Procrastination Busters: The 15 Minute Trick

Years ago, when I was writing my PhD thesis, I went to the library in a fit of desperation. My main PhD supervisor had left the country permanently in what appeared, to me, to be a fairly dramatic move to avoid reading my drafts. If it was that dire that someone had to move to the other side of the world, what were my chances of getting this thing finished? I knew that rather than getting on with the work, the correct and proper thing to do was to find a book about what to do.

I found one called “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” by Joan Bolker. I know what you’re thinking – that’s impossible! – and it is. The title was pretty misleading. BUT….that book, and the concept I’m about to share with you, changed my life.

The basic premise is that fifteen minutes of truly focused attention is better than no minutes. Or an hour of hopping between your project and Google and social media and Ebay/Trade Me. In fact, when you let yourself really play with the concept, it’s surprising how much you can acheive in quarter of an hour – if you really set your mind to business. (As an aside, I’ve set myself the goal of writing this post in fifteen minutes. With another fifteen to edit, and another to upload a photo and publish.)

Here’s the trick, in a nutshell:

Close all other tabs, turn off all notifications, let the dog out/in/out again.

Make sure you have everything you need within arm’s reach, to allow you to throw yourself into the ONE piece of work you’ve been procrastinating on.

Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

Sit (or stand) and focus entirely on that one job for fifteen minutes. If your attention wanders in that time, gently (but firmly!) bring it back to the task at hand.

When fifteen minutes is up, review your progress. Have you nailed it? Well done you. If there’s more to be done, notice how you feel about the job now that you’ve warmed up to it. Are you hating it? Step away and do something else (we’ll come back to creativity and struggle in a future blogpost). Are you feeling neutral or positive? Set the timer and work solidly – head down, tail up – for another fifteen minutes. Rinse and repeat as needed (but take a decent break when your attention is hard to reign in).

It’s so simple, but amazingly effective. Give this a try with something that you know needs to be done, but you’ve been putting it off.

And tell me – on a scale out of 10, how AWESOME are you at procrastinating (where 10 is the world’s best procrastinator ever)?



{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Jenny October 13, 2016, 12:49 pm

    I was once a wonderful procrastinator Nicola, but my talent for it diminished when I started working to tight external deadlines. I still dally in procrastination now and again, and next time I do it I’m going to try this 15-min trick (thank you). Another great piece of advice my sister gave me was to forget about finishing, instead focusing on “keep starting”.

    • Nicola Brown October 17, 2016, 4:09 pm

      Ah yes Jenny, the power of the deadline – so helpful for some people, but a big trigger for high-level procrastination for others! Thinking about starting is often more appealing, so your sister could be onto something there. Thanks for commenting buddy!

  • Amanda October 13, 2016, 8:29 pm

    Great advice!! I know I tend to list projects rather than tasks on my to-do list, which makes them feel too big to tackle – this is a great reminder to a) just start and b) keep the tasks shorter (so I can *actually* achieve them)

    • Nicola Brown October 17, 2016, 4:06 pm

      Thanks Amanda – since you like this trick, I know you’re going to love some of the others coming up on the blog. Breaking things down so they seem less daunting is key. Cheers!

  • Jennifer Andrewes October 13, 2016, 9:24 pm

    I am applying this technique to my book writing as we speak. I am off to spend 15 minutes having a coffee because I have just wasted at least 15 minutes watching others doing just that at the cafe outside my window! Then it will be back for 15 minutes of focused book writing… 😉

    • Nicola Brown October 17, 2016, 4:05 pm

      Awesome Jen – perfect timing for you! I can’t wait to see how your book comes together.

  • Maria October 15, 2016, 6:15 am

    I’m absolutely going to start this. I am a procrastinator of magnitude 7-8. If there is housework to be done (there is), I find time to play cards, if I need to sort through boxes (I do need to), I will spend quality time with the girls, if I need to do some exercise (I really do. A lot.) I might do some baking as a reward for after the exercise. Now I have started my Masters and have loads of reading to do, I find myself getting a lot more housework done, and there are 5 fewer boxes in the garage…
    Thanks Nic!

    • Nicola Brown October 17, 2016, 4:05 pm

      That’s brilliant Maria, you’re truly skilled at procrastination. (You sound so adept at it, I almost wonder if you’ve been practising since primary school lol!) Seriously though, that’s fabulous about your Masters – I hope this helps you all the way through!

  • Richard Joseph October 18, 2016, 7:15 pm

    Hi Nicola,
    I just wanted to say how brilliantly written your blog is, well done. I tend to procrastinate if I’m tired but then I reframe it as something to look forward to. Regards to you and Ros.

    • Nicola Brown October 19, 2016, 6:05 pm

      Why thank you so much Richard!I’m glad you enjoyed it. How wonderful that you reframe procrastination as giving you something to look forward to – you must really love your work!

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