Procrastination Hack: Aim for Nonzero

Whenever his clients had trouble understanding the meaning of their dreams, Sigmund Freud would ask them, “What does this dream definitely not mean?” Once they started discussing invalid interpretations of their dreams, the inertia was broken, and they would transition without effort into examining the actual meaning of those dreams.

A little reverse psychology goes a long way. Too often we become so preoccupied with a project’s final outcome that we become blind to the incremental nature of completion. We think about what we haven’t done. But we can choose to either see the glass as 10% full or 90% empty. You can focus on, “I finally got started”, or, “Man, I’ve got so much to do”. I would suggest that one frame of mind leads to greater engagement than the other.

Forget Finishing. Forget Starting.

I don’t know about you, but advice like, “Just get started” has never been particularly helpful to me when trying to break a spell of procrastination. “Getting started” always seemed fairly abstract. So one day I asked myself, “What would getting started look like?” In my case, as a writer, it would look like some text on the screen as opposed to no text on the screen.

So I made my first course of action to not have a blank screen. That turned out to be way more actionable than asking myself, “What’s a good opening?”, or, “How do I get started?” Putting down a serviceable title filled that requirement. Then I would repeat the process, since the rest of the page was blank. I would fill in the page one unit at a time, sometimes with a paragraph, sometimes with a subheading. Instead of struggling with the creative process of “writing”, I turned it into the mechanical process of “whitespace reduction”.

The moment I have an idea for an article, instead of just jotting it down as a phrase, I open a blank document and create the title, any subheadings that come to mind, and at least one paragraph, forming the “stub” of a full article. I find it much easier to continue later with some copy on the page than none. With the stub in place, the article on some level already exists; the rest is just detail. I’m never starting cold.

If you have a quota of sales calls to make, put the quota aside. Make your only goal to not have no sales calls. As soon as you sit down at your desk in the morning, pick of the phone and eliminate “settling in” time. But what about the other calls you’re required to make? The time to ask that is after you’re past zero calls. Once you’re beyond zero, you’ve “lost your virginity”, so to speak. You’ve experienced doing, and now’s the time to repeat the process, just once. You only have to commit to one more call, not 29. You can’t make 29 calls at once anyway, so why think about them all at once?

The 10-Minute Dash

Since productivity is a ratio of output over time, we can either choose to focus on output or focus on time. A popular variation on the nonzero goal is the 10-Minute Dash. This is where you set a timer for 10 minutes and commit to working on your task for — you guessed it — 10 minutes. In both cases, you’re shifting the focus from intellectual process to mechanical process. There are only two inviolable rules: (1) You must either do nothing else but the task you’ve set, or nothing at all; (2) You must use a timer, not your head, to enforce the interval.

It’s perfectly fine to sit and do nothing for those 10 minutes. You can even daydream, as long as you don’t physically do anything that’s off-task. But naturally, your goal is to have something productive to show for your time, so within a couple of minutes, you’ll probably get started just to avoid the boredom of waiting for the timer to go off.

Allowing idleness might seem to contradict the principle of eliminating zero work done, but it breaks the scatterbrain procrastination mindset of not having enough time. Procrastinators typically (almost necessarily) presume to need larger blocks of time than they have, so they consequently put in no time. Putting in 10 minutes disrupts the self-induced loop of perceived time famine. The 10-minute length is somewhat arbitrary, but just long enough to induce more than idle contemplation.

Small quantities of work might not seem valuable, but they’re infinitely more valuable than no work. They break inertia, establish your direction, let you experience doing, demonstrate solid time management skills and give you material for reflection and revision. All you have to do is more than zero.

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Andre Kibbe currently works as a content analyst for Internet Brands. He can be found on Twitter: @andrekibbe


  1. Eli Prenten on the 7th June

    It’s like Skinner’s theory of the behaviorism.

  2. Cube Dweller on the 7th June

    I’m a big fan of the 10 minute dash method. Seeing a project as a whole can be daunting, but seeing it as a series of individual simple steps is often much easier.

  3. GBG on the 10th June

    This is brilliant! I so often run into the problem of “getting stuck getting started”, and this non-zero 10-minute dash philosophy is really hitting home – thank you! I will implement and post back.

  4. Nicolas DORIER on the 13th July

    You should take a look at the pomodoro technique ( You work in cycle of 25 minutes, then 5 minutes of rest, 4 times, then you take a longer pause for 30 minutes. is fine if you need a timer !

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