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.

Notes On Navigating An Overwhelming World

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The developed world is harsh on people with hypersensitive senses. The screeching of brakes and tooting of car horns, dazzling and ultravivid colours in every direction, audiovisual assaults from televisions and speakers and screens, the constant demands for attention even as the world wears you down. It can’t kill you. It only makes you feel you’re losing your mind.

I grew up with hyperhearing, hypertactility and synesthesia. Sensory issues have haunted me for my entire life. Skin-on-skin contact has always been painful, especially if someone touches me without warning. Light exerts subtle pressures on my skin–dawn is gentle and soothing; afternoon carries the confidence of maturity; evening light is elderly but accepting; artificial white light is sterile–and when darkness falls it feels like a weight has lifted off me. When someone or something moves within my line of sight I feel a ghost of a sensation creeping across my face, as though my eyes are attempting to mirror the motion. I prefer the harsh but tough texture of 1000D cordura to slick but shallow PVC or plastics of pleather most commercial bags are made of. I have heard phones vibrating over the chatter of a noisy food court and heard the low-pitched rubbery tones emitted by a strand of hair being rubbed between my fingers.

As I grow older, my senses have grown more acute. When I took up kali, every clash of naked sticks was a blinding white blast that left a painful ringing in my ears. When shopping for winter clothing, I ran my finger across a down jacket, producing a high-pitched scratching that bit into my bones. Simply touching the material, much less wearing it, was unbearable. During infrequent trips to cities and malls, I have to brace myself for a constant sensory assault. Sitting in an empty train car offers temporary respite — until the inevitable metallic yellow screeching of metal on metal as the train pulls into a station. I can hear people perfectly well through noise cancelling headphones. My neighbour types on a mechanical keyboard every day, and the only reason I can tolerate it is because he lives a block away. I don’t watch English or other language dubs of movies or anime if I can; the dyssynchrony between words and lip movements is jarring, and many English voice actors are too high-pitched for my ears. I can’t stand ASMR performances; they trigger rage instead of euphoria. I barely even talk on the phone these days: when I do I need to process streams of colours and sounds flowing into complex textured shapes against a flat immobile wall of deepest black, and from this flood of sensory input identify words and phrases, reconstruct sentences, interpret meaning, and construct a reply within milliseconds.

The human brain can only absorb and process so much at a time. In my youth, prolonged exposure to loud noises and tactile sensation led to mental shutdowns and meltdowns.

A shutdown is like withdrawing into a shell and switching off all non-existence-critical life processes. Speech becomes meaningless babble. Emotions run wild, even if body language suggests placidness. Every remaining erg of energy is focused inward on maintaining the remnants of sanity; there is nothing left to frame a coherent thought, to speak a word, to voluntarily move a muscle.

A meltdown is the opposite. It is a lashing out at the world. It is pent-up frustration and dammed-up emotional and physical and psychic pain erupting at once. It is a physical expression of internal turmoil and sensory overload. A gentle breeze becomes a salted knife slicing off your skin; a caress transforms into acidic fire; a whispered word is a deep penetrating bomb delivering a payload of razors and chaff.

During especially stressful periods I logged an average of one meltdown a day, sometimes two. When I was younger I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling; later, when I did, only a handful of people believed me and even fewer respected it.

I will not spend my days fearful of the next meltdown. I will not be battered all my life. This world will not accommodate me — but I can adapt.

Life on a Wrong Planet

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Over the years I developed a number of adaptations to the modern world. To others it may seem eccentric, quirky or otherwise unusual. I don’t care — they help me survive, and that is the highest measure of an adaptation.

I keep my workspace quiet and tidy at all times. When working, the loudest sound I permit is the fan and music at low volume. Usually I work in silence. Spending hours on end without distractions sharpens the mind and concentration, allowing totality of focus on the task at hand.

When shopping for clothing and electronics, I check technical specifications online, create a shortlist of goods, and extensively test the shortlisted candidates in person. I handle them, weigh them, run my hands down them, paying careful attention to sensory input. A single failure in any category is an automatic disqualification. I shun noisy mechanical keyboards, cheap plasticky mice, clothes that offend my eyes, or anything that poses undue discomfort. Usually that means paying for high-end goods, but the price is always worth it.

I talk to people primarily by text message or in person. Phone calls are infrequent and usually to the point, and only if it’s worth the massive energy expenditure required. Long business calls are so draining that I usually have to take time off just to recover from them. I learned not to push myself if I don’t have to, instead taking the time to recover my energy.

When moving through a crowd I utilize footwork from martial arts. It’s more than just practice; it allows me to avoid touching people. Even the slightest brush against human skin is jarring. Timing, distance, weight transfer become extremely important when you have a powerful disincentive against touch. And when you can feel range and motion, integrating that sensation into your movements becomes an exercise in self-awareness and body dynamics.

When the little things define how well you get through the day, you pay attention to the things nobody else notices. I tape down my sticks to absorb sound. I walk on the balls of my feet because the Singaporean shuffle is rough and grating. I pick up and move stuff instead of dragging them and creating painful sound. I strive to speak clearly and use perfect English because Singlish is painful to process. I try to predict areas with loud noises and avoid them if I can.

This isn’t to say I spend my life evading sensory input altogether. The world won’t always respect my needs and desires. So I train myself to face up to it.

I enter arcades and will myself to linger, to function in spite of the razzle-dazzle. I don’t silence noisy children or screaming babies around me if they don’t pose a sanity risk. I attend conventions and conferences if I’m interested in them, and take measures to mitigate sensory input. And when things get unbearable, I break out my personal protective equipment.

ISOLATE