How To Beat Procrastination

Last week we looked at the first two steps to leading a successful Essentialist life: identifying the important, and getting rid of everything else.
Since you’ve all had a week (or seven days) to work on that, no doubt your lives are now swept clean of all extraneous matter, dust-catchers and time-wasters. No? Well, neither is mine, but every little bit helps, and we’ll get there.


Step three is to remove obstacles; in other words, to make it as easy as possible to do the important things, and not do the unimportant things.

But the procrastination, I hear you say. How do we defeat the procrastination? This has been an ongoing battle in my life, and an ongoing preoccupation of the blog since – well, since the second post I ever wrote.

It was sometime while reading Essentialism, or a book quoted therein, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – sorry I can’t be more precise, but I’ve been sick the last couple of weeks and it’s all turned into a sort of formless soup of days – that I had the epiphany.

Eureka arkimedi

The solution to procrastination is habit.

What is procrastination but the deferral of what we know we need to be doing? What is habit, but the doing of things without thinking about it?

Of course, not all habits are good habits. When we think of having a habit, we tend to think of drink or drugs or smoking, or something similarly unhelpful or destructive. Think again.

Do you have to consciously make the decision to brush your teeth twice a day, or do you find yourself wandering into the bathroom and loading up the toothbrush automatically (whether it’s time to brush your teeth or not)? Do you need to think about where the light-switch is, every time you walk into a dark room, or do you just turn it on? Do you get dressed in the morning, or do you head off to work in your pajamas?

Pijama on a motorbike

Habits can be good or bad. The trick is to make a habit (or rather a whole slew of habits) of doing the needful thing, so you don’t have to spend all your time and energy strong-arming yourself into doing it, or feeling bad for not doing it. You just do it. Easier said than done, I know, but there are things that can help.

For one, you can trick your brain. Brains get so used to how the habit works – cue, routine, reward – that they wander off and do something else meanwhile and just stroll back when it’s all over to check that nothing exploded. As long as the cue – whatever starts the routine rolling – and the reward – feeling good afterward – remain the same, you can put pretty much anything in the middle and your brain doesn’t really notice. If you think of a habit as a sandwich, the cue is the first slice of bread and the reward is the second. Your brain doesn’t really notice what’s in the middle, it just goes “ha! a sandwich!”


So you can change the filling of your habit sandwich, and your brain will never notice, because by the time it comes back to check that everything happened as usual, the sandwich is down the hatch and your brain is too proud to ask your digestive system what just happened. (It are a fact. I know because of my learnings. Read Duhigg if you want something a bit more legit.) The crucial difference is that you’re doing what you want & need to do, instead of what you briefly felt like doing.

That’s changing habits. It is also possible to start entirely new ones, although it seems to take more work as you are creating an entirely new pathway in your brain instead of altering an old one. This is the sort of thing that FlyLady gets you to do.

Either way, whether re-using an old pathway or creating a new one, the aim is to tread that pathway down into a rut that you can slide along with the minimum of effort. Yes, it takes a lot of work at first to create a new habit or amend an old one, but think of the results! Imagine a life where you don’t waste your time doing things that don’t matter, and where the important things get done quickly and efficiently without you having to constantly bully and nag yourself into doing them.

That's me right now

Doesn’t that sound good?
It is possible, and the way to reach this golden dream of a future is to train our habits to serve us, instead of allowing ourselves to serve them.

So there you have it, my fellow procrastinees. Go forth and conquer.


Every now and then I come across a book which is so thought-provoking that having reached the last page, I turn back to the beginning and start again. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is one of those books.

On the platform, reading

The author, Greg McKeown, suggests three steps which the person who wishes to make the most of their life must take, and keep taking.

1) Decide what is most important. (Priority!)
2) Get rid of everything else.
3) Make the most important happen as easily as possible.

This applies not only to physical possessions, but (even more) to how you spend your time. “Dost thou love life?” Benjamin Franklin asks. “Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”

The first step reflects the undeniable fact that you cannot do (or have) it all. We cannot have every career, do every job, own all the clothes, or maintain all possible relationships. As Miss Pettigrew says, “There are times when decisions just have to be made, or you certainly will miss out.” Other people are generally only too happy to make these decisions for you – at worst, for what suits them, and at best, for what they think will suit you.

It's your decision

Of course, deciding what is really important in your life is seldom a quick or easy process, but then, it is your life. Worth taking the time, I would say.

Once the decisions have been made, comes the hard bit (what? you thought it was going to get easier from here?) – getting rid of the inessential. Clearing out one’s cupboards is relatively painless compared with learning to say no to people. Especially when what they are asking you to do is something good.

As a child, I read a book about a woman who went off to be a missionary in or near the Sahara. I don’t remember her name, or the author’s, or for that matter what the book was called. I’m not even sure it’s the same book. What I do remember is something she was told as a child: the good is often the enemy of the best.

Horatius at the Bridge

The good is often the enemy of the best. Because there isn’t room in your life for everything, and the best is outnumbered. Because the good is defensible, because you can rationalize it away, because it’s often easier, because people will be happy with you.

The good is often the enemy of the best. Give no quarter; stand your ground.

And the third step? Same time, same place, next week.
Because the third step, mild as it seems when compared to the first two, is actually a complete game-changer.