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Kick procrastination's ass: Run a dash

Procrastination can drive most of us into a spiral of shame that’s as mundane as it is painfully personal. We know what we should be doing, but some invisible hang-up keeps us on the line. Unfortunately, the guaranteed consequence of procrastination is growth in the scale of the task you’ve been putting off—as well as the anxiety that it creates. All the time you’re putting something off, your problem’s getting bigger—both in reality and in your head, where your colorful imagination is liable to turn even the most trivial item into an unsolvable juggernaut that threatens to overwhelm you. And that means extra stress, more procrastination, and the music goes round.

My favorite tonic for procrastination—which I have mentioned in passing previously—is what I call a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute. By breaking a few tiny pebbles off of your perceived monolith, you end up psyching yourself out of your stupor, as well as making much-needed progress on your overdue project. Neat, huh?

Why the Heck Should This Work?

By making even the most modest bit of progress on your hated task, you’ve done what once seemed impossible: you got started. When you realize how much of the anxiety you’d experienced was created in your head, you’ll experience huge relief and give yourself the jolt needed to get back on track.

You can do a dash any time and for virtually any kind of project. The task has not been conceived that cannot be made smaller and more dash-able.

Three kinds of dashes

Time your dash

Try using a kitchen timer
to run your time-based dash.

Plan your dash based on whatever works best for both your project and the particular block that's hanging you up. The key is to pick a goal that's laughably modest. Seriously, this is not the place for extravagant predictions and overly ambitious goals (that's probably what helped land you here, right?).

  • Time-based dash - Most jobs lend themselves to a time-based dash, so pick up a kitchen timer at your local drugstore. Choose an amount of time that gives you enough room to do something but that's brief enough to seem completely unintimidating. For some reason, eight minutes seems to work well for most of my own dashes.
  • Unit-based dash - Alternatively, depending on the tasks you've been avoiding, you could go with a unit-based dash, during which you agree to plow through an arbitrary number of pieces associated with your project (such as pages to read, words to write, glasses to wash, etc.).
  • Combination dash - In many cases, the best solution is a combination dash, in which you get to stop the hated work whenever you reach either the time or unit goal first.

Above all, remember that this is all about doing something, so pick a goal at which you can't possibly fail.

Some Sample Dashes

Here are a few ideas to get you started, although dashes can work for virtually any project you've procrastinated--no matter how monolithic.

  • Messy garage - Goal: 10 minutes or 1 full garbage bag. Spend 10 minutes working in one area of the garage. Take out old papers, break down some boxes, or move the Christmas ornaments to the top shelf. When the timer buzzes at you, stop.
  • College application - Goal: 5 minutes or 1 page. Start by filling in the easy boxes. If you reach the bottom of the page before time is up, stop.
  • Overdue report - Goal: 10 minutes or 100 words. Just start writing, even if it's complete crap. Just keep scribbling for 10 minutes or until you have a paragraph or two. When time's up, stop.
  • Holiday cards and family correspondence - Goal: 5 minutes or 2 notes. Grab a pen and start making with the nice. Tell them about Tyler's big day at Computer Camp. Brag about Ashley-Marie's jazz and tap recital. When you've hit two finished cards, stop.

Feel Like Working More? Well, do ya, punk?

Once you've made any progress on something you've been procrastinating--even the ridiculously minor amounts of progress you make in your dash--you might find it irresistible to keep working at it. That's okay. Seriously, go nuts.

Although you must begin your dash with the confidence that your life preserver is never more than a few minutes or units away, there's nothing to stop you from paddling forward if you're making happy progress. That's the trick, and, believe it or not, it totally works. Give it 8 minutes, and find out for yourself.

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Lifehacker's picture

Beat procrastination with a dash Productive...

Beat procrastination with a dash

Productive person Merlin Mann says the worst case of procrastination can be remedied with what he calls a dash, or a short burst of focused activity. Say "cleaning out the closet" has languished, untouched, on your to-do list for months....




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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