Everyone puts things off until the last minute sometimes, but procrastinators chronically avoid difficult tasks and deliberately look for distractions. Procrastination in large part reflects our struggle with self-control as well as our inability to accurately predict how we’ll feel tomorrow, or the next day. “I don’t feel like it” takes precedence over goals; however, it then begets a downward spiral of negative emotions that deter future effort.
Procrastinators may say they perform better under pressure, but more often than not that’s their way of justifying putting things off. The bright side? As with most habits, it is possible to overcome procrastination. It’s possible to overcome procrastination—with effort. Perfectionists are often procrastinators; it is psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of falling short on performance.
One of the simplest tricks to tackle the tasks that you tend to put off is the five minute rule. If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing. But to fully capitalize on the five minute rule, it’s essential to understand why it works so well.
“Most procrastination is caused by either fear or conflict,” says Christine Li, a clinical psychologist specializing in procrastination. Even if we’re motivated to accomplish a task, fear—of failure, criticism, or stress—pits us against ourselves. We want to finish the project, but we also don’t want our fear to become reality. “This conflict makes it seem like it would be unwise or even impossible to move forward,” says Li, “which explains why we sometimes procrastinate even when it makes no sense to do so.”
And so the five-minute rule lowers that inhibition, lulling us into the idea that we can dip quickly into a project with no strings attached, according to Julia Moeller, a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Thus, the person reserves her right to reconsider her engagement after five minutes,” says Moeller, “which might increase the feeling of being in control and making an autonomous decision, rather than feeling forced to do something the person really absolutely does not want to do.”
The tactic also lowers what psychologists refer to as the “costs of an activity,” including emotional costs (fear or anxiety), opportunity costs (missing out on other activities), and effort costs (how exhausting is the activity). Our motivation to engage in an activity increases as costs decrease, says Moeller. So compared to facing down hours of work, a five-minute sprint transforms a burden into something quick and exciting.
The true intrigue of the five-minute rule, though, is why we persist beyond the allotted five minutes once we get started. This is partly because our expectations about how we’ll feel during an activity are often imprecise. Once you’ve started, we often have a more positive attitude toward the task at hand than we expected, says Moeller. For example, studies show that, in general, female students believe they are worse at math than their male counterparts. Yet gender differences disappear when students are surveyed about competency and anxiety during a math test—suggesting that female students’s expectations about their negative feelings toward math do not accurately predict their actual feelings while they are doing it.
Moreover, most activities, even cleaning the dishes or spell-checking a spreadsheet, can elicit the “flow” state, the term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In a state of flow, we become so immersed in an activity that we forget about our surroundings, making time feel as if it’s flying by. Rewarding and motivating in and of itself, flow is also more likely to occur during challenging activities, says Moeller—like challenging oneself to get as much done as possible within five minutes.
Ultimately, the five-minute rule, revolves around the question of how to give ourselves control over our work. After five minutes of intense work, a massive project may still be massive—but having overcome the initial obstacle of getting started, it will no longer seem impossible.