Freedom From Perfection, Part 5: My Best Anti-Procrastination Tip
After telling you about my wedding gift fiasco, I promised to give you my best tip to break the perfection/procrastination/guilt/stress cycle. But first, a little disclaimer:
I think it’s vital to deal with perfectionism at the root level—Why did we become perfectionists in the first place? We need to examine those roots in the light of God’s word and establish new expectations of ourselves based on Scripture. We talked about that in Part Two and we will talk about that again before this series is over. Because it’s that important. And it’s that hard. And it takes a long time. At least it does for me.
Just like an overweight person who begins the journey to health and fitness, she must deal with the root issues (Why does she have an unhealthy relationship with food? How does she redefine her worth in the light of God’s word?), but then she must also break the bad habits that developed as a result of those dysfunctional roots (stop eating junk, eat good food in smaller portions, exercise, etc). She has to do both simultaneously or she will never become healthy and fit. At least not permanently. If she only deals with the roots but never changes her behavior, she will still be overweight. If she deals with her behavior, but never the root, she risks falling back into old habits.
And so it is with perfectionists. We must deal with both the roots and the behavior to be completely free forever. And I for one, intend to be completely free forever.
Today, I’m dealing only with the perfectionist behavior–namely the procrastination. It’s a great tip, if I do say so myself, but it won’t heal your perfectionism. Bottom line, just remember, use this strategy in conjunction with the root work, which we will talk about more later.
Alrighty then. Dead horse sufficiently beaten.
So here it is…the one thing that I use every day to help me deal with my procrastination problem: I call it “Five Minutes or Five Things.”
I did not invent this strategy. I read it somewhere, but I don’t remember where. So if you were the wonderful author who coined this phrase in a book or article around the year 1999-ish, then please let me know and I will happily give you full credit. I will also thank you profusely, because this one little practice has saved this Perfectionist from being buried under piles of mail, dishes, laundry, photos, dust bunnies, thank you notes, Christmas cards, and stress for the better part of twelve years!
Here’s how it works:
I look at the task at hand, say, the pile of papers on my counter—which grows so quickly, I swear someone is injecting it with growth hormone. My perfectionist brain immediately screams, “This will take forever. You don’t have time to sort through this entire pile. Run, Sandy, RUN!!!”
But I tell myself, “I will not let this pile overwhelm me. I will only go through five pieces of paper. I have time for five pieces of paper.” And then I do it, just five pieces. And I walk away.
Then later in the day, I will go up to the same pile and tell myself, “I will only go through five more pieces of paper.” And I do it. And I walk away. I repeat this for as long as it takes until the pile is gone.
Or, I will look at the basement, strew with toys and crumbs where the kids have been playing all week and I will say to myself, “I will not let this messy basement overwhelm me. I may not have time to clean the entire thing, but I do have five minutes. I will clean it for only five minutes.” I will set the timer or watch the clock and literally clean for only five minutes. And then I will walk away, no matter how far I’ve gotten into the job. Then a little later, I will go back down and do another five minutes. Then stop and walk away. I repeat this until the basement is clean.
You can do it with anything that threatens to overwhelm you to the point of procrastination:
“I will only address five Christmas cards.”
“I will only fold laundry for five minutes.”
“I will only write five thank you cards.”
“I will only clean the junk drawer for five minutes.”
“I will only respond to five e-mails.”
Here’s why this works so well with perfectionists:
1. Five minutes or five things is a tiny goal. There is nothing magical about five minutes or five things. You can do 10 minutes or 10 things. But I like to aim low. That way I always get it done…which is key for a perfectionist. If I set a goal and can’t reach it, it messes with my perfectionist psyche in a BIG way.
2. I am always shocked how much I can get done in five minutes. I have gone into a dirty room and said, “only five minutes” and gotten the room completely clean in less time. It’s nutty. After twelve years of doing this, it’s still shocking!
3. I am always shocked at how quickly the pile diminishes by just chipping at it a little at a time. Some of my scariest jobs (like cleaning out the storage room in the basement or putting 6 years worth of photos in albums) got done much more quickly than I imagined, simply because I kept chipping at it in little tiny increments over a few days and walking away often.
4. Seeing how much I can accomplish in five minutes often motivates me to keep going for another chunk of time. And before I know it, I’ve finished a job I only intended to work on for five minutes.
I can’t explain it, but this little tip has managed to diffuse every overwhelming task I have faced in the last twelve years. I use this method every single day. Without exception. I’m not kidding. Try it. Let me know if it works for you.
Thanks for the practical and brilliant tip.
Yep. I'm gonna use this one today. Like Glenda said…it's pretty brilliant.
I follow this too, and like you, am amazed at how much can get done.
Thanks for a good tip on a Monday morning that starts a week of "lots to get done." I'm going to start chipping away now!
Honestly, I would never think this would work. I'm a bit of a perfectionist myself and I'm the same way. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed I just shut down and refuse to do anything. I'm going to try this "5 minutes or 5 things" thing. Thanks so much for sharing!!!
I'm going for five minutes today! I've used the 15 minute rule for cleaning and in that amount of time i can almost always get a couple rooms clean!! But, geez 5 minutes. Easy!!
I like this very much.
I recently learned a trick – I put on a TV show, wait for a commercial, and then I race myself to get something completed (like, the junky kitchen counter) before the show comes back on!
I can do that! Great idea! I am about to stop my blog reading in order to deal with just 5 pieces of paper on my desk. Brilliant!
I've heard it before, too (just never listened to the wisdom of it). Maybe flylady???
P.S. You mean I'm not the only one who has years and years worth of photos not put into albums?! That job terrifies me…
Sandy, I wanted to say thanks so much for doing this series. I am a huge perfectionist (which, by the way, my husband can't understand why that doesn't equal NEAT and TIDY) and I am pretty much overwhelmed and paralyzed by it daily. I currently have a HUGE stack of papers on my kitchen table that I have done exactly what you said – avoid it because I can't go through it all at one time, or even WORSE for the perfectionist…I don't know what to do with everything! And so. I'm going to try just 5 pieces of paper at a time. Just 5. And…thank you also for giving us permission to set the bar low because you're right – if I set my goal at 10 and then don't make it, I go spiralling off into failure and guilt and end up giving up. Thank you for being open and willing to share so that I can see I'm not the only one in the world who struggles with this….and that there is hope!
this is brilliant! BRILLIANT! Thank you!!!!! from a fellow CF (crazy perfectionist)