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(Jupiterimages/Thinkstock)
(Jupiterimages/Thinkstock)

How I learned to stop procrastinating, two minutes at a time Add to ...

I am a master procrastinator. If they were giving out Oscars for putting things off, I would be Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and the guy who writes the Disney movie songs rolled into one. For example, I sat down 43 minutes ago to start writing this piece. Since then, I’ve made a snack, flipped through the new Vanity Fair, checked e-mail three times, called my mom, trolled around on Facebook, looked into the cost of renting an RV and watched the trailer for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot.

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This is pretty standard, but there is a key difference − I am doing all of this while sitting in a clean living room. Outside my plants are watered, downstairs my laundry is folded, all of my receipts from the week have been stored away for tax season, and in my bathroom the toothpaste cap is attached firmly to its tube.

This intoxicating order is the result of my latest self-improvement experiment: a week spent conquering procrastination one tiny task at a time. Thomas Jefferson said, “Never put off till tomorrow what can be done today.” My slightly altered version: Don’t put off anything that can be done in less than two minutes. No exceptions.

I got this idea from Gretchen Rubin’s “one-minute rule” set out in her popular self-help Bible, The Happiness Project, so when the time came to seek expert advice, I went straight to the source. When I e-mailed Ms. Rubin, she got back to me right away (probably because responding to my message took less than a minute).

Over the phone, she explained that the technique is effective because anyone can do it and get results: “So many of us have this scum of clutter in our lives and it can be overwhelming, which is where the short time frames come in. You can make such a huge difference and it feels almost effortless.”

As I took stock of my dishevelled house and mile-long to-do list, I was reminded of that old saying: How do you eat an elephant? (Answer: One bite at a time).

The journey of a thousand laundry loads…

On the first morning I lingered in bed feeling a little bit crushed under the weight of my elephant, but instead of the usual line of thinking (“My house is a pigsty, but I’ll wait until the weekend to do something about it.”), I threw back the covers, made my bed and identified a two-minute task: Put away the array of cosmetic products that appeared to have exploded in my bathroom (one minute, 13 seconds). And then another: Dispose of already-read, year-old magazines (one minute, 56 seconds). And another: Collect towels and put in laundry (25 seconds), and so on.

Some tasks, such as hanging up all the clothes on the bedroom floor required more than the allotted two-minute time frame, but I hung them up anyway, motivated by the hope that this kind of pile-up couldn't happen in the tidy future of two-minute task accomplishment.

I scheduled appointments, blasted off a few thank-you notes, went through the mountain of mail and when I came upon the bill from my accountant (one that had been sitting around for several weeks) I opened it, promptly found my cheque book and a stamp and walked to the mailbox. I almost flew home.

If you don’t suffer from the “just leave it” syndrome, you’re probably thinking, “Duh − what else would you do when a bill arrives other than pay it swiftly?” For me, the tax bill was a perfect example of a task that might normally take about six months to complete. It felt like I was learning a new language − I once was blind, but now I see to it that my bills get paid on time.

Wisdom from a human fortune cookie

As the week went on, the number of tasks I encountered in any given hour shrank − instant gratification for all of those tiny gusts of concentrated effort. Sure it required willpower (after having friends over for a barbecue, I wanted to roll into bed, not load the dishwasher), and the odd burst of bravery (like when I finally fessed up to an invoicing error that had been haunting me for months), but as Ms. Rubin so wisely put it − nothing is more exhausting than the task that has never started. The woman could write fortune cookies in her sleep.

I plan to stick with the two-minute rule on a permanent basis in the hope that getting rid of “the scum,” as Ms. Rubin calls it, will leave more time and energy for life's larger elephants.

(That and watching the odd YouTube preview).

Reader response

This is actually so true. Gotta start on so many things.

Chelsea Cuzzocrea

 

Sounds similar to the 'Getting Things Done' strategy: If it will only take you two minutes, do it now.

Tania Stevenson Pendergast

 

I did it! I finally cleaned out the linen/storage closet upstairs! I'm so happy it is finally done.

Ester Glavin

 

Why can’t we blissfully procrastinate? ... If you don't need that light enough to change the light bulb, who cares? – J. Mark Champion

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