s because a detailed plan reduces the number of decision points that can threaten to waylay efforts. A detailed plan also cuts an activity into bite-size pieces, creating layers of self-propelling accomplishment.

Another of procrastination’s abettors is a trick called “present bias.” That means that we choose to do the activities that we can more readily complete, and thus triumphantly cross off our to-do list, over those requiring more effort. But keeping a necessary task at arm’s length is ultimately fatiguing. “When we are constantly using our emotional energy to fight against ourselves, we are reinventing our strategies over and over, which depletes self-regulation and reduces our ability to stay on track,” says Caroline. Countering that tendency with an awareness of priorities can preserve the time and energy needed for that activity we’re trying so hard to avoid.

By fusing these internal and external disciplines, we can outline a workflow to harness the ability to act rather than procrastinate.  

1. Deescalate. Calm your emotions by using the body and breath to physically deescalate the situation and approach action more thoughtfully.

2. Convince. From this place of calm, ground yourself in the “why” of your activity to override present bias and align to your resolve. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article on procrastination suggests that it may help to visualize the outcome of an activity, using it as a bridge to overcome your protestations. 

3. Create. Create an action plan and timeline. Break the project into doable pieces to build success and highlight progress, a critical element in ongoing motivation.

4. Commit. Make a declaration about your involvement or goal, or enlist an advocate. That same Harvard Business Review article suggests that committing publicly, to an individual or group, adds a social element that propels our innate desire to succeed. Plus, it’s great to have someone in your corner who will cheer you and hold your feet to the fire. “People who have hard goals outside of their comfort zones,” says Caroline, “never accomplish their goals without the help and support of others, because gritty goals require teamwork.” 

5. Move. Start advancing on your plan. If possible, address tougher actions earlier in the day, before other activities and excuses loom larger (and they will).

6. Celebrate. Celebrate interim successes to keep up motivation.

7. Repeat the above as needed.

Of course, even with a plan and a posse, there are likely to be unforeseen storms and surprising set-backs. That’s when you need to muster up resolve and grit. But rather than just muscling through, Caroline suggests “changing the channel” or finding a safety line that helps you stay in the game—and that strategy doesn’t need to be complex, it just needs to work for you. It can be as simple as tethering your resolve to a mantra, a visualization, or a particular action. “When you can change the channel, says Caroline, “it means that you have trained yourself to pair challenge with a strategy to remain engaged, and that has been found to conserve energy. Interestingly, that channel is completely unique and individual to each person.”

Procrastination is not a new human condition, and neither is the old adage that “the only way through is through.” Armed with a yogic perspective and a practical sequence of activities, we can interrupt procrastination and get to the other side.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets.

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