My 15 Minute Rule to Productivity

I like to procrastinate.

I don’t really enjoy procrastinating, but it is one of my weaknesses.  I’ll delay doing something that I know is important until the last moment that it needs to be done.

I’ve learned to overcome this weakness of mine by trying to be more productive to compensate for it.

Blah, blah, blah, productivity system… procrastination… blah blah blah!

I know you’ve heard it all before, but here is the strange part—I almost always get things done well before the deadline.

So what is my problem then?

My problem is that when I sit down to actually do the work, I end up doing a million other little things.

Even though I am overcoming the results of my procrastination by self-imposing much earlier deadlines, I am still fighting against the core of my procrastinating nature.

It is like I have put the angry demon of procrastination in a cage where he can’t harm me, but because I have to constantly feed him and deal with his demands, he’s still slowing me down.

caged thumb My 15 Minute Rule to Productivity

I call it micro-procrastination

Perhaps you suffer from it to.

The symptoms are as follows:

  • Sit down to do work and first check Facebook, Twitter, emails and every other single site that could have something interesting and updated for you.
  • Justify in your head that you need a 10 minute or so transition period to check all this stuff before you sit down to actually do the work you intend.
  • Pick something smaller that is not important and work on that instead. (Clean out email inbox, etc.)

Just about every week, my goal for the week is to record 2 modules for whatever my next Pluralsight course is.

I really never miss this goal, but it would often take me a while to get started each night. I would sit down to do the work, but not actually get to working until about 30 minutes to an hour after when I had first sat down at the computer.

clock thumb My 15 Minute Rule to Productivity

Once I got started, I usually found that I didn’t have any problem continuing with the work until it was finished.

I tended to do the same thing with my blog posts as well.  I know now I need to get a blog post down each week, but it would always take me a while to get started writing the post itself.

Even when I went to write code or solve a programming problem, I noticed that I would try to do many other work related activities like answering emails or further investigating a problem, rather than just working solely focused on the task at hand.

I started to notice a common occurrence between all of these situations in my life.  If I got about 15 minutes into actually doing my Pluralsight course, writing my blog posts, or coding up a feature, I’d almost always end up staying focused on the task.

I found that I would often not want to quit something once I got started.  I’d even miss lunch or be late for lunch or bed because of this.

The 15 minute rule is born

Based on this observation, I decided to try a little experiment.  The next time I was going to work on something, instead of doing my usual ritual of checking email, checking twitter etc, I did the following steps:

  1. Pick out the single task I am sitting at the computer getting prepared to work on.  (It helps to define this very clearly.)
  2. Turn of all distractions for 15 minutes or just decide not to let them bother me for that time period.
  3. Work without pause, without break and without excuse for 15 minutes straight.
  4. At the end of 15 minutes, if I want to quit, then I can quit or multi-task.

What I found is that after 15 minutes of working steadfast and diligently on a single task, I didn’t want to quit.

I found that something that I had no motivation or desire to actually be working on 15 minutes before was now all I could think about.

I found that just like it takes the first few chapters to get into a book and actually feel compelled to continue reading it, it takes about 15 minutes for me to get drawn into my work and want to see it finished.

I’ve been applying this “15 minute rule” pretty regularly now, and I have been having some pretty fantastic results.

I’ve also slipped up on occasion and reverted back to my old ways and have had quite the opposite of results.

I’ve tried other systems

Now I’ve definitely tried many other systems that attempt to solve the problem of procrastination or productivity or both, but none of them seemed to work all that well for me.

I know these other systems work, and I know plenty of people are successful with them and that my system isn’t really much of a system at all—it’s just what I do.

The problem I have found with other systems though, is that they are either:

  • Too complicated to apply regularly unless you are 100% devoted.  (Big barrier to entry.)
  • Only address productivity, and priority, but not actually doing work.
  • Assume you can sit down and actually do what you have set out to do.  (Which remember, was the hardest part for me.)

I am a big fan of Getting Things Done and I highly recommend it.  At the very least read it, because it just has some great overall advice, but…

getting things My 15 Minute Rule to Productivity

I don’t apply it anymore, because I don’t need to organize what I need to get done.  My life is currently so packed and scheduled every day that I already know exactly what I need to be doing just about every hour of my day. 

I don’t even watch TV or movies… Ever.  No really, I mean never ever.

So, with my schedule being so packed, my biggest problem isn’t figuring out what I should be doing—I’ve got that covered.  Instead, my biggest problem is doing it efficiently.

The closest technique to what I am doing is probably the Pomodaro technique.  I also think this is a great technique and is likely to work for many people.

pomodoro My 15 Minute Rule to Productivity

I’ve just found that my mind tends to defeat the technique by telling me that I don’t have enough time to get a whole Pomodoro done right now, so I should just do part of one.

You could call what I am doing a modified Pomodoro technique, whereby I set the duration to 15 minutes and actually try to avoid taking breaks for as long a possible.

Why the 15 minute rule works

I suspect the main reason why this technique works is because of momentum.

When we start to get momentum going for us (and 15 minutes seems to be just about enough time to do so) it is much harder to change course.

Focus is also a big part of the 15 minute rule.  The world today is a fast paced multi-tasking parallel processing rat race in which we are conditioned to switch our attention between multiple things all at once.

distraction thumb My 15 Minute Rule to Productivity

If you are reading this post right now, you probably have even switched back and forth between multiple browser tabs or chat windows or something else and aren’t focusing 100% on reading.  I don’t have 15 minutes to grab your full attention and draw you in (unless you are a very slow reader, in which case I congratulate you for making this far.)

The point is, we have to purposely focus on a single thing in order to turn off that natural tendency to try to be omnipresent.

Doing the 15 minute rule forces me to focus, and that focus tends to shut off everything else in my mind with has the potential to distract me.

The 15 minute rule also prevents me from overthinking about a problem and standing back to admire the problem instead of working on it.

It frees me from obligation.  If I know I have to work for 15 minutes, I am not afraid of not making much progress.  My only obligation is to be working on the task at hand, without interruption and with complete focus for 15 minutes.

I also find that after 15 minutes, I’ve developed a commitment to the work.  Because of the time I’ve already invested in the task, I feel more compelled to complete it.

Applying the rule

Hopefully you’ll find this technique useful and if not perhaps you have a better suggestion or technique.  If you do I’d very much like to hear it, since I am always looking for some practical ways to be more efficient.

Before I let you be on your way, I’ll leave you with some parting advice that I’ve found useful when applying the 15 minute rule.

  • Remove all distractions.  That may mean closing browser windows or turn your phone off or just deciding to ignore everything else.
  • Don’t forget to focus.  Removing distractions is not enough, you must also focus intently on what you are doing.  Be present in the moment.
  • Work, don’t think.  I know thinking is working, but the mind wanders too easily and merely thinking about a topic doesn’t seem to create that same mental traction.  This might mean you start writing a first draft or first hack, but it is important to be actually “doing.”
  • If you feel like you can’t start “doing,” make your “doing” brainstorming, but brainstorm by actually writing a list or making a mind map.
  • If at the end of 15 minutes you are still not into the work and want to quit, go ahead.  Come back a little later and try again.
  • Take breaks when you need to, as long as the initial focused 15 minutes has passed, I’ve found that I can take a break and actually want to get back to my work.
  • Put a sticky note on your monitor or somewhere you’ll notice that reminds you that when you sit down to work to start off with the 15 minute technique.
  • http://matiaskorn.dk matiaskorn

    Funny thing is that i have the same problem that is about 15 minutes, but i did not knew about it before! Thanks for letting me rethink about my productivity, i think actually your technique will work for me, atleast i can easily imagine that :)

  • John TJIA

    This is the same Issa as the Pomodoro approach.

    • http://simpleprogrammer.com jsonmez

      I realize is it quite similar, but it not exactly the same. Mine is just focus for 15 minutes and doesn’t require taking breaks afterwards. i also don’t break up my work into Pomorodos, I just use this to get started.

  • http://bennisinc.wordpress.com Stephanie (Bennis) Shirley

    I think “micro-procrastination” is a great term for this habit. So often I think I’m getting more work done by multi-tasking when all I really do is delay getting even one task done fully.

  • http://twitter.com/CreepyGnome Rodney S. Foley (@CreepyGnome)

    This is very true, at least for me, and I think more people will see themselves in what you described.

    Working at home or at the office, there are lots of distractions some I could control others I can’t but none the less I Micro-Procrastinate with the best of them. I agree that 15 minute rule of dedicated focus on a single problem can make the rest of my day more productive as related to that problem. I think each person will need to find their time limit for the rule, with 15 minutes being the bare minimum, and hopefully not longer than 30 minutes.

    Great post!

  • http://gravatar.com/mongoosenx Robert

    “Sit down to do work and first check Facebook, Twitter, emails and every other single site that could have something interesting and updated for you.”

    Fortunate for me that your blog is part of my daily ‘micro-procrastination’ routine :-)

    I too have found the Pomodoro technique helpful, although I managed to procrastinate half a day writing my own timer ;-) I’m going to try setting my timer to 15 minutes and see if that doesn’t help.

    Thanks John, you’ve got a gift for putting into words what sits in the back of my own head, almost every time I read your post I think ‘oh, yeah…that is true.’

  • http://sravi-kiran.blogspot.com Ravi

    Productivity is something about which almost everyone is worried. John, you have shared your experience very effectively. I think, every person will have to find a similar rule (may not be 15 mins, may be different duration or in a different way) for self to be able to what is planned and on time.

    So, 15 minutes is the secret behind your multi-platform programmability, huh! We got your secret now! :)

  • http://www.trackabout.com Yves

    Thanks John, I am guilty as well. I am not a developer so unfortunately in my office setup, IM and physical interruptions are unavoidable and will often interrupt the 15 minutes rules. These can also re-prioritize my work at a moment’s notice. But I still will give your 15 minutes rules a serious try. Thanks for the great blog!

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  • Paweł Różański

    I got here from Sutter’s Mill (C++ fan here). But this post is soooo better.

    I’m /glad/ that i’m not alone. I’m trying to start my work from small things things first (work related – reading e-mail is not) to give me some softer start.

    Sometimes it gets to a point when i’m doing ALL small things (clean up comments, small refactor) instead of main work :D

    So as you said focus is an important part too. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Paulette

    i am the only one in my dept to punch a clock. my time recorded has to be done my noon on friday. What is the minute that will NOT allow an add’l 15 minute increment paid EX: punched in @ 8:48 am- out at 5 pm will it record as 8 hrs 15mins for that work day

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  • hmc

    Whatever! Did you spend time leading up to Christmas writing this ?

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  • Zeeshan Parvez

    Yeah, I like this rule. It is similar to the (10+2) * 5 rule I just read on another blog. In that rule you work for 10 minutes and then take a 2 minute rest and then repeat five times to get an hours work done. I think I will be applying these rules. I have a horrendous habit of jumping from one task to another without ever getting anything done!

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