Undone: How to Change Our Procrastination Patterns

By Leo Babauta, www.zenhabits.net
April 19, 2017 1:46 pm Last Updated: April 19, 2017 1:46 pm

Procrastination starts from avoiding something out of fear, then becomes a pattern that hardens into a habit. We reinforce this procrastination habit through years of practice, and it hurts us in so many ways.

The procrastination habit can affect all areas of life, leading us to avoid taking concrete actions that improve our situation:

  • Dealing with our finances head-on
  • Establishing healthy habits (exercise, diet, regular checkups)
  • Maintaining healthy relationships (avoiding difficult conversations)
  • Creating meaningful work
  • Decluttering and simplifying
  • Getting to places on time
  • Learning new things

And much more. Those are some of the most obvious examples, but we procrastinate all day long in smaller ways—by checking our phones, email, and favorite websites, by watching the news or TV shows, or by playing games. There’s no limit to the number of ways we try to avoid difficulty. 

When you decide you’re tired of hurting yourself with these patterns, you’re ready to change.

So the question becomes, how do we stop hurting ourselves? How do we start to break down our hardened procrastination habits and create more helpful patterns?

The answer is to start thinking of these hardened patterns as grooves.

The Grooves of Our Habits

When you first procrastinated, you didn’t have a hardened pattern. You had a choice. You could do your homework, for example, or you could put it off and do something more fun.

You felt fear or resistance to one task and that made other options more appealing. You chose the easy route, and that felt good in the moment. There was an immediate reward. There would be difficulty later, but that was something to deal with in the future.

Easier choices are usually rewarded with immediate gratification. So by repeating this choice over and over, you start to wear a groove, a familiar pattern, in your mind. After a while, the reward isn’t even needed, and the groove becomes so deep that the choice is automatic. And breaking the pattern is much harder.

How do you get out of the grooves you’ve made? Conscious effort. We have to be willing.

How to Change Your Patterns

(Gajus/Shutterstock)
Observe the urges, without acting on them, but also without judgment. (Gajus/Shutterstock)

The steps to breaking out of a groove are simple, but they require taking action:

Decide That You’re Tired of the Groove. The first step is recognizing the old groove isn’t serving you. It’s hurting you. When you decide you’re tired of hurting yourself with these patterns, you’re ready to change. Assess whether you’re ready right now.

Commit to Conscious Change. When you’re ready to stop hurting yourself with the old pattern, make a commitment to practice, and be very conscious about, changing your groove. Making the commitment to someone else, or a small group of friends or family, is a powerful way to commit.

Set Aside Time for Deliberate Practice. You’re not going to change your groove haphazardly. You have to practice consciously and with deliberate effort. Set aside a small practice period each day—just five minutes to start with. I recommend scheduling it for first thing in the morning before you check email or start work. Set up a reminder to hold yourself accountable.

Set an Intention for Your Practice. Before you start, tap into your reason by remembering why you’re practicing. In what ways is this old habit hurting you in your life? Is it hurting your career, health, happiness, relationships, or finances? Is it preventing you from doing more meaningful work? Set an intention to practice in order to make these things better.

Set Yourself a Task. Pick something you’ve been putting off, but perhaps not your hardest or most uncomfortable tasks, to start with. Commit to doing that task for just five minutes.

Let Yourself Do Nothing Else, and Watch Your Patterns. Sit there and do nothing but that task, or do nothing at all. Notice when you have the urge to switch to something else, to get up and get away. Getting perspective on your old patterns is hugely valuable in itself.

Observe the urges, without acting on them, but also without judgment. They’re just feelings that arise, not anything to worry about. Just watch, don’t act; just sit and face the urges. Then return to the task, over and over, until this is your new groove.

It’s possible to create new grooves, new patterns, that serve you better. I’ve done it dozens of times in life, perhaps more than a hundred times in the last decade. I’m no stronger than anyone else, and if I can do it, so can you.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net