The ten minute timer trick for beating procrastination may appear simple, and it is, but there’s some intriguing – and very useful – psychology behind it.
Procrastination is a phobia.
phobia n. a persistent and irrational fear of a specific situation, object, or activity, which is consequently either strenuously avoided or endured with marked distress.” [APA Dictionary of Psychology 2nd. Ed. p. 792]
The ‘strenuously avoided’ part is the procrastination.
I find this definition both unhelpful and patronizing. In the procrastination context, the ‘persistent and irrational fear’ is actually quite rational – if not overly adaptive.
The fear driving procrastination is the primal fear of death – resulting from social rejection – resulting from failure (as in, your tribe chucks you out of the cave when they realise you are a worthless failure, and you soon perish from a severe case of sabertooth tiger).
The purpose of procrastination is to protect you from failure – because if you don’t try then you can’t fail. And if you don’t fail then your tribe won’t chuck you out of the cave.
While rational at a primal level, it is problematic in these non-paleolithic times when our brains can’t tell the difference between sabertooth tigers and failure or rejection. And it is a very real psychological terror.
However, the good news is that since procrastination is a phobia, it can be treated like one.
A common treatment for phobias of any kind, including arachnophobia (fear of spiders), is graded exposure therapy – also known as desensitization or habituation.
Graded exposure therapy involves gradual exposure to the avoided stimuli. For example, someone with severe arachnophobia may be asked to stay in a room with a picture of a spider on the far wall. (This may seem extreme, but a few decades ago here in New Zealand, several postal workers with arachnophobia threatened to resign following the issue of a set of stamps featuring spiders.)
Typically the person will initially feel a strong panicky desire to avoid the aversive stimuli – in this example the spider picture. But usually after only a few minutes the anxiety subsides.
This process is called ‘habituation’ – where the person habituates, or gets used to, the previously feared stimuli.
Once the anxiety has subsided, the picture is moved closer to the person, and so on. The process continues until the person has completely lost their phobia and can handle a real spider. Personally I think that’s taking it a bit far. I theoretically approve of spiders, but I’m sure they don’t like being handled.
Anyway, the point is that when you’ve been avoiding something – study, an assignment, a project, your novel – there’s usually some form of fear involved. In a sense we have actually developed a study, assignment, or project phobia. I assure you I developed a phobia about my Ph.D. thesis. It became an object of dread.
We don’t always need to overcome our fears. For example, I consider my fear of large sharks to be extremely adaptive.
But for many of us, fear of failure is the major cause of procrastination. In turn procrastination is the major cause of underperformance, and a major barrier to success.
But this fear can be overcome by gradually increased exposure to a very small amount of the feared stimuli. Hence the anti-procrastination trick of ‘just’ working on some task you’ve been avoiding for a mere 10 minutes.
And, like graded exposure, you can gradually increase the amount of time.
So what potential success have you been avoiding?