The Art Of Letting Go: How I Learned To Stop Procrastinating

Distractions and false needs are controlling your life. Zen Habits' Leo Babauta tells us why you need to let go.

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar. —Thich Nhat Hanh

The end of procrastination is the art of letting go.

I’ve been a lifelong procrastinator, at least until recent years. I would put things off until deadline, because I knew I could come through. I came through on tests after cramming last minute, I turned articles in at the deadline after waiting until the last hour, I got things done.

Until I didn’t. It turns out procrastinating caused me to miss deadlines, over and over. It stressed me out. My work was less-than-desirable when I did it last minute. Slowly, I started to realize that procrastination wasn’t doing me any favors. In fact, it was causing me a lot of grief.

But I couldn’t quit. I tried a lot of things. I tried time boxing and goal setting and accountability and the Pomodoro Technique and Getting Things Done. All are great methods, but they only last so long. Nothing really worked over the long term.

That’s because I wasn’t getting to the root problem.

I hadn’t figured out the skill that would save me from the procrastination.

Until I learned about letting go.

Letting go first came to me when I was quitting smoking. I had to let go of the "need" to smoke, the use of my crutch of cigarettes to deal with stress and problems.

Then I learned I needed to let go of other false needs that were causing me problems: sugar, junk food, meat, shopping, beer, possessions. I’m not saying I can never do these things again once I let go of these needs, but I let go of the idea that they’re really necessary. I let go of an unhealthy attachment to them.

Then I learned that distractions and the false need to check my email and news and other things online … were causing me problems. They were causing my procrastination.

So I learned to let go of those too.

Here’s the process I used to let go of the distractions and false needs that cause procrastination:

  1. I paid attention to the pain they cause me, later, instead of only the temporary comfort/pleasure they gave me right away.
  2. I thought about the person I want to be, the life I want to live. I set my intentions to do the good work I think I should do.
  3. I watched my urges to check things, to go to the comfort of distractions. I saw that I wanted to escape discomfort of something hard, and go to the comfort of something familiar and easy.
  4. I realized I didn’t need that comfort. I could be in discomfort and nothing bad would happen. In fact, the best things happen when I’m in discomfort.

And then I smile, and breathe, and let go.

And one step at a time, become the person I want to be.

You can only lose what you cling to. —Buddha

This post originally appeared on Zen Habits, and is reprinted with permission.

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  • heaven

    Good advice! But I beg to differ with the idea of "root cause". In this case and many others it seems to be this desire "to do the good work I think I should do". Somehow our minds can start objecting to this at some level and dives into the "meaningless", into that "other thing" -- as sabotage even! Some procrastinators accomplish interesting results or skills that way but others clearly do not.

    The stress of guilt, the sense of underachieving of not living up to all the production standards the world sets can be lifted by abandoning an ineffective fight against it. Others found lasting peace in the reverse: understanding what they are fighting or passive-aggressively contesting by doing everything but the task at hand. Sometimes it's a sign our mind is doing something which it's not geared towards. So yes, as written, understanding "the life I want to live" or more practically: the unwanted life and let that go. Trust fate to present alternatives in the now fertile space.

  • atriantafy

    This article is so short but right to the point. Thank you for sharing this with us. I wish more articles were that way. (I rarely comment on articles by the way)

  • Phil Turpin

    It's interesting because I never thought of procrastination by distraction as the avoidance of something uncomfortable. Thanks, Leo.

  • Tiago Luiz Dos Santos

    Really nice article... I have been reading several articles about procrastination, and I never saw that my problem was the same as yours. Thanks man... This will definitely be saved as a reminder for myself. Keep it up with the good work :D

  • Sthapaun Patinthu

    I will make it my desktop wallpaper for this. It worth to waste my time.

  • Linda M Brown

    So true! Distractions and the feeling of being comfortable sucks up your time, energy, and later causes undo stress. This is the type of article that should be shared to students as well. Awesome. Thank you! I needed this (and on my birthday!). What a gift!

  • trytothink

    Thank you for these words. Yesterday after reading them and thinking about them, I copy/pasted them into my daily todo list that never gets much attention. Long story short -- I got more "useful" things done yesterday than I have in a long time.

    The concept of letting go of is what I needed. I hope that I can remind myself of it every day and make it stick. Thank you.

  • anniie

    We will tire and become immensely unsatisfied going in circles and only when we get off our butt and take action will we be happily compensated, it will radiate!

  • PTB

    I hope everyone reading about this personal strategy for the first time takes a moment to internalize it.

    This method of thinking has extremely positive effects that change everything. I see so many people I care about not reaching their full potential because they are distracted by urges to fulfill meaningless needs defined by external sources; because they don't critically think of WHY they actually need something. This is a way to truly be yourself and feel emotionally and spiritually fulfilled.

    Your relationships with friends and family will become more rewarding, seemingly insurmountable tasks will become manageable, and things in life that have true value to your happiness and success will become apparent. Take heed!

  • Bastiaan Weers

    Being a procrastinator, I had to smile when reading this article. I recognized myself immediately. Very well written and a good piece of advice. Thanks.

  • Susan

    I realized I didn’t need that comfort. I could be in discomfort and nothing bad would happen. In fact, the best things happen when I’m in discomfort.
    is highly naive. Of course "bad things" can happen when you are in discomfort. A lot of times, when you procrastinate, it is because what you are working on is a problem with no obvious solutions and significant potential for bad outcomes. That's why you are procrastinating--to put off having to deal the potential bad things for as long as possible, hoping that your subconscious, in an off-moment, will have that flash of ingenuity that solves your problem that your conscious mind just cannot dredge up at the moment.

    Procrastination is an issue, but overly simplistic zen statements don't help.

  • trytothink

    If you feel that way, then this article really isn't for you. #4 isn't talking about a toothache. Some of us suffer from near debilitating levels of procrastination. Sometimes I feel like I'm not accomplishing anything for weeks at a time. I look back on Friday at what I've done in my job and I feel like all I did was attend a few meetings and read a few emails.

    Most of the day, I browse the web and participate in political discussions. At an intellectual level, I know that what I do is useless. I know that it's counterproductive to everything I want to do and the person I want to be... but I do it anyway.

    Yesterday, I came across this article in my endless surfing. I read through the listed items and realized that it's right. I avoid the small discomforts of doing work and take the easy comfort of reading about the latest political controversy that fires my anger and gets me interested in taking the pointless action of posting... like here. :)

    I read through the items yesterday a few times. I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths and then opened them and closed all my worthless browser tabs. I probably had one of my most productive days I've had in a month and it felt wonderful.