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How Can I Break My Procrastination Habit?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, and social activist, to name a few. As a widely respected Dharma teacher and a tireless socially engaged activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous Dharma-based organizations, initiatives, and projects that are active across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simple living, and sustainability, is dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict.

The following article shared by Jungto Society is part of a series of highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.

Q. I developed an issue of procrastination during graduate school, and the problem is getting worse. If I am facing a lot of stress—for example, if I have several assignments that I need to submit on a certain day—I only start doing them on the very last day before the due date. I have graduated and I am going to start working. My work is in research, so I am very worried that I am going to continue this bad habit of procrastination in my work. Do you have any suggestions?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Actually, you maintain the habit because you really don’t want to get rid of it. For example, when you try to wake up in the morning . . . let’s say you usually wake up at 6 a.m. You decide to start waking up at 5 a.m. in order to pray, but you fail to wake up at 5 a.m. The following day, you can’t wake up at 5 a.m. either. So this is what we tell ourselves: “I want to get up at five in the morning, but my body isn’t cooperating.” But that’s not true. You go to sleep, and then the alarm rings at 5 a.m. You think to yourself, “I need to wake up, I need to wake up, I need to wakeup . . .” 

Let’s say you say that to yourself 10 times. What can you discover here? Does it mean that you want to get up or that you don’t want to get up? It means that you don’t want to get up. That’s why you are not getting up. If you analyze it, your thoughts or your conscious knows you need to get up, but your heart or your subconscious—because it has become used to waking up at 6 a.m.—refuses to wake up. This is why there is conflict between your conscious and subconscious minds. Who wins this battle? Your subconscious usually wins. So your subconscious is much more powerful than your conscious mind. There’s an adage in Korea: “When you resolve to do something, the resolution only lasts three days.” When you decide to form a new habit or start a new activity, you can rarely continue doing it for more than three days. That’s why you have to change your subconscious. Changing a habit is not simply a matter of making a choice or a decision.

As a first step, you have to admit that when you are not doing something, it means that you don’t want to do it. Let’s go back to the moment that you wanted to get up. You should just get up at 5 a.m—then there’s no need for that tension of wanting to get up but not being able to. You make the decision to want to get up only when you don’t want to get up. 

All thoughts are distractions. To stop being distracted when the alarm goes off, just get up right away, instead of thinking that you need to get up. Instead of deciding not to procrastinate anymore, just do it. Instead of thinking about going, just go there. Instead of thinking about giving something, just give it. Your action must come before your words. Only then will you be able to change your karma. 

However, it is true that it is extremely difficult to change one’s karma. When you don’t change your habits, it means that you can still bear living with your karma. Although you procrastinated, you were still able to graduate, right? When you begin work, you will continue to procrastinate, but you will still be okay. So you can just live the way you are without worrying too much about your procrastination.

Of course, there are some consequences for procrastinating. But if you don’t want those consequences, you have to change. So instead of thinking about doing something, just do it. Then you will change. However, this is extremely difficult, so I am not sure whether you will be able to change.

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Jungto Society
JTS Korea
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International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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