December 14, 2019

How to overcome procrastination: X minutes rule

It's all about tricking your prefrontal cortex, the emotional brain, into letting you start the task in hand.

How to overcome procrastination: X minutes rule

We've all been there. You have carefully planned what to do in the last couple of days. You've split the task in hand into smaller pieces. Everything is ready for you to crunch that task. And the time you allocated for that task has come.

But you are just not in the "mood" of doing it.

Maybe it's a side project that you've meant to do for so long. Maybe it's that boring-but-necessary long email that you have to write at work. Maybe it's cleaning up the house.

It could be anything that you have planned to do. And you meant to do it. But your self is just not willing to cooperate.

It seems that there is a neurological explanation for this. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for planning complex behavior and taking decisions. This is the planning part of the brain that made all the preparations. But the stronger limbic system, that is responsible generally speaking for the emotional decisions, has the last word. Most of the time, emotion wins.

So it's all about "hacking" this system if you want to win procrastination.

And there is a simple trick that you can use every time you found your brain to be in this battle between "have to do" and "don't feel like it".

The technique has many names but the essence is the same. You might stumble upon it under the names 10 minutes rule, 5 minutes rule, 2 minutes rule or X minutes rule as I like to call it.

In short, you just say to yourself that you will only dedicate X minutes for the task in hand. After that amount of time, you are free to stop or continue, depending on your "mood". It's all about tricking your prefrontal cortex, the emotional brain, into letting you start the task in hand.

No commitments. Just X minutes. And X needs to be an amount of time that you consider insignificant if you lose it, but enough that you can start any kind of task. For some people, 10 minutes is a lot of time. For other people, 2 minutes is just too little. Just choose an amount that when you think about it is not a big deal if you lose it.

This works because there's a high chance that you will keep working on the task if you just give it a go. The difficult part is giving it a go.

And this seems to be a really old observation. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, is famously credited with:

The beginning seems to be more than half of the whole.

To recap:

  • Determine the right amount of X time for you. I find 10 minutes to be too much of a commitment and 5 minutes too little. I chose 8 minutes, enough to start almost anything, not big enough to scare me off.
  • Commit only to giving it a go. Not to the outcome of the X minutes period.
  • At the end of the X minutes period, choose if you want to continue or not. There is no right or wrong answer. You are not a robot. Just choose if there's actually a reason you don't want to continue or it's just procrastination.

Use the X minute technique to build new habits or just accomplish all those endless to-do lists.

Either way, you will have to accomplish more than without this technique. X minutes or always more than 0 minutes.

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