An ad for The Great Courses keeps popping up in my podcast feed with a soundbite about procrastination. With pure confidence and authority, the speaker announces that the best way to stop procrastinating is to do nothing for 20 minutes. He says it’s been shown to work.
I’d love to know exactly which study proves that this “doing nothing” method works, because I’ve certainly never seen it, and I doubt it exists as an independent study with a substantial number of subjects, good controls, and randomization.
Also, if we apply a little critical thinking, it’s easy to poke holes in this guy’s assertions. For starters, it assumes a specific type of procrastination, the kind that puts off doing an immediate task right now. But a lot of procrastination doesn’t deal with immediate tasks. An example of an immediate task is making a phone call. Let’s say you’re supposed to call a client “this afternoon.” At 2 p.m., you don’t feel like doing it. At 3 p.m., you put it off a little longer. Finally at 4:30, you realize you have to do it now or you will no longer be good for your word.
Now here’s an example of a task that isn’t immediate: You are a student with a paper due at the end of the semester. Let’s say it’s the midpoint of the semester now, and you technically have time now to work on the paper. You think about getting started, but then decide to wait another week. You are procrastinating, but doing nothing for 20 minutes is hardly going to motivate you to start working on the paper now.
Here’s another example of a task that has no immediacy: You should really clean out the garage “sometime,” and it would be ideal if you did it before the first snowfall. There is no real deadline in this scenario. I can’t possibly see how doing nothing for 20 minutes would be of any help here.
It’s a tough subject because procrastination is not one clearly defined thing, as I’ve noted before.
Additionally, most studies of procrastination look specifically at students. Students have specific types of tasks with deadlines. If you’re not a student, do any of the research findings even apply to you? Other studies that look more broadly at workers instead of students, such as work by Metin, Taris, & Peeters (2016), often don’t even search for solutions to procrastination in office settings; they merely measure how and for how long people procrastinate. That is, “What were you doing instead, and for how long did you do it?”
Before you buy into this idea that you should do nothing to cure your procrastination, think about how you are procrastinating. What is the task you are not doing? Why does it need to be completed? When is the task due? What are you doing instead? Start by answering those questions. If you have no deadline, create one. If you have no answer for why the task must be done, do you really need to be doing it in the first place? Additionally, it’s possible you are putting off a task for a good reason, such as because you need a legitimate break before starting it!
Metin, B. U., Taris, T. W., & Peeters, M. C. W. (2016). Measuring procrastination at work and its associated workplace aspects, Personality and Individual Differences, June 2016.
Image by Eric Kilby, CC.