Hey. You, there. Aren't you supposed to be dealing with that problem with your car insurance paperwork and unpacking from that trip last weekend? I know, also, that there are a ton of dishes to do. So, please tell me -- what in the name of all-holy productivity are you doing surfing the Internet?
Good news, though -- let's see if we can make it worth your while, at least on this page. (You're on your own when it comes to those videos of parrots singing "Let It Go.")
In the many years I've spent as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, I've seen self-sabotage come in all shapes and sizes. But procrastination stands out as a favorite modus operandi for making ourselves miserable. We procrastinate for a variety of reasons (anxiety, perfectionism, lack of motivation, guilt, poor decision-making skills) and some of us wear our procrastination like a badge of honor. It doesn't always have to be a bad thing, of course, especially if you work well under pressure and you always end up meeting the deadlines anyway.
But for those of us who would like to make some headway on those onerous tasks that would truly make us feel better once they're in our rearview mirror, I offer an old CBT trick called the five-minute rule. What's the idea?
Here it goes: you pick the task you want to work on, and you vow to work on it for five minutes, and five minutes only. Yes, you must stop after just five minutes. "What can I possibly get done in five minutes?" you ask yourself. But that is the procrastinator talking, the voice that would at this very moment lobby for doing nothing rather than doing anything at all. Are you going to listen to that voice? Don't. So let's ask again: What can you get done in five minutes? Five minutes more work than you would have done otherwise, and often the hardest part of all.
Yes, the biggest magic of the five-minute rule comes from the fact that often, for procrastinators, starting is the hardest part. We're scared of the big, amorphous blob of a task precisely because it IS so big and ill-defined, and because we worry that it will take two hours or two days to get to the bottom of it. And so we wallow.
We don't even open the envelope to that bill we have to negotiate, or we don't even unzip that suitcase we have to unpack, or we don't even take two minutes to assess the piles we have to organize and figure out how many categories to sort them into. But it's those small openings and unzippings that in many ways are the biggest psychological barriers of all.
If you conquer them -- doable in just a couple of minutes -- and then you force yourself to stop after just that incremental progress, your energy and momentum will have started to flow. You might not even want to stop. And -- here is another reason why the rule is so great -- it will make you much more likely to come back to that task when you try for another five minutes (or perhaps you allow yourself 10 or 20) in the next day or so.
So, just tell yourself you can do five minutes. You absolutely can. It's not nearly as scary as an hour or an all-nighter. Whether it's writing that first paragraph or just ordering the book that you're supposed to be reading, that first step truly begins the bulk of the progress in getting there.
Copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.
Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, media commentator, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check. Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook.