Are You Relaxing, Procrastinating, Or Just Killing Time?

In an age when even His Holiness the Dalai Lama has Twitter, it can be hard to avoid the torrent of information that pervades much of our lives. It’s little wonder so many of us find it hard to switch off, even when we’re not working or studying. In fact, stress in the 21st century was reportedly deemed “an epidemic” by the World Health Organisation.

But another potential epidemic – especially among students – is procrastination. There are so many relatable memes about putting off assignments out there, one could spend entire days combing through them all (and doubtless some of us have). But then again, don’t we deserve a break once in a while?

This is where a lot of us run into trouble. We’re told we need to give ourselves breaks and “down time” and practice self-care, while at the same time being urged to work hard and avoid procrastinating. So how do we tell which is which, and how can we relax effectively without drifting into avoidance?

To find out, I spoke to clinical psychologist Laura Kampel, PhD candidate at Black Dog.

To Netflix or not to Netflix?

Whenever I catch myself procrastinating, I notice the presence of certain feelings – both physical and emotional. Even though I’m sitting on the couch taking in some Rick and Morty, I’m tense, my posture is even worse than usual, and afterward, I feel guilty rather than refreshed.

“That makes sense,” says Kampel. “We are all quite clever at making excuses [to procrastinate], but our bodies can register anxiety.” Procrastination, it turns out, is anything but relaxing – even when the activity itself is pleasurable. So how does one nip it in the bud?

“The thing is to work out your intention. Ask yourself, ‘Am I doing this because I planned to and I really need to relax right now, or am I doing it as a way of procrastinating?’ Relaxation is always important, but what you should do is reward yourself for work done. You can prioritise the task and then reward yourself with relaxation, but generally not the other way around. Chances are, you’ll find something else to do, and you’ll keep on procrastinating.”

“Of course, you deserve to sit on the couch and watch TV, but you need to do it at the right time.”

Taking care of busy-ness

But even when you can spare the time, should you really just sit on the couch and ‘veg out’?

Again, it depends on your intention, as well as how – and for how long – you do it.

“A lot of us watch TV mindlessly,” says Kampel. “We’re so bored, we need so much stimulation that watching TV isn’t good enough. We want to be watching TV while eating dinner and talking to a friend and sending a text at the same time.”

And this quasi-attentiveness isn’t limited to watching TV. Kampel thinks our collective addiction to multiple, simultaneous distractions is limiting our engagement in all kinds of activities.

“When you’ve got this kind of half-attention,” she says, “You can’t really engage and get the full benefit of whatever it is you’re doing… When you’re switching between lots of different tasks, you’re probably not doing any of them well. A lot of research is showing that you’re better off doing one thing at a time; it would be a lot more time effective, and you’d get more enjoyment out of it.”

“There’s nothing wrong with watching TV for half an hour or so,” she says. “But it’s better to switch off your phone and concentrate wholly on the show… You’ll actually get more pleasure and more engagement if you watch TV in a more mindful way.”

Minding the gap

That word – mindfulness – has become something of a buzzword lately. This is the art of staying in the present, and concentrating wholly on one thing. It can be applied to anything, from writing an essay to running yourself a bubble bath.

But what are the benefits of mindfulness? Is it just another wellness fad? The research doesn’t seem to think so – and neither does Laura Kampel.

“Mindfulness is better [than mindless distraction],” she says, “Because you’re actually de-stressing, and you’re allowing the adrenaline, or cortisol, all of those hormones that you experience when you’re really anxious, to settle.” Indeed, meditation – which is basically mindfulness in its purest form – is a proven method for reducing stress and anxiety. But you don’t need a Zen garden to practice being mindful.

“Pretty much any activity that you do, you can do mindfully. It’s about bringing all your senses into whatever it is you do. Whether that’s watching TV or eating dinner, you have a much more full-bodied experience of that moment.”

The rhythm of relaxation

Whichever way you choose to practice mindfulness, the key is to do it consistently – not just when you ‘have the time’.

“A lot of people want to wait for the weekend,” says Kampel. “They want to wait until then and then ‘really’ relax and go for a surf or whatever, or they want to wait for the holidays at the end of the year.

“That’s not a very good way of looking after yourself. By that time, you’re so overloaded, you’ve got so much stress that you end up with either a massive headache, or you often get sick.”

Just like exercise, the true benefits of mindfulness can’t be accessed by practicing once a week. It needs to be incorporated into your daily routine.

“Try to develop a relaxation practice,” says Kampel, “Where every single morning when you wake up, you do a couple of minutes of relaxation. Maybe just a breathing exercise or something with imagery, whatever you like.”

Kampel also recommends breaking up your day with what she calls “mindful moments.” This involves simply taking a minute or two to ask yourself ‘Where’s my mind right now, and can I be more present? Can I really enjoy whatever it is I’m doing? When I’m walking to my car, can I just concentrate on what is around me? What I can see and feel?’

“That can be very grounding and relaxing.”

For more information on mindfulness, check out this explainer (opens as PDF), courtesy of Black Dog Institute.

Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.