A study that was recently published in Personality and Individual Differences sheds light on the relationship between mindfulness and procrastination.
In order to understand the study’s findings, it’s useful to first understand what mindfulness and procrastination are exactly:
- Mindfulness is the tendency to purposely pay attention to the self and to the environment, as they are in the present moment. Mindfulness emphasizes non-reactive awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of thoughts and emotions, and as such is viewed as an attentional self-regulation strategy.
- Procrastination, on the other hand, is a failure to self-regulate, which leads to a delay in the initiation or completion of tasks. In many cases, people are driven to procrastination by an impulsive preference for short-term mood-regulation, which procrastinators accomplish by neglecting necessary-but-aversive tasks, that are important for their long-term goals, in favor of activities that are more pleasant in the short-term.
To examine the relationship between these two variables, the researchers looked at a sample of 339 Chinese college students in a longitudinal manner, at 4 distinct time points spread across a period of 6 months.
The researchers measured the participants’ mindfulness and procrastination at each time point, using a set of dedicated questionnaires, where the participants were asked to rate the degree to which various relevant statements describe their behavior.
For example, in the mindfulness questionnaire, statements included the following:
“When I have distressing thoughts or images I just notice them and let them go.”
“I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing because I’m daydreaming, worrying, or otherwise distracted.”
Similarly, in the procrastination questionnaire, statements included the following:
“I promise myself I’ll do something and then drag my feet.”
“I postpone starting in on things I don’t like to do.”
The researchers then analyzed the data using a cross-lagged panel model, in order to measure how the participants’ dispositional mindfulness and procrastination levels at each point in time predicted their mindfulness and procrastination levels at the consequent timepoint. This means, for example, that the model measured the association between participants’ mindfulness levels at the first timepoint and their mindfulness and procrastination levels at the second timepoint.
There were two key findings:
- Increased mindfulness predicts lower levels of subsequent procrastination. This suggests that when individuals are mindful, they tend to procrastinate less.
- Increased procrastination predicts lower levels of subsequent mindfulness. This suggests that when individuals procrastinate a lot, they tend to be less mindful of their actions.
This bidirectional relationship also suggests that, in some cases, a negative cycle could occur, where reduced levels of mindfulness could lead to increased levels of procrastination, which in turn could further reduce the tendency to be mindful, and so on.
When it comes to explaining these results from a theoretical perspective, the researchers suggested that mindfulness could promote non-judgmental acceptance of negative emotions and self-critical thoughts, which might otherwise cause people to procrastinate when they’re faced with difficult tasks. Furthermore, the researchers suggested that because mindfulness promotes awareness and autonomous self-regulation, it could also reduce people’s tendency to procrastinate by encouraging them to focus on tasks that they’re engaged in, instead of giving in to distractions.
On the other hand, when it comes to explaining why procrastination is associated with reduced mindfulness, the researchers suggested that since procrastination often involves impulsive behavior, and since mindfulness requires focused action, the tendency to give in to impulses could be hindering people’s ability to act in a mindful manner.
It’s important to note there are some limitations to the study, as the authors of the study point out themselves, and so its findings should be interpreted with caution. These limitations include, among others, the student-based sample, the correlational nature of the study, and the fact that potential mediating processes were not examined, so that the exact nature of the causal links between mindfulness and procrastination remains unclear.
Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that, though the associations between mindfulness and procrastination were statistically-significant, the effect sizes in question were relatively small. This suggests that even though it’s likely that the inverse association between mindfulness and procrastination exists, the influence that these variables have on one another is generally relatively limited in magnitude. This means, for example, that it’s possible for even large differences in a person’s dispositional mindfulness to only have a relatively small effect on that person’s tendency to procrastinate.
Nevertheless, the present study does suggest that there is a meaningful link between mindfulness and procrastination, and that increased mindfulness could potentially help people avoid procrastinating. This ties in with prior research on the topic, which has found that mindfulness is positively associated with certain aspects of self-regulation, which suggests that increased mindfulness could potentially lead to a reduction in procrastinatory behavior.
Furthermore, research also suggests that increased mindfulness could provide procrastinators with additional benefits. For example, one study on the topic found that among procrastinators, low levels of mindfulness could increase the risk of poor physical and emotional wellbeing. This is in line with general research on mindfulness, which demonstrates that increasing mindfulness can have a positive effect on the general population.
As such, if you’re a procrastinator, you could potentially benefit from trying to be more mindful, particularly in situations where mindfulness could help you either reduce the degree to which you procrastinate, or reduce the degree to which your procrastination affects you in a negative manner. Since being mindful revolves primarily around focusing on the present and accepting negative thoughts and emotions without judgment, there are two key areas in which you can attempt to be more mindful.
First, you can try to be more mindful when it comes to focusing on tasks that you need to perform, in order to limit the degree to which distractions cause you to procrastinate on your work. This could be relevant, for example, if you’re working on an assignment, and need to focus on it in order to ensure that you don’t give in to distractions, such as checking your phone repeatedly.
Second, you can try to be more mindful when it comes to dealing with negative emotions, in order to limit the degree to which they cause you to procrastinate on your work. For example, if you find yourself postponing a task because you’re mad at yourself for taking so long to get started on it, try to acknowledge and accept your feelings, and then move on instead of ruminating and continuing to delay.
However, keep in mind that, as noted above, though being more mindful can likely help you deal with your procrastination, it’s only a partial solution, that is unlikely to solve your problem completely. As such, if you want to successfully overcome your procrastination, you should combine mindfulness with other anti-procrastination techniques.
Summary and main takeaways
- Mindfulness involves purposely focusing on the self and the environment as they are in the present, while accepting thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- The current study suggests that there is a bidirectional relationship between mindfulness and procrastination, where increased levels of mindfulness predict lower levels of procrastination, and vice versa.
- Based on this, and on additional research which has been done on the topic, it’s likely that increasing your mindfulness could lead to a small but meaningful reduction in your tendency to procrastinate, while also improving your general wellbeing.
- In order to benefit from being mindful, you can try to focus more on tasks as you engage in them, which will limit the degree to which distractions cause you to procrastinate on your work.
- You can also try to accept negative emotions in a non-judgmental manner as you experience them, which will help you overcome them and move forward with your work.