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E13: Can Mindfulness Make You Less of a Procrastinator?

Updated: Jul 5


Avoidance Emotional Mapping
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Jacob Derossett

We're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach, and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation mindfulness for the past two decades, training and certifying others to teach mindfulness. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled Tame, Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD Mindfulness. On The Aware Mind podcast, we talk about some of the causes of procrastination: fear, trauma, and optimism. We talk about how procrastination could be hereditary and discuss a process for getting away from procrastination cycles. I am Jacob Derossett. We are here with Sarah Vallely, Sarah, how are you?


Sarah Vallely

I'm doing great, Jacob. Thanks. The information here at the front end I got from a published research article named below. They talked about the top five lifestyle changes we can make to better our health determined by research. What do you think, Jacob? What do you think might be on that list?


Is procrastination a vulnerability factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease? Testing an extension of the procrastination-health model. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Jun 2015



Jacob Derossett

Stress is going to be a thing. Social connection. Exercise. If I had to guess diet, sleep.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, you hit most of them. They list exercising regularly, eating healthy, reducing caffeine intake, getting sufficient rest, and managing stress. Managing stress is one of the top five lifestyle changes we can make to support better health. This podcast is definitely about managing stress. They say that procrastination is associated with some acute health problems such as headaches, digestive issues, colds, and insomnia. I get the digestive issues, but the colds. I thought it was interesting that those who procrastinate are more likely to get colds.


Jacob Derossett

Did it say in the study if this was a corollary or causation?


Sarah Vallely

I don't think this was causation.


Jacob Derossett

They conducted studies with dementia patients, and they thought they all slept poorly because they had dementia. And then the sleep researcher went in and discovered because they slept poorly, they had way worse symptoms of dementia.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, I read that carefully. Because I'm always looking for that too. They did use the word “associated”. But there are also discussions about how this cycle of procrastination causes stress, which causes issues with your immune system. So that would tie to the colds, for sure.


Jacob Derossett

I read this very recent study that if somebody tells you that something is going to benefit you or deter you in some way, it will dramatically increase its effects.


Sarah Vallely

You're saying that it's kind of in our minds?


Jacob Derossett

I probably shouldn't be quoting this study off the cuff. But the gist that I got from it is, if I tell you, Sarah, that if you use a red ink pen, instead of a blue ink pen, you will lose more weight from a neuroscience perspective. I love that study. I bring that up all the time to my clients because I tell them everything will make them lose weight. Yeah, like, let's a warm-up, it will make you lose weight.


Sarah Vallely

I believe you. And that's probably why when they write these articles, they're really careful that they use the word “associate” or “correlate”. But I think we can also look at some of this information and say, “You know what, yeah, there is some causation here.” They say one reason that procrastination leads to these issues is that it raises cortisol levels. Also, super interesting. The research shows that procrastination is 46% hereditary. Can we do something about it? If it’s hereditary?


Jacob Derossett

Could that just not be nurture, though, that you grew up with? A mother that procrastinated. So now you've taken on those habits? That'd be very tough to say. You'd have to take twins separated at birth.


Sarah Vallely

It was a twin study.


Jacob Derossett

Oh, it was oh, Wow. Fascinating. We don't understand why people get obese. Some people, if you give them a carrot and other people a carrot, one person will gain weight from the carrot. The other one won't. I'm minimizing the science right now. But yeah, they did the same thing with twin study that obesity is hereditary. But some people just have to work a lot harder not to be obese than others, which seems obvious. But I always tell people to go easy on themselves. They also say that people from a hereditary perspective are obese. Their lifestyle choices will reflect that as well. And in my industry, when I see people saying things like, “I got up at 5 am, ate raw liver, and you should too, and you'll look like me.” And it's like, that's not true, not in the least.


Sarah Vallely

I do believe we can overcome some of these hereditary challenges. I don't have as much background in physical challenges. But as far as behavioral and cognitive--one of the most powerful things about mindfulness is that we can use mindfulness to override our DNA.


Another interesting point here is when we are stressed for long periods, we perpetually activate our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. As a result, we can suffer from anxiety and depression, mood swings, and irritability. And that, in turn, leads to compromising your immune system. So that's one of the connections. We procrastinate. We cause some issues on this physical level with this axis. And that leads us to these moods, which affect our physical immune system.


This particular article is about hypertension and cardiovascular disease. They're saying that this type of stress, specifical procrastination, leads to hypertension and cardiovascular disease in certain people. That's a lot about the physical level and the physical consequences of procrastination on a more behavioral and cognitive level, people who procrastinate often experience behavioral disengagement, which means giving up quickly, especially on exercise routines, healthy eating habits, meditation--some of those lifestyle health choices.


People who procrastinate are often in denial. People who procrastinate often cope with using substances. And the big one, they said the most dangerous behavioral and cognitive response to procrastination is self-blame, putting ourselves down because we're not doing something, and this fear of failure, which can be very stressful, is affecting us on a physiological level. The experts say that this is the most serious cognitive-behavioral response. So how do we use mindfulness to be less of a procrastinator?


Jacob Derossett

I did have a question about procrastinating, and you may be about to define this. But when you say procrastination, I think that what comes to my mind is avoiding things—putting things off.


Sarah Vallely

Procrastination is a form of avoidance. And from a Buddhist perspective, the Buddhist teachings explain that we need to walk that middle way between craving and aversion. Procrastination through the lens of Buddhism is an aversion. What are we opposed to? What are we avoiding, and I use the word procrastination because it's something we all relate to.


Jacob Derossett

The Buddha reduced it down to suffering--grasping and aversion, right, you're pulling positive things towards you and pushing negative things away. I reckon, the more you get lost in that, you're not going to be in the middle, by definition, because you're at the peaks the whole time, you know, you're just bouncing back and forth. And to me, that just sounds like you would be very unstable. I've been there.


Sarah Vallely

One of the things that the Buddhist teachings include is that suffering results from our cravings, giving in to our cravings and our aversions. And when we are doing either of those, we are creating suffering for ourselves.


Jacob Derossett

But I will say if you don't have a foot to stand on with your attention, you will not know that you're doing that. No, I had no idea that I was in my early 20s. I just avoided schoolwork because I didn't feel like I was good at it. So I avoided it. And then that caused so much pain at the end of the semester, just like oh my god, what have I done, but the more that you are aware of your mind going down these alleys of grasping and aversion, the more you can come back.


Sarah Vallely

It goes the other way too, meaning overextension and overworking. And so that's the big point that I want to drive home in this episode--being mindful of when you're in those cycles. When are you into that overextension? Overworking? When are you into this avoidance? Our fourth episode was about being overworked and overextended. I explained what drives us to be overworked, which can be traced back to a sense of responsibility. And or fear, compulsion, and/or aspiration.


Jacob Derossett

We performed an exorcism on me because I was very overworked and overwhelmed. Yes, we wish I kind of always am.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, it was a good one. But today, we're talking about procrastination or aversion or avoidance, whatever term you want to use. And the driving forces, there could be one or more of the following doubt, fear, trauma, or optimism. And so the idea is, is to identify your pattern. So here are some of my patterns. I'm definitely in that realm of optimism. Optimism could be the fantasy you're living in. Or could be risk-taking. It could be being blind to something.


I go into fantasy, and the fantasy could be thinking that it's going to go away, whatever it is that I'm avoiding doing, thinking that it's just going to get solved on its own, or thinking that it's not needed--being in this fantasy that this thing I need to do is not required. But in reality, it is. A real-life example of this would be my bills, my bills, just sit on the coffee table. Deep down, I have this fantasy that the bill situation is just going to get solved on its own. Like, it's ridiculous. I had to have a kind of like, Come to Jesus session with myself one day, and just sit with this. Yeah, this is a part of my thinking process.


But I have to tell you that once the fantasy worked, once it worked a few years ago, I didn't get a power bill for three months. So the power bills sitting there. I didn't do anything about it, didn't get any follow-up, didn't get any phone calls, I didn't get any more bills. And three months later, I found out that they just randomly started sending my account to another guy across town. And I think he actually paid a month of it. So I have this little part of me, it's like, yeah, but sometimes it works.


And then the other is risk-taking; I might just chance it. I avoid whatever it is because I might get a little rush out of the risk. Let me see what happens if I don't fix my refrigerator. Hmm, this could be fun. That's not workable. And also, I blind myself and distract myself with other things. For example, right now I need to be doing some taxes, I need to be putting together an annual report. I've been doing everything else under the sun. Other than those things.


Jacob Derossett

The fantasy aspect is where I believe the way I'm spending my time is the best use of my time. One of the things that I was having an issue with was remembering to frequently empty my cat's litter box because you don't see it, doesn't smell, so there were no reminders that I was getting. And I think I just kept telling myself one day. I'm going to be able to afford a robot litter box, the one that cleans itself.


And so I think I just got back on this fantasy for a couple of months. I’ll think, “One day I'll make more money. I'll be able to afford a robot.” It took me realizing and empathizing with the cat for a minute and being like, “Wow, that's an unfortunate situation my cats are dealing with, it's waiting on me to make money.” Everything you said, I could come up with a million examples of these. My wife will say things like, “Oh, we need to do X,” and I'm like, “It'll probably be fine.” And then she's like, “I don't know why you live this cowboy lifestyle of just assuming things will work out in the end.”


Sarah Vallely

Yeah. And that's excellent that you're mindful of that process. You have seen that process within yourself. Because otherwise, you would probably say, “Oh, no, I never do that.”


Jacob Derossett

I think the pandemic helped a lot. I was home a lot more, I didn't have a lot of things distracting me early on in the pandemic. So I was able just to examine my daily habits. I was kind of confronted with all of the little things that I have been telling myself because I'm so busy with work or because, oh, you know, social interactions are significant for your health. That means I need to go out frequently. All these things that I was telling myself that was like, “You know what? I should probably dust more often, like, that's not getting done.”


Sarah Vallely

Yeah. So that optimism that we've been talking about is only one of four of the driving forces in how I approach this subject. There is also trauma. You can ask, “Is my avoidance about trauma? Am I avoiding this because I can't control it?” Because those of us who have been through trauma sometimes want to control things because that gives us this sense of safety—we will be safe from future trauma.” Or “Am I in this avoidance because I think it will lead to pain?”


Those are some ways to identify cycles of procrastination due to past trauma. Or is the avoidance about fear? You might ask yourself, “Is my avoidance about fear? Do I fear that going forward with this will disrupt my daily routine, disrupt a relationship, and disrupt my finances? Do I fear I will experience emotional stress if I pursue this, or mental discomfort or have an anxiety attack?”


And then the last one is about doubt. “Am I skeptical about the process--the process I need to use to complete this task? Am I just in general unsure about that process? Does the process not make sense? Do I doubt my capabilities of following through with this? Do I suspect someone else's capabilities?” Those are some questions you can ask to identify if your procrastination is driven by doubt. I think that there are some things that I avoid because I doubt the process. I'm avoiding certain business practices because I doubt the process.


Jacob Derossett

I know logically, I need to produce more content for YouTube. You have to put yourself out there when you are a YouTuber. I have a fear of being rejected by people. There are so many thoughts in my head about that kind of thing. And it causes me to avoid.


Sarah Vallely

It sounds like some of that is a doubt, but some of it is fear. Oh yeah, identifying that there are some fears of experiencing certain emotions, fears of how you might be perceived. Mindfulness can support us through this is, especially when you are mindful in the moment that you are in the cycle. And so to do that, it helps to before the moment, like now, explore what those driving forces are. And some of the details of those driving forces--thinking about specific situations when your fear or your doubt or optimism is driving you to be avoidant. Then it's easier when you're in the cycle to identify it because you've already done some exploring.


So that's the important part--recognizing that you're in this cycle. And then be truthful about your tendencies. You'll say, Yeah, this is what I'm doing. That was a big turning point for me when I realized I was procrastinating paying my bills because a part of me believed that if I didn't pay my bills, it would go away, which is ridiculous, right? So I have to sit with myself and just accept that. So you've identified that you're in this cycle. You've just entirely accepted that this is where you're at. And then sitting with yourself and using mindfulness and being curious, asking how this experience feels in my body? What's going on in my body when I'm in this pattern? What behaviors Am I showing? What am I doing? What thoughts am I thinking about using your mindfulness to see the whole moment.


What emotions are resulting as a result of your procrastination is super important because the experts say that moving into those negative emotions of self-blame are dangerous to our mental and physical health. Notice what kind of emotional space is this cycle putting me in? Is it making me feel powerless? Am I feeling regret? Am I feeling trapped in disappointment, and you can use self-compassion practice to help ease some of those difficult emotions. Those are the steps that one can follow to use mindfulness to help them overcome some of these adverse effects of procrastination.


Jacob Derossett

So if you had to put this into a sentence or two sentences, like a blurb, what would your advice be?


Sarah Vallely

Recognize when you're in a cycle of procrastination. Is this about optimism? Is this about trauma? Is this about fear? Or is this about doubt? Then notice the consequences of that being in that cycle, especially emotions and being self-critical. Am I feeling disappointment? And then use self-compassion and acceptance--sitting with the experience to help yourself move through it healthily way.


Jacob Derossett

You are saing, take a moment just to sit and say, “Okay, why am I experiencing this? Where's the stemming from? It's okay that this is happening. I'm human. This is normal.” Sit with it. And then we'll hop up and do the thing you've been avoiding?


Sarah Vallely

The part about getting up and doing it, goes outside the realm of the mindfulness approach. The mindfulness approach is not about doing. Life is about doing. But you have to get up and do it at some point. And I did with my situation. I'm better about paying my bills now. But we're talking about the mindfulness part today. And the mindfulness part is sitting with it, honoring your process, honoring yourself, and getting to a point where you realize, I deserve to feel peace. So to get that peace, I know that I need to not be in this cycle as much. So it's honoring, worthiness, 'm worthy of peace. And so it's better for me if I don't go into these cycles. And one of the ways we don't go into the cycles, is actually doing the thing in some cases.


Jacob Derossett

I think that's a significant distinction for people to hear about. Mindfulness is not about doing life, is about doing. That's a great quote from you. I often subscribe to a path to awakening to enlightenment to getting beyond making mistakes. Anytime that I regress, it feels terrible. But then remembering that oh, yeah, wait, this is what the path is. You know that the path is recognizing, going back, recognizing going back. And so I must realize that life is about doing, and this practice is not, so it's okay. It's just about, accept you will eventually do it. You don't have to use your mindfulness to hit yourself over the head when you don't.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, and some people might think that avoidance is “not doing”. That’s not true. You're doing stuff to avoid. So you're doing things like distracting yourself with other things. You're doing something like telling yourself, “I really should be doing this. I'm kind of a crappy bookkeeper because I'm not doing this.” That's a doing right, so even though avoidance is a putting-off, it's still a doing, which we want to be aware of. It's a wake-up call to all that doing that goes into procrastinating. It's exhausting.


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