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.

Take Back Your Mind

The world is filled with noise. Talking heads spewing propaganda disguised as news. Clickbait sites screaming for attention. Outrage mongers twisting your heart to become more like theirs. A never-ending stream of pop-ups and notifications and messages, all urgent, all demanding your time and energy. In the face of such madness, there is only one thing to do.

Take back your mind.

The Art of Stillness

Digital noise is like a tempest, blowing your spirit one way, then another. It wears you out, scrapes down your soul, leaving you with nothing. A steady diet of clickbait grinds down your ability to focus, to read, to think deeply. It short-circuits your brain, triggering your amygdala instead of your neocortex. Instead of embracing the rationality that is the birthright of all humanity, it leaves you mired in a cesspool of anger, fear, sorrow, outrage, a whirlpool of negative emotions like a tribe of ever-chattering monkeys.

The antidote is stillness.

Silence the monkey mind. Let no thought touch you and no-thought pervade your consciousness. With a still mind and calm heart, the stress of ever-rioting emotions fades away. Here, you can reclaim your soul and transform your mind into a clear spring. This state of being allows you to immerse yourself fully and deeply in life. With constant practice, you can ease your stress, sleep better, digest well, and move with grace.

There are many ways to meditate. Mine is simple.

Find a secluded time and place where you will not be disturbed for the next ten to thirty minutes. This could be your bedroom, a yard, a park, someplace that is reasonably quiet and free from people. Take no distractions with you: no phone, no computer, no television, nothing.

Sit upright. Spine erect, head upright, hands held upright on your lap. Beginners may choose to sit on a chair or cushion. More advanced practitioners can sit cross-legged on the floor, in the half- or full lotus position. The object is to place yourself in a neutral state that your body can hold for a period of time.

Now, half-close your eyes and breathe into your belly. If you need to, place your hands on your stomach and breathe. On the inhale, your abdomen should expand and your hands move. Breathe gently but smoothly, going as deep as you can go, then just as calmly, breathe out. This is a calm, unhurried motion: there is no need to pant like a dog.

As you breathe, find your rhythm. My preference is to breathe in for four counts, and out for four. Others may prefer different rhythms. Find one that suits you best and keep to it.

And now, just breathe.

Focus on your breath. Be aware of the air rushing through your nostrils, reaching into the depths of your lungs; feel the movement of your diaphragm, the rise and fall of your belly. Should stray thoughts away, return to your breath. There is no forcefulness here, just the deliberate direction of intention. Instead of squashing stray thoughts, focus your attention completely on breathing.

If you find your mind wandering, that’s all right. The objective is to develop mindfulness. By detecting a stray thought, you are cultivating mindfulness. Simply bring yourself back to the neutral state and carry on.

Beginners should try to meditate for five to ten minutes. When you find you can keep a clear mind, expand your practice by a minute. If you can meditate for at least a half hour, you’re well on your way to becoming an advanced practitioner.

You can mark your meditation progress by examining the intensity and volume of your thoughts while meditating. The softer and more indistinct they become, the better.

In the beginning, your thoughts might sound like this: Bread milk eggs is the kettle on boil i need to answer an email wonder whats for lunch work is…

Later, they may go: Bread…eggs…kettle boil…answer mail…lunch…

With consistent practice, they become increasingly muted: Bread…mail..work…

At more advanced levels, all you’ll feel is the impression of a thought, the incoherent firing of random neurons. It may feel like this: ?

When you are ready, all you will sense is this: …

When you have reached that state of emptiness, grow your capacity to meditate.

The Wakeful Mind

In the waking world, strive to hold that clear state wherever you can. It won’t be easy, of course, or desirable. There are plenty of activities that require you to think. But what you should strive for is the conscious direction of intent, the same way you consciously focused on breathing and a clear mind.

When thinking through a complicated math problem, this means applying one hundred percent of your thoughts on cracking the equation instead of drifting off into unrelated tangents. When driving, you’re focusing on the wheel, the road and your vehicle instead of a random butterfly. When talking to someone, you’re focusing on what he is saying and how your words affect him. This is the state of the wakeful mind.

Buddhism teaches that there is a gap between the creation of a thought and your perception of it. Meditation teaches you to find it. It is something to be experienced, not read about. Once you find that gap, you are better able to respond appropriately instead of reacting unthinkingly. If someone bumps into you by accident, this allows you to smile and shrug it off instead of flying into a furious rage.

At a higher level, you may find your thoughts circulating around fixed themes and ideas. No matter how you try, these ideas colour the way you think about something. This could be things like “I am ugly” or “I am a victim”. These thoughts come up again and again everywhere you go.

These sticky thoughts are attachments. They stir up your emotions, making you feel a certain way. Every time you touch it, you will get the same emotional response. Such thoughts prevent you from fully living in the moment. Here, apply meditation to dissolve these thoughts. Calmly examine these thoughts, digging deeper as you go. If you mind that these thoughts are baseless, apply the same mind-clearing process to dissolve them. If these thoughts are not without merit, you can reframe them.

For example, someone may think “I am fat”. If an examination in the mirror and weighing scale reveals a perfectly healthy body, then the thought is obviously a delusion and can be released. If evidence suggests otherwise, the thought can be reframed as as a catalyst for action: “I am fat now and I do not like it. I will find a gym and sign up for personal training.” While you don’t need to be a meditator to do this, meditation makes it easier.

In a meditative state, there are no positive or negative emotions. Only a calmness as serene as a peaceful lake. In this state of perfect serenity and awareness, you can act without hesitation, without mental roadblocks, without fear. This is the state of a wakeful mind.

Feeling emotions is not wrong. Every normal and healthy person will feel emotion. You should neither shun negative emotions like anger, fear or sorrow; nor should you flee from positive ones like happiness, joy or pleasure. By sealing off emotions you seal off your heart to life, the opposite of what we want to accomplish. What you want to do is simply feel them in the entirety and let them go when the moment passes.

Emotions should come and go like a meditative breath. They should be experienced fully, then released completely. Imagine yourself to be a cup. A steam of emotions pours in, filling it to the brim. So long as it is full, it cannot hold more or different liquids. Empty the cup of your heart like you empty your lungs; let your breath carry out the emotion from the world. Holding on to emotions means holding on to something longer than is appropriate, leading you to self-harm.

Emotions are like snowballs. Small ones can pile up into an unstoppable avalanche. Here is a story about a famous warrior chief who decided to feed a flock of birds. As he scattered grains among them, he noticed that the grains were like the farms of a valley downstream of his village. Farms in lands he had taken from his former enemies as spoils of war. His enemies must surely be eager to take them back. He had to stop them! He must! So he gathered his men and marched to war.

This applies equally to positive emotions too. A woman decided she would never feel sad or depressed again. She went out with her friends, going to clubs and parties all the time. But she was never satisfied, graduating to drinking parties, hard drugs and one-night-stands with random men. She’s trying to numb herself by chasing highs, but all she’s doing is spiralling into self-destruction. This is the story of Tove Lo’s Habits (Stay High).

Thoughts control emotions. A wakeful mind can sever emotional attachments, preventing the avalanche before it begins.

(I should point out at this stage that meditation is not a replacement for psychiatric treatment. People with mental health issues should seek help from a professional instead of attempting to self-medicate with meditation.)

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to meditate. Some traditions use extensive visualisation exercises, taking the meditator on a journey to the inside of their minds. In analytical meditation, one attempts to investigate a topic deeply with the power of a focused mind. Another practice requires you to observe the flow of your thoughts as they wander in your head. Yoga and qigong demand absolute focus, calmness and relaxation, like meditation in motion.

Find the method that works for you. There is a plethora of benefits associated with meditation that make the time worth it. To start, all you have to do is dedicate five minutes a day, every day, just for conscious breathing. This is only one-third of one percent of your day — and the payoff is spectacular.

For further reading, please see the following links:

Get Up and Ruck

Life is not lived sitting down behind a screen. Life is lived outside at the edge of your comfort zone, at the borders of your day-to-day experience. When everyday life grinds down your soul, when you weary of staying indoors and experiencing the same routine over and over again, there is a simple solution.

Get up and ruck.

Rucking is simple. Carry weight on your back and go out for a walk. Go solo or go with friends. Go as far and as fast as you can. The important thing is to get moving and keep moving.

To go rucking, you just need two things: a ruck and a destination. When preparing for a ruck, you need to manage your weight and bulk. Pack everything you will need first, followed by everything you may have to use in an emergency, and lastly things that are nice to have but not necessary. In the above photograph, my ruck was packed with the following:

  1. 40 oz / 1.18 litre Hydroflask
  2. Necessities pouch containing flashlight, spare batteries, medicine, stationery, packets of tissue and band-aids
  3. Umbrella
  4. 2 granola bars
  5. Coin pouch
  6. Kindle

These were packed in order of importance. Water is critical, followed by medicine and hygiene. Should an emergency strike, you need to be able to deal with it there and then with the tools you have on hand. While illumination, shelter and food are also important, in urban environments they can be found nearly everywhere. The coin pouch and the Kindle are the nice-to-haves, so light and small they go with me wherever I go.

There’s so little packed in the ruck that it makes the bag look floppy. That’s deliberate. Pack light, go fast. The less you carry, the more agile and mobile you are, and the more things you can do when you get to wherever you are going.

The point of rucking isn’t just to go from point A to point B. It’s to experience life. Keep your head up, your phone down and your legs moving. If you see something interesting, go explore. See someone interesting, go talk. Going light lets you do all this without losing your breath or acting awkward around strangers. And if you find yourself picking up or buying stuff, you have plenty of empty space inside your ruck to keep them, leaving your hands free.

This is not to say you shouldn’t carry heavy stuff. If I have to get work done on my computer, I bring it with me. If you want to challenge yourself by carrying more weight, go right ahead. But everything you carry in your ruck should serve a purpose. The heavier something is, the more the weight has to be justified. If that weight is not used somehow, it has to go.

Once you have your ruck, you need somewhere to go. Both a starting point and an endpoint. There are many areas of attraction everywhere in the world. The trick is to find them.

Many locals consider Singapore to be the most boring place in the world. In a sense, that is true. Everywhere you go you see the same thing: high-rise flats (apartment blocks to Americans) clustered next to private estates, a shopping centre at every major train station, offices and industrial buildings at designated business zones.

But life is lived outside day-to-day experience.

Rucking in the big city is simple. Pick a neighbourhood, preferably someplace you haven’t been before. Study a map of the area. Plot your route if you want, or not at all if you prefer to go rambling. Call up friends if they’re interested, or go solo.

That’s it. Head up, phone down, go ruck.

Here are some photos from my latest ruck:

Shophouses from the colonial era.

This side of the Singapore River, you’ll find fancy restaurants, pubs and massage parlours.

It’s quiet now, but come nightfall, this place will be packed.

Skyscrapers by the water. The building in the distance is the Fullerton Hotel.

The most important bar in Singapore’s modern history. Here, sociopolitical activists, bloggers, lawyers and politicians used to meet, discuss their latest plans, and carry out events.

Hotel Park Royal at Upper Pickering Street.

Lime restaurant inside the Hotel Park Royal.

The signature red truck of the Police Special Operations Command.

East and West: Green tea chiffon cake, paired with warm kaya dip.

Rucking is simple, yet challenging. It’s an opportunity for exploration and adventure. It’s a chance to go see what is in your patch of Earth. Immerse yourself in what you find, and share them with the world.

The next time you feel that you need to do something new, the prescription is simple.

Get up and ruck.