Five minute miracles

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This is a brief and overdue follow-up to my last post, on overcoming procrastination. As is evident from the length between last post and this one, this is still a struggle for me. Yet, I know these things go in waves, that I have lessened procrastination in other areas of my life even as I’ve continued it in this one, and I’m not giving up!

This post is actually one of good news, because in the past week, through applying a surprisingly simple technique, I’ve been able to progress on and even complete tasks that had been on my plate for a long time – in once case for many months! I wrote previously about the degree to which things prey on us while we procrastinate on them. We may think we’re postponing suffering by putting off miserable tasks, but in reality, those tasks hang over our heads and weigh us down to an increasing degree until we complete them. To continue the dark cloud metaphor, we can’t enjoy sunny weather when we’re consciously turning our backs on storm-clouds on the horizon. And the longer we put tasks off, the easier it is to make that procrastination a part of our unconscious self-labeling, and the scarier the task becomes. Either we end up waiting until it’s absolutely urgent, or we may never do it.

But this week a friend suggested a technique that worked like a charm: work on things you want and need to get done for five minutes every day. I was skeptical. Five minutes is hardly anything, and I feared I’d have the frustrating experience of getting barely into several painful tasks with none of them completed. But the opposite happened. I would time myself and work on something for five minutes, and especially on those frustrating little organizational tasks that I put off so much, I was able to accomplish the whole task or nearly all of it in five minutes. And for more long-term things, like working on a paper or book, five minutes made me feel I had accomplished something, and more ready to go back to it later in the day, because I didn’t have the scary hurdle of not having begun.

The reason this works (for me, anyway) is that five minutes is a totally non-intimidating amount of time. One can endure almost anything for five minutes! So even if the task is torture, five minutes and it’s over. But as I pointed out previously, most of the time these tasks aren’t really torture. We psych ourselves up to think they’re far worse than they are; in reality, they’re not really a big deal, and getting them out of the way is pure relief that frees us to pursue more important matters. Procrastination adds to the dread of doing something guilt or shame over the fact that I haven’t done it yet. Doing something painful for five minutes gets it at least partly done and gives one a feeling of accomplishment or at least of courage. And it’s easy to reward oneself with something fun at the end of five minutes!

This really worked for me. I paid overdue bills, sent a complicated email and attachment that had been overdue for months, started practicing the guitar, did taxes, and started a study-plan on my most recent paper. All thanks to starting to tackle important tasks for five minutes a day. I hope it’s helpful for you, too!

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