Twenty Minute Headstart

How to beat procrastination by tricking your mind

Twenty Minute Headstart

When you work alone (and on hard problems), you have to hack your own mind to battle procrastination. One of my tricks is to start a big task twenty minutes right before something large is about to happen.

Let's say I'm struggling to figure out a problem and have spent all morning doing other things while taking sideways glances at the problem. I sometimes refer to this as the Big Hairy Scary Problem: a problem that is large and you are unclear how to start on it, so you keep putting off doing something on it. Over time the BHSP gets bigger and scarier. It always has the same amount of hair. Or maybe its just something that you don't want to do like expense reports, or starting a difficult discussion with your parole officer. But it-must-be-done-today.

Eventually you can't procrastinate because it is about to be time for lunch, so I set a timer and tell myself I'm going to get a head start on the problem and I work for exactly twenty minutes until I leave to go eat. This garbage time right before lunch has no expectations and I've only got twenty minutes (how much real work can you really get done in that time anyway?), so I'm not under pressure or feeling like I'm behind in any way.

One of the following then happens:

  • I work for more than 20 minutes and more casual conditions allow me to build some momentum. I'm late to lunch, but I don't care.
  • I waste twenty minutes and then go enjoy my lunch.
  • I work hard for 20 minutes, and then my subconscious mind spends my lunch break fussing over the problem while I think about how good Italian Herbs and Cheese bread is from Subway I mean how does the cheese always have exactly the right consistency it looks like those ovens aren't that complex.

In all of these cases I show back up from eating without guilt and ready to go on the problem. In the one case in which this trick failed I took a shot at it and nothing came of it, so we try some more tricks in the afternoon.