The Art of Preventing Procrastination

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I’ve been told procrastination is a major hurdle people have to overcome. I wouldn’t know about that: I never had a problem with procrastination.

I’m not going to discuss how to overcome procrastination. There are plenty of articles out there that teach you how to do that. What I am going to articulate here is how to structure your mind so that procrastination isn’t an option. Productivity becomes your default setting, and you’ll never catch yourself putting off to later what must be done now.

Get Motivated and Organised

Why do you do what you do?

Examine everything you do in your life: the books you read, the events you attend, the hobbies you pursue, the work you do. Why do you do them? What benefit do they bring to you, and what costs must you bear? What do you want out of life and how do these actions bring you closer to fulfilling your life’s work? Create your life goals and keep your eyes on the prize.

Goal orientation is critical. You must know why you do what you do. If something does not take you closer to your goal, you must discard it. This mindset prepares you to eliminate unnecessary tasks ordinary people use as excuses to procrastinate.

You have limited time and energy. Spend them doing things that benefit you. This is an investment: sink time and energy into something, and that something returns greater value to you. Put in eight hours a day at work and receive a salary, spend an hour exercising every day and get fitter, and so on. If you do something that doesn’t bring your closer to your goals, something that won’t help you in some way, you are burning time and energy on nothing.

Arrange your life around two kinds of actions: what you want to do and what you need to do. The former are things that give you meaning, inspiration and energy: your hobbies, spending time with your family, building a business, volunteer work. The latter are things that you must do so you can get on with the former: taxes, chores, difficult training, tedious but necessary administrative work.

Discard everything else.

If something does not bring you closer to fulfilling your dreams and ambitions, it does not serve you and must be discarded. Every little thing, be it puttering around the kitchen during crunch time, dropping work to sweep the floor, daydreaming of your next meal when you’re studying, must be identified, stopped and discarded. This frees time and energy so you can focus on the things that you love and the things that must be done.

Focus and discipline is paramount. Leave no room for distractions. My work table holds my mouse and computer — nothing else. When working, I open only the programs and tabs I need — nothing else. Energy goes where your attention goes, and you want to pour your energies into doing things that offer a return on investment. Channel your attention accordingly.

Act Resolutely

Once you know what you want and need to do, resolve to commit a hundred percent of yourself. It doesn’t matter how small or large a task is: if you can commit a hundred percent to the smallest job, you can commit a hundred percent to the largest. Resolve yourself to never work half-heartedly and to accept nothing less than excellence, if not perfection. Leave no gap for excuses and distractions to wear down your will and steal time and energy through little acts of procrastination.

Recognise that nobody else will do the work for you — especially the unpleasant things that need to be done. Resolve yourself to tackle the most pressing and most difficult tasks to the utmost of your ability. Once you’re done with them, you’ll be left with the things you want to do, and doing the things you do want to do will re-energise you.

This is not to say that you should recklessly attack your labours. Working smart is as important as working hard. Sort your tasks by deadlines and difficulty, then break out the large tasks into smaller, manageable chunks. Set measurable goals and realistic timeframes for yourself. Unpleasant work never ends, but if you can complete enough of it every day to keep you afloat and keep yourself aligned with your long-term goals, you’ll have the space and energy to do the things that inspire you and fulfil your dreams.

Embrace the Suck

It won’t always be sunshine and roses. You’re not going to like everything you do. Inevitably you’ll have to do something you hate, and the emotional reaction that arises will present a convincing case to shun the task. In the face of such feelings, there is only one acceptable course of action.

Embrace the suck.

When you see yourself facing an arduous but necessary task, calm yourself with deep, regular breaths. You may feel disgust, annoyance, displeasure or some other negative emotion. This is perfectly natural, but these emotions won’t help you. As you breathe, acknowledge the existence of these emotions on the inhale, then release them on the exhale. If you need help with this, as you breathe, think the following statement:

I acknowledge that I am feeling angry/sad/unpleasant/disgusted/afraid/(insert emotion here). Nonetheless, I must and I will complete this task. I release this emotion with my breath and commit myself fully to its completion.

If you need to, say it out loud. Recognise what you are feeling and let it go. That emotion is a message from your ego, pointing out how unpleasant something is. It is a useful message, but only so far as it is a reminder of what you dislike. It does not help you with the task at hand. By calmly but resolutely discarding the negative emotion, you are freeing yourself to bring the full weight of your talents and intelligence to bear on your task without inflicting unnecessary psychic harm on yourself.

As you grow more proficient, you can do this faster and more smoothly. At a high enough level, you can sense the emotion and discard it in the space of a breath. Without this emotional pain, you have no disincentive to put off needed work.

Alternatively, let the negative emotion fuel you. Let it fill every cell of your being, becoming the fuel that lets you power through the task. Recognise why you dislike doing something, and use that reason to give yourself motivation to do it properly. Here’s an example:

  1. I hate doing my taxes.
  2. I hate doing my taxes because it is tedious and time-consuming.
  3. I hate doing my taxes so much, I’m going to get them done right now so I won’t waste more time than I have to, and so I’ll be able to do the stuff I like later.

This probably works best if you experience powerful energising emotions like anger when you encounter that task. If a task makes you feel repulsed by it, amplifying that emotion will simply give you a greater disincentive to not do it.

Regardless of the tactic you choose, you must tackle the task NOW. Accept no excuses from yourself. The only reason to hold off doing something is if doing so will put you in a better position, such as getting friends to help you, getting information from elsewhere, or letting an adversary wear himself out before meeting him in the field of battle. If you will not gain an advantage by waiting on it, attack the problem immediately and decisively. Commit yourself fully to the task and keep going until it’s done.

Re-energise Yourself

Attacking difficult tasks will expend more energy and willpower than easy tasks or things that you enjoy. At some point you’ll run out of energy. It’s impossible to keep a fire burning when all you have left is ashes. When you’re burnt out, it’s easy to keep pushing back tasks. This isn’t procrastination so much as legitimate exhaustion, but procrastination sprouts from the seed of exhaustion; it’s easy to tell yourself you’re still tired even if you’re ready to go again. Thus, you must keep yourself in a state of high energy.

There are two ways to maintain high energy. The first is to restore yourself by taking breaks. The second is to do the things you love, the things that create energy for you and maintain your momentum.

Understand what helps you recover your energy. Sleep, quality time with your loved ones, your hobbies, whatever it may be. Some blessed people can perfectly align their interests and work, so the things they do keep them motivated all the time. If you can’t reach this rarefied state of existence, it is perfectly fine. Simply schedule triggers for breaks.

There are plenty of articles that advise working in bursts of 30 to 45 minutes and taking time off to recover. If this is how you work, do it. I’m not like that.

My mind operates in two modes. In regular mode, doing things I don’t particularly enjoy or actively dislike, short bursts of maximal concentration do help. Working at a task for 45 minutes to an hour will trigger a stop for a break, at which time I’ll walk away from the computer and do something else for a while.

But when I’m engaged in a flow state, like when I’m writing or doing something that requires my utmost attention, time loses relevance. If I stopped at regular intervals I would merely be breaking my flow and reducing productivity. Instead, I set an event trigger: the completion of a goal, such as completing a chapter or an article, triggers a stop for a break, not the passage of time. Once set, I ride the flow state all the way to the end, regardless of how much time it takes. And even so, if I’m still in the zone when I hit the trigger, I won’t stop. I’ll maintain the momentum and keep going until fatigue takes over. Or until I’m done for the day.

Victor Pride wrote about this phenomenon in New World Ronin. Everyday tasks, what he calls black and white work, are boring but necessary, and can be dealt with through multitasking. But full color work, creative work, demands your complete time and energy; you have to keep at it, keep the momentum going, and ride the wave until you are done. No matter how long it takes. The work itself energises you, so you don’t have to take a break.

Energy–physical, mental and emotional–is the fuel of life and the necessary ingredient to success. The secret to success is to keep yourself in a state of high energy. If you have to do work that you hate, take time outs regularly to keep up your energy. If you’re doing work you love, work that keeps you energised, maintain the momentum and do not stop.

Productivity is a Mindset

Procrastination is human. But so is productivity.

Understand yourself. Understand what keeps you going on and on and on. Understand what you despise, what makes you feel like you’re being dragged through the mud. Set in place habits that allow you to maximise the former and manage the latter. By taking away distractions and temptations, and keeping yourself in a state of high energy, you allow no room for procrastination to seep in.

Productivity is a state of mind — and with the right mindset, success becomes an inevitability.