The Five-Minute Workday

9:05am — Time to knock off!

There’s different levels of procrastination. There’s your ordinary “I’ll do my taxes on April 14th” procrastination. Then there’s the more advanced stuff: you move to Montana, build yourself a hay-bale shack, and pray the IRS gives up on finding you after a few decades of not filing your taxes.

If you are edging towards the latter extreme, I need to share with you my best trick for breaking through the malaise. And this won’t be a long article. It can’t be! I don’t want to contribute to your procrastination, after all.

Step 1 — Identify the single most important task you need to complete. It will probably be something ghastly that involves Microsoft Excel or animal husbandry.

Step 2 — Agree with yourself that you will work on that task for five minutes. After those five excruciating minutes have elapsed, you give yourself permission to take the rest of the day off. “But I can’t take the rest of the day off,” you protest, “I’m at work!” Okay, okay, we’ll come back to that.

Step 3 — Do the five minutes of work. And then keep working as long as you feel like working after that, knowing that you have already earned a delightful, guilt-free escape from work you can take whenever you feel like.

You will probably keep working much longer than five minutes. You just needed that initial starting motion. That was the hard part! The idea is to restore your sense of agency by exercising a tiny bit of willpower.

And as for taking the rest of the day off… I know you often can’t literally get up and leave without risking a bad talk from your boss. “Taking the rest of the day off” can mean different things in different situations. Some people sit at their desks all day posting to Facebook (or reading Medium articles) while still getting paid. White Collar Folk are masters of avoiding work while looking very busy. We don’t even comprehend how fantastic we are at doing nothing at all!

Maybe you sit in a bathroom stall for 7 hours and 55 minutes playing Angry Birds on your phone.

Clearly, you had enough freedom in your work environment to be able to procrastinate in the first place. You aren’t working in an Amazon order fulfillment warehouse with every physical movement tracked to the second. Or at least the thing which you are trying to get done allows postponement. If it didn’t, you would have completed it by now.

So whatever procrastination activity you would have done instead of your important work, call that your “taking the day off”. It will be the mental reward you picture to motivate you. Maybe you sit in a bathroom stall for 7 hours and 55 minutes playing Angry Birds on your phone. It’s actually quite liberating to mentally declare that you will waste the rest of the day in the most pleasant way available to you.

You might manage to complete those five minutes of work, and still feel entirely unmotivated to continue. Hey, sometimes that is just where you are! In that case, I think you really need to take the rest of the day off. I don’t guarantee you’ll be able to keep your job if you only work five minutes every day. But one way or another, eventually the problem will sort itself out.

Okay, stop reading Medium articles. At least for five minutes. Seriously, just stoprightnow!