Defeating the Procrastination Monster – Part 4

By June 22, 2015 Productivity No Comments

Framework 3: Knock Out Tasks That Are Difficult to Start by Following the 15 Minute Rule

====5-PART SERIES=====
Introduction: The Things You Care About Doing But Haven’t Gotten Around To…
Framework 1: Tackle Big Dreams, Eliminate Overwhelm, and Prevent Disappointment with Bottom-Up Goals and the MIT System
Framework 2: Eliminate Distractions with a Flow-Friendly Schedule
Framework 3: Knock Out Tasks That Are Difficult to Start by Following the 15 Minute Rule
Framework 4: Kill Burnout, Low Mojo, and Over-Productivity with Purposefully Pointless Play

Imagine being able to put any habit “on tap” — at your disposal at any moment. A habit like going to the gym, writing, or reading. The problem is…sometimes the habit we most want to adopt is particularly difficult or unpleasant for us and we tend to put it off forever.

The solution is deceptively simple: the 15 minute rule.

For difficult or unpleasant habits, start with doing it 15 minutes per day. Nothing more, nothing less.

It might sound too simple to make a significant impact, but there’s actually something amazing about doing a difficult task for 15 minutes that has not happened with doing it for, say, 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or 60 minutes.

I’ll present 2 case studies to illustrate this idea.

15 Minute Magic Case Study #1: Running

Back before I became a competitive triathlete and the kind of person who would say “HELL YES!” to virtually any physical challenge, I was the kid in my physical education class who would always finish last in the timed 1-mile run.

One particularly embarrassing instance was when I fainted during a short, 400 meter warm-up jog in class. The teacher sent me to the principal’s office so I could be picked up by my dad and go home.

Since that day, I resolved to overcome the poor hand I was dealt in the genetic lottery and become good at running long distances.

It all started with a simple promise to myself, by recommendation by a mentor. He said, “All you have to do is run 15 minutes a day. Do that everyday.”

So I did. Every day after school the first thing I would do before homework and dinner was lace up my running shoes and jog for 15 minutes. I would run to my friend’s house, situated on the other end of our street, then back home, and that would be almost exactly 15 minutes.

The results of this simple routine were beyond the wildest of my imaginations:

  • 1 month later….went from no involvement in school sports to joining the high school track team. Unfortunately, I was the slowest runner on the team :(
  • 2 years later….made top 10 on the women’s team on a team of 100+. Cut my 1-mile time in half (12:35 minutes to 6:16 minutes).
  • 4 years later….finished an Ironman Triathlon, a long and grueling endurance event (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) typically attempted between ages 35 and 45. I was 18, the youngest finisher that year at the event, as it turned out.

….and it all started from a promise to run 15 minutes a day.

15 Minute Magic Case Study #2: Writing

Back before writing several books on various topics, I was considering writing my first book. It would be on a topic I knew well, but I couldn’t get myself to make any progress on the writing.

I tried so many different tactics to get myself to write that I almost gave up.

First, I put “write book” on my calendar, on the weekend. I never got started.

Applying the common advice of “Break your goal down to smaller pieces!”, I put “write 500 words for book”, and “write chapter outline of book”. I still couldn’t get myself to write.

Maybe “time boxing” would work? I scheduled huge chunks of time, between 3-5 hours long, on the weekends so I could finally tackle it…when I had the time. Failed again!

Maybe a “process-oriented” goal would be better than an “outcome-oriented goal”? I switched to thinking about writing in terms of time spent (process) instead of word counts, blog posts, chapters, or any other deliverables (outcomes). It worked after tweaking the target writing time.

“Write for 1 hour per day” didn’t work (I would never get started).

I dialed it down to “30 minutes per day”. That worked for a while (I would write 30 min on some days, but not others).

Finally, I swallowed my ego and set the bar low. Pitifully low. “Write for 15 minutes a day”.

Lo and behold, I managed to actually write for 15 minutes a day for 21 days in a row.

As a result of that promise to myself, I developed a new, better reality that I couldn’t have possibly imagined beforehand…

  • 6 months later…wrote a book the size of the third Harry Potter book, in 8 weeks.
  • 1 year later, transitioned professionally from programming to a role that is almost exclusively spent writing all day, and oversaw the writing and editing of 3 books.
  • 2 years later, started and finished another book within a period of 3 months.

Now, I sometimes have to limit myself from spending too much time writing! Writing is now on tap, on demand.

Putting Principles to Practice

  1. Choose an important task that has been difficult to start and repeatedly put off (e.g. going to the gym, answering high-priority emails, learning to code, make sales calls for your business, writing, shooting videos or podcasts)

  2. Schedule time everyday to do your task for 15 minutes. For best results, make the task (a) at the same time everyday, and (b) tied to an existing daily routine (e.g. upon waking up, during commute, after lunch, before bed)


Superhuman by Habit by Tynan Smith. Quick tip: Skip the first half and read the 2nd half of the book to learn which habits to apply and how to implement it in your life.

Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. A great book on the theory behind habits. Not the most actionable book but gives insight into the under-the-hood workings of habits, and what goes into making a sustainable habit.

21habit. Research shows it takes 21 days to build a solid habit. Use this website to stay on track with your new habits.

750words. For those who want to build a writing habit, this is an addictive way to do it. 750words is a private online journal that allows you to analyze your thoughts using natural language processing algorithms that determine things about your mindset (e.g. introverted or extraverted, positive or negative, happy or anxious). But, the best part for most people is seeing a long string of marked days that you successfully wrote. Seriously addictive.

Question for you

What is just ONE habit you could build that would be a game-changer for you?