How to Conquer Procrastination with 3 Self-Awareness Techniques

Meditation is one way, but not the only way

Niklas Göke
May 5, 2017 · 10 min read
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Procrastination is a short-term mood enhancer driven by our subconscious. Becoming more self-aware is a way to help our rational mind regain control so we can accomplish our goals.

Table of ContentsIntroduction
How Procrastination Corresponds to Self-Awareness
3 Science-Backed Strategies to Develop Self-Awareness
- Identify and Label Thoughts and Feelings
- Understand Your Beliefs
- Track Your Decisions
Get Started Now

I wrote about 80 percent of my bachelor’s thesis in four days. Not because of a looming deadline, but because I had already procrastinated for an entire semester instead of finishing the damned thing.

Actually, finishing it wasn’t the problem. Starting it was.

Once we get started on a task, we immediately feel better. In the words of Tim Pychyl, the world’s leading procrastination researcher:

Once we begin a task, no matter how dreaded, our perceptions of the task change…we don’t appraise the task as quite so stressful or difficult once we get started. Starting is everything.

Most of the time, though, we don’t notice and address our real perceptions of the task; we try to avoid these, and thus, we don’t start. The instant-gratification monkey runs the show, and by the time we look up, a two-hour journey down the YouTube spiral lies behind us.

If you feel like you’re spending a lot of time in “to be done” land, this article is for you. Today, we will turn that phrase from trial to triumph.

How Procrastination Corresponds to Self-Awareness

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman divides thought into two modes of operation.

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.

Consider the following problem:

A baseball bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If the first answer that pops into your head is $0.10, you’ll have to do the math again. Your System 1 thinking jumped into action to get a fast answer — but it’s wrong.

Problems often arise when System 1 gets an inappropriate jump on System 2, which especially can happen in our modern world. The thinking required in our day-to-day life is less likely to be fast System 1 reacting (don’t be eaten by the tiger!) and more slow System 2 thinking (finish Tuesday’s report so my project isn’t held up).

Someone who spends the majority of their time in System 1 lacks the self-awareness to realize when they’re procrastinating, because they’re driven by emotion and habitual behavior.

Indeed, science suggests procrastination is a problem of managing emotions, not time. Tim Pychyl puts it this way (emphasis mine):

We cope with negative emotions that are associated with a task through avoidance, but this is a self-defeating coping strategy because only your present self benefits. Avoidance acts as short-term mood repair. It works in the short term, but not in the long term.

The most common suggestion to combat this coping mechanism is meditation. Science shows that alternating between awareness and focusing on your breath trains your brain to switch from System 1 to System 2 and back again.

Meditation is a great way to combat procrastination, but it’s not the only way.

3 Science-Backed Strategies to Develop Self-Awareness

To become more self-aware, it helps first to understand what you can be self-aware of. There are three levels of self-awareness. The three strategies you’ll learn below are designed to address each level:

  1. Thoughts and emotions: When you’re self-aware on this level, you observe thoughts and feelings as they occur.
  2. Beliefs and attitudes: This is about knowing who you are as a person and what traits and patterns define your character, like being an introvert, being conflict-averse, etc.
  3. Decisions and behaviors: Awareness about these two often comes through others or the environment in the form of direct or indirect feedback. It’s up to you to realize that’s what it is — be aware‚ and use that awareness to improve.

Your thoughts shape your beliefs, which in turn shape your decisions. The earlier in the process that you’re self-aware, the better.

Whatever reflective insight comes at the very end will only marginally affect your outcome, because when your boss tells you you’ve wasted too much time designing the slides, it’s usually too late. The best you can do is improve next time. So, insight has the potential to affect future outcomes.

Let’s look at why these techniques work and how you can use them to beat procrastination.

Identify and Label Thoughts and Feelings

If emotions are the root of procrastination, regulating them helps weed out this behavior. When you consider delaying a task, emotion regulation allows you to ask, “Is this the right kind of delay? Or is it fear-induced? Am I making a rational, smart move?”

However, you can’t adjust what you can’t address. Labeling your thoughts and emotions is the first step.

Calling negative emotions by their name reduces their impact. Saying “I’m angry” when you’re angry makes you less angry. In contrast, lumping excitement, joy, and satisfaction together under “I’m happy” can actually cause a physical stress reaction, because you’re not accurately articulating yourself.

The best way to recognize these thoughts and feelings in real time is to make a conscious effort to do so. This exercise is powerful if performed habitually, but it can also be strenuous, so start small. A five-minute session goes a long way.

Labeling Thoughts and Feelings: An Exercise

  1. Grab a piece of paper, tune in to your body, and write down all current emotions.
  2. Revisit your emotions of the past 30 to 60 minutes and write those down as well.

Alternatively, you can say it out loud: “I feel relaxed right now. Twenty minutes ago, I felt tired and slightly aggravated.”

To enhance your emotional vocabulary, you can use a list of emotions, like this one. One technique is to print the list, and then circle the feelings that correspond to your current state.

Like NWA said: Express yourself!

A related technique is to notice thoughts that are judgements, state them, and replace the period after each sentence with a question mark. “This coffee tastes bad” becomes “This coffee tastes bad?” You might notice a lessening of the negative emotions with a more expansive, questioning outlook.

You could also use the dichotomy of “useful” vs. “not useful” to label your thoughts in order to help you think more rationally and less reactively.

The most effective way to follow through on practicing this exercise is to set an implementation intention, which defines the “when,” “where,” and “how” into something concrete and actionable. Here’s an example:

“After I make my coffee in the morning, I will then label all the emotions I’ve had in the first hour of being awake in order to get myself into the right mindset for starting work.”

As you improve and feel more comfortable spending time in your own head, you can integrate these sessions into a long walk or even solo exercise. However, I recommend not listening to music as you do this. The quiet helps you think more freely, without the input of new emotional stimuli.

If you can’t think of many emotions at first, that’s okay. Just invest the full five minutes each time.

Understand Your Beliefs

Your brain assesses your future self like it would evaluate a stranger — as someone relatively unimportant. So, when you procrastinate, the present you gets the relief, but the future you has to clean up the mess — and deal with an extra dose of pressure, stress, and regret.

You need to close the gap between your present self and future self to make sure both versions of you are determined to get things done. To do this, take regular snapshots of your beliefs. Journaling is the perfect practice for this, and again, five minutes are plenty to start with.

Journaling Beliefs: 2 Exercises

First: Keep a one-sentence journal. Pick a single question, and write down a full-sentence answer each day. Switch the question after a few days or weeks.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Pick a question that really makes you think.
  2. Write it on a piece of paper.
  3. Every day at the same time, write your answer to the question in one sentence.

Second, record your ABCs, a model in cognitive behavioral therapy that helps you form more rational beliefs.

The ABC model works like this:

  • A stands for the Activating Event that triggers your inner dialogue.
  • B stands for the Belief that you form from the event.
  • C stands for the Consequences that follow, namely how your belief makes you feel.

For example, when you get an unexpected urgent assignment (A), you can believe either “my boss gave me this because I won’t say no” (B1) or “this must be really important” (B2). B1 will lead you to feel you’re “a pushover” (C1), whereas B2 is a chance to dig in and show your work — “I better get straight to it” (C2).

Same activating event, entirely different consequence.

You can do the one -sentence journal with morning questions, like…

  • Do you feel ready to tackle the day? Why? Why not?
  • What was the first thing you thought of after waking up?
  • What attitude do you want to focus on today?

…or evening questions, such as:

  • Why did you get out of bed this morning?
  • When did you feel happy or content today?
  • Did you do your best today?

Then follow up with your ABCs.

Alternatively, there is a vast variety of preformatted journals you can buy to fill in a preexisting structure. Most combine journaling awareness with setting priorities and goals. A few that I’m familiar with:

Whatever you choose, you need to set an implementation intention for this as well:

After I brush my teeth at night, I will then answer three questions with a full sentence in order to spot repeating thought patterns and beliefs that might keep me from becoming who I want to be.”

The better your grip on this, the more questions you can knock out in a single session and, over time, define your own ideal journaling format.

If you find it difficult to complete a daily journaling exercise like this, try changing your journaling environment. Entering a room to do something specific is a powerful way to help yourself follow through on the intention.

Track Your Decisions

One thing we do know about future you is that he or she will pay the price for the time you spend in the dark playground of procrastination. The most common reaction is shame, which makes you want to sweep your mistake under the rug. This is just motivation to avoid and procrastinate more.

You must break this cycle.

Science’s answer is to forgive yourself for procrastinating so you can clean the slate and start over. To pardon past bad decisions, you must track them and become aware of them. Once again, five minutes per day is enough to start.

Tracking Decisions: Setting MITs and Creating an Accountability Chart

  1. Set one the three most important tasks (MITs) for your day, ideally the night before. Write them on a sticky note or in your journal, or keep a digital sticky on your desktop (a built-in app on Mac and Windows).
  2. Also at the end of the day, craft an accountability chart for that day’s MITs. Write down your general workday time slots and what you did in each period. This gives you a view of what you accomplished or didn’t, so you can think about what you might do to improve the next day.

Here’s what my daily MIT list looks like:

Here’s a sample of an accountability chart:

I learned this from ASAPScience.

This works well as part of your overall journaling practice. An implementation intention could look like this:

“After I close my journal in the evening, I will then write down three MITs and my accountability chart in order to forgive myself for procrastinating and focus on the next day.”

When you feel comfortable and forgiving about your mistakes, you can spend more time analyzing them without regret and extend your MIT list and the span your accountability chart covers.

If you struggle with deciding on MITs, use urgent tasks as a bridge until you form the habit. For example, use your next three deadlines. Eventually, you will want to improve your focus on important but nonurgent matters.

Get Started Now

The more you become aware of your procrastinating behaviors, the more skillful you become at switching from System 1 to System 2 thinking — and the sooner you can get back to work. The way you cultivate this awareness is by practicing it on three levels.

  1. Being aware of your thoughts allows you to regulate your emotions. You can achieve this by labeling them regularly.
  2. Being aware of your beliefs closes the gap between your present and future self. You can accomplish this through a journaling practice.
  3. Being aware of your decisions allows you to forgive yourself and move forward. Tracking them on a daily basis is a way to reach this state.

Recurring practice of these activities will culminate in eliminating procrastination.

But how do you remember all of this? Well, look at the three levels again:

Thoughts. Beliefs. Decisions.

TBD. To be done.

I told you we’d turn this around.

Use this model to flip procrastination on its head. Let the obstacle become the way.

As for the exercises, if you can do only one, I suggest starting with tracking your decisions. It’s the most available mechanism, living on a level of awareness we all share.

Now I’ll cross this article off my MITs, because it no longer remains…


Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I’m also working on a book to help you live a balanced life:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination
The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination
The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination

About this Collection

The Complete Guide to Beating Procrastination

Time is precious. Still, it sometimes seems to be the one resource we’re willing to give away for free. Here, psychologists and social scientists reveal the whys and hows behind procrastination. Each story features science-backed steps you can take to get your calendar back under control.

Time is precious. Still, it sometimes seems to be the one resource we’re willing to give away for free. Here, psychologists and social scientists reveal the whys and hows behind procrastination. Each story features science-backed steps you can take to get your calendar back under control.

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