A useful ten minute procrastination “hack”

Nick IngramThinking2 Comments

Procrastination

Have you ever put off a piece of work because every time you think about it you just get more stressed? A toxic cycle of feeling guilty and stressed holds you paralysed until the night before the thing is due. And then the stress of not delivering the work finally becomes higher than the stress of doing the work, so you get down to it. And then you find that doing the work wasn’t so bad after all! Welcome to the upside down cycle of procrastination!

Next time you’re in that cycle, give this ten minute procrastination “hack” a go.

The ten minute procrastination “hack”

This “hack” is really simple. When you’re feeling stressed by a piece of work and you’re putting it off, try this:

  1. Sit down and start on the piece of work for ten minutes only.
  2. Do anything you can on that piece of work during the ten minutes: do some thinking about it on paper; or find all the materials you’ll need for it; or start typing it up; anything, as long as you’re working on the task.
  3. If you are still feeling really stressed about the work after ten minutes, you’re allowed to stop and try again tomorrow.
  4. If you really hate the quality of all the work you did in that ten minutes, you’re allowed to throw it all out and try again tomorrow.
  5. But, if you find you’re feeling OK about the work after ten minutes, and you discover it’s not as bad as you thought it would be, you’re allowed to keep working and maybe even get the whole thing done!

This won’t work every time – but it will work more often than not.

Why does the ten minute “hack” work?

This “hack” relies on the insight that procrastination is often about “short term mood repair” at the expense of the long term (to quote leading procrastination researcher, Timothy Pychl). That is, we do something else now, instead of the task we need to do, for the purposes of feeling good now. Even though we won’t feel good later, because the task isn’t done. So we catch up on emails, instead of writing the paper for our boss, in order to avoid the stress of writing that paper – in particular the stress of wondering if the paper is going to be good enough for her.

The “hack” works because often it’s the anticipation of feeling stressed doing the work that’s actually worse than doing the work. And normally it only takes ten minutes of doing the work to realise that.

The power of naming procrastination as an “emotion issue”

This insight that procrastination is all about putting off a task to feel good now, at the expense of feeling good later, can be really helpful. If you name procrastination as being all about emotions – and in particular all about avoiding negative emotions now – you should be able to deal with it better (through tricks like the “hack” above).

In my experience, the two key negative emotions that are involved in my procrastination are either boredom or stress. I think this “hack” works better for the second emotion than the first:

  • Sometimes I procrastinate because the work is just boring. For example, I’ll do emails, or tidy my desk, because both of these behaviours are more interesting than doing my BAS statement. (Much to my accountant’s chagrin). I’m not sure the “do ten minutes now” trick works in that situation. Because after ten minutes I will simply be convinced that doing my BAS is as boring as I anticipated.
  • But, sometimes I procrastinate because I have to write a paper for a client and I am stressed about doing a good job. And that stress is a negative emotion. So to stop that stress I do something else: my emails, or tidy my desk, or one hundred other things that seem important (or even ones that don’t seem important!). This is classic short term mood repair – I stop the stressing by avoiding the task. But if I sit down and start to write for ten minutes, I find that the anticipation of the stress was worse than the actual stress involved when I come to do it. And I’m often fine after ten minutes to keep going.

In short – procrastination is about avoiding feeling bad right now. If that feeling bad is related to stress about the task (eg perfectionism or approval) this ten minute “hack” is likely to work. Because the anticipation is worse than the actual task. But, if the feeling bad about the task is related to boredom, I suspect this “hack” is less effective.

Disconnection with your “future self”

I wrote last year about how procrastination is also related to feeling disconnected from your “future self”, and ways to start building that connection more strongly so that you are less likely to procrastinate. You can read that post here.

Over to you

What “hacks” do you use to overcome procrastination? Leave a comment below.

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2 Comments on “A useful ten minute procrastination “hack””

  1. I agree that the 10 minute hack is not so effective when it’s used for tasks that we fear will be boring. As you said, sometimes doing the task just proves that we are right – it is boring!
    I find it useful to use the reward hack with boring tasks. You need to spend 20 minutes on the boring task and then you are allowed to do something that’s fun for five or 10 minutes. It gets me through the day.

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