Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Getting it Done in the Here and Now

This morning's post brings together two strong interests of mine--procrastinating and mindfulness meditation. 

These Procrastinating 101 posts are meant to share what I am culling from the procrastination "literature," as I pursue my standard bibliotherapy for the life problem that is the organizing principle of this blog.  The information I present and the frameworks I explore do not originate with me.  Today I return to the work of Dr. Timothy Pychyl and his team of procrastination researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.  Dr. Pychyl, a self-identified recovered procrastinator, is a veritable fountain of findings and ideas about why we procrastinate and what we can do about it.

This week, I ran across Dr. Pychyl's post "Mindfulness Meditation: Thoughts on paying attention" in his Psychology Today blog Don't Delay.  As a practicing, and sometimes procrastinating meditator for the past few years, my interest was piqued by this juxtaposition.  I meditate for many reasons, but had never really thought of how meditating might relate to procrastination--beyond the difficulty I sometimes have in getting down to doing it.

Dr. Pychyl's post presents the research of his graduate student Ariel Rotblatt on the effects of mindfulness meditation on procrastination.  Rotblatt's study, of only six weeks duration, did not demonstrate the effect he was hoping to document--that mindfulness meditation decreased procrastination over the course of the experiment.  But he did find that students who scored higher on measures of mindfulness 
e.g., I am open to the experience of the present moment, I sense my body, whether eating, cooking, cleaning or talking, When I notice an absence of mind, I gently return to the experience of the here and now
also reported greater levels of "self-regulation."

Dr. Pychyl's post does a much better job than I can manage here of laying out the logic that led to Rotblatt's investigation.  (But that's probably why they pay him the big bucks to write about procrastination, while I toil away for free at this labor of love.)  The key concepts I take away from my reading are self-regulation and management of attention.  Dr. Pychyl tells us that researchers generally agree that "[p]rocrastination is a form of self-regulatory failure." He quotes a team of self-regulation researchers  in tying self-regulation to attention.
Over and over, we found that managing attention was the most common and often the most effective form of self-regulation and that attentional problems presaged a great many varieties of self-regulation failure. . . The effective management of attention was a powerful and decisive step, and self-regulatory failure ensued when attention could not be managed. 
On this foundation, and his own experience from years of meditating and attempting to train what meditators refer to as his "monkey mind," Rotblatt theorized that meditation could improve self-regulation and thus reduce procrastinating through the medium of improved attention management.

Since I am effectively conducting my own experiment with mindfulness meditation, I am in a position to learn more about its usefulness in taming the wild procrastinator within.  As with all "applications" of mindfulness "training,"--the list grows daily of "conditions" which are said to be improved by meditating, including depression, anxiety, chronic pain, hypertension, obesity and substance abuse--the "treatment effect" is likely to take some time to show up.  But I am prepared to continue sitting for as long as it takes.  If I can just make myself do it.

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