Procrastination, fear of failure, self-sabotage, focus, getting started, deadlines

The 10 minute trick for beating procrastination

[3 minute psychology]

The 10-minute trick for beating procrastination

Ever noticed the hardest part is getting started?

Ever noticed that once you’ve finally started it’s not so bad?

Why it’s so hard getting started

But getting started can be really hard. That’s because there’s a form of inertia (technically known as the extinction burst) to overcome at the start. It takes effort to override the extinction burst, but once you do, you’re away.

Beating procrastination is like trying to push a car. It’s a lot of effort to start it rolling, but relatively little effort to keep it rolling.

Fortunately, there’s a deceptively simple behavior psychology trick for overriding the inertia, or extinction burst, and getting started. And it’s just as useful for the second hardest part – finishing.

We procrastinate on minor tasks as well as incredibly important ones

Sometimes we procrastinate about tasks that are tedious, boring, and complicated. But we also procrastinate on things that are important.

We procrastinate on our study. We procrastinate on writing our novel. We procrastinate on publishing our blog. We procrastinate on asking for a promotion. We procrastinate on applying for the job of our dreams.

I used this 10-minute trick to help me finish writing my Ph.D. thesis. My Ph.D. was incredibly important to me. Yet, at the time, sitting at my computer to work on my thesis felt like walking into execution chamber on death row and strapping myself into the electric chair.

And this trick really helped. I still use it. And I’ve used it to help many other people. It’s really effective and it’s really simple.

3 simple steps to get started and stop procrastinating

  1. Set your timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Work on the dreaded task for 10 minutes.
  3. Stop working when the timer goes off.

I told you it was simple. Even an awful task is bearable for a mere 10 minutes. And once you’ve made a start, if you want, you can set the timer for another 10 minutes or a longer time. The hardest part is over.

The 10-minute trick gets us started by creating mini deadlines.

Most of us stop procrastinating just before the deadline. But often too late to submit our best work. Even if our work is good, it’s an exhausting and stressful way to live. Chronic stress doesn’t end well.

In contrast, rather than one huge terrifying deadline that induces procrastination by paralysis, the 10-minute trick works by creating lots of non-scary – even friendly – mini deadlines.

Make getting started even easier

You can turbocharge the effectiveness of this deceptively simple tactic by rewarding yourself after the 10 minutes.

There are two reasons rewarding even the smallest amount of effort is a powerful procrastination buster:

  1. As far as your brain is concerned, you haven’t just done 10 minutes on something you’ve been avoiding – you’ve actually done 10 minutes in the ring with a sabretooth tiger. So, reward your courage.
  2. You should reward your courage because (as any behavior psychologist will tell you) behaviors that get rewarded get repeated. Your reward can range from a Ferrari to a simple mental pat on the back; “Well done me, I just spent 10 minutes working on something I’ve been avoiding.”

Is it possible to make beating procrastination even easier?

If you are feeling really resistant to doing the task – and it can feel like a powerful physical revulsion – then set the timer for even less than 10 minutes. Five minutes, even two, is enough to get you started.

For example, when my stepsister was struggling to finish her master’s thesis, she would start each day by spending five minutes sketching out a mind map. This tiny non-threatening task is easy and fun to do. It overrides the extinction burst and gets our creative juices flowing.

How to get rapid neural re-wiring

Give yourself a HUGE reward – as soon as possible – after your timer goes off.

Rewarding effort immediately helps your brain replace the association between effort and pain (which leads to procrastination), with an association between effort and reward (which leads to achievement).

The bigger, and most importantly – more immediate – the reward, the more quickly this neural re-wiring will occur, i.e. the more quickly our brains develop new, achievement-orientated neural pathways and the more quickly we lose the urge to procrastinate.

How to pick the most motivating rewards is another series of posts, but the main point here is when faced with a large off-putting task, just set your timer for a minuscule, less off-putting amount of time.

What important tasks are you avoiding?

And where is your timer?


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What are your experiences with procrastination? Do you struggle with it? What helps? What makes it worse? Have you tried creating mini-deadlines before? It would be awesome if you joined the conversation below.

Further reading:
How to failure-proof yourself #1  – As fear of failure is a key driver of procrastination, reducing fear is one of several psychological techniques for beating procrastination 

Procrastination is a phobia – and can be cured like one – It’s not widely known that procrastination is actually a phobia. The good news is that simple behavior psychology techniques used for eliminating phobias, can also eliminate procrastination.

What the sex therapist told me on en route to the burlesque show  – People who struggle with procrastination, often struggle in relationships. Fortunately these struggles can be eased with the acquisition of better psychological tools.

3 Responses

  1. Mary

    Brilliant, this feels achievable! I’m going to use this technique in the workplace for those long reports (will make a cup of tea after 10 minutes).

    • Rebecca Stafford

      I know! I still use this technique for jobs I think are going to be boring &/or difficult. Sometimes you realise the job is much easier than you thought after you’ve made a start. Other times its still boring and difficult, but at least you’re on your way to getting it out of the way. And the weight off your mind when it’s done……
      And honestly, if you can’t even stand the idea of 10 minutes, set the timer for a measly two minutes – with an extra large cup of tea at the end 🙂

  2. Robyn Henderson

    Hi Rebecca,
    I saw you speak at Pecha Kucha in Kingsland a few months back. I really loved your talk and was totally inspired. My procrastination level had been over the top for quite a while. I was getting through each day just spending half my time thinking about what I should be doing next. So I printed up a sheet on Excel where I split the day into 40 minute segments with a 10 minute break in between each one. I used it religiously for a week and was totally stunned by how much I achieved !! I was having problems filling up the day with tasks as I had never structured myself so well before. I made the spreadsheet very realistic so that in some of those 40 minute segments there was a TV watching one and a make dinner one etc so that it didn’t look like some big long to do list. I was achieving lots and “getting things done” so well it felt like magic. I had a month where the wheels fell off and I was away from home with family deaths and stuff and I noticed by not using my spreadsheet I was falling back into old habits again. So I am back on to it and can’t thank you enough for the wisdom you shared. It works really well for me and has quite realistically changed my life. Keep up the great work. I’ve subscribed to your emails now as I am really impressed with your work. Enough of my banter – my 10 minute break is coming up 🙂 Regards Robyn

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