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The Surefire First Step to Stop Procrastinating

If you've got five minutes, you can get almost anything done.


Hey, you, there: Aren't you supposed to be dealing with that car-insurance problem, or unpacking from your last trip? I know there are dishes to do. So what in the name of all-holy productivity are you doing surfing the Internet?

Well, while you're here, 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 marmosets singing "Let It Go.")

In my many years as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, I've seen self-sabotage in all shapes and sizes. Procrastination, though, 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's not always a bad thing, of course, especially if you work well under pressure and you always end up meeting your deadlines in the end.

But for the rest of us who would like to make some headway on the onerous tasks that putting in our rearview mirror would truly make us feel better, I offer an old cognitive-behavioral therapy trick called the five-minute rule.

What's the idea?

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 might ask. 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 central 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 holding that bill we know we have to negotiate. We don't even unzip that suitcase we have to unpack. 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—and it's probably doable in just a couple of minutes—and then 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 the rule is so great—it will make you much more likely to come back to that task when you're ready to give it another five minutes (or perhaps 10 or 20) in the next day or so.

So tell yourself you can do five minutes. You can. It's not nearly as scary as an hour, or an all-nighter. Whether it's writing an opening paragraph, or just ordering the book that you're supposed to read, that first step truly launches 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 upcoming book Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, and The Friendship Fix, and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check. Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook.

Photo credit: Vic