Parable of the donuts, or, How to stop procrastinating
This is a story of how to finish a box of donuts, or, how to stop procrastinating by breaking things up into little pieces.
Picture this: one morning a colleague decides to bring a big box of donuts into the office. Everyone sees them, thanks her for the gift but declines the offer since they are still following their New Year’s Resolutions to eat less sweets. For a hours the donuts go untouched.
Then someone grabs a knife and cuts up all the donuts into fourths.
The next time someone passes by the box of donuts they see the smaller pieces and say to themselves, “A piece of a donut? Why not…,” and so the first piece gets taken. Others pass by and do the same.
Before too long, the box is empty. Many people have taken more than four pieces over the next few hours, their initial denials a faded memory. And yet, no one feels like they’ve really eaten that much.
Work is like the donut. When your mind first sees any task, the first impulse is to procrastinate and push it off — inertia is default. However, you can trick your mind by breaking the task up into small, inoffensive pieces. It then doesn’t feel like work at all.
For example, say you’ve been procrastinating cleaning a certain room. The bookshelves are a mess, you need to hang pictures, there is general disarray. This is the full donut.
The first thing you need to do is tell yourself you will only clean one small corner: a 5 minute task. Your mind can’t argue with 5 minutes — it’s such a small amount of time. And so, you clean that corner.
However, after cleaning that piece of the room you now have momentum — most likely you’ll be motivated to clean the next part right beside that corner. Before too long you’ll have spent 20+ minutes on the task and you’ll be well on your way towards actually having the room cleaned.
And so too with other tasks…
If you need to read a book, start with one chapter.
If you want to a language, start with 20 words.
If you want to meditate, start with 5 minutes.
Note that this isn’t, 5 minutes of meditation every day for the next 5 months. It’s just 5 minutes, now. Your mind will argue and fight against the former but the latter is innocuous, even though if you do the latter consistently it’s the same outcome.
What breaking up the problem has done is allowed you to overcome the activation energy of actual starting, and starting is the hardest part.
This is why Pomodoros are such a wonderful tool. Briefly, a Pomodoro is an uninterrupted 25 minute period of work followed by a short break. The idea of the Pomodoro Technique is that by not working for long stretches at a time you can work for longer and more effectively. What it forces you to do is to break things up into pieces — you have to split activities into small time periods and this makes them easier to begin.
I find that I eventually actually enjoy doing the work after starting with the small task. For example, whenever I don’t want to run, I convince myself it’s only for a short 10-minute jog. By the time I’m out the door and warmed up, I actually forget the initial lethargy and go far longer than initially planned. I think this is partly also because the Zeigarnik effect kicks in: our desire for completeness provides additional momentum once we’ve actually started to work. We also realize that what we are resisting is actually more our own mind’s projections of work rather than the actual work itself.
So whenever you are next procrastinating, think of the box of donuts. Break up the problem and try Pomodoros.