Using a timer to prevent procrastination and perfectionism

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Two things that can negatively impact our self-esteem, and thereby potentially our mental health, are procrastination and perfectionism. When we have both, it can be a particularly lethal combination. You put off a task until the very last minute, all the while feeling guilty that you haven’t made a start on it, and then, when the looming deadline finally spurs you into action, you haven’t left yourself enough time to do it perfectly, so you do less than your best, and feel as though you have let yourself down.

However, the good news is that something as simple as using a timer can help with both procrastination and perfectionism. Many years ago, back in the days of paper-based offices, I attended a time management workshop where the speaker introduced the concept of “I’ll just get the file out”. The theory is that it’s seeing the project as one overwhelmingly big thing that stops you from getting started. The task is too much, and you just can’t face it. The way to tackle this is to break the task down into smaller parts. Some tasks lend themselves to being broken down, others don’t. Or, perhaps you can’t yet see the necessary sequence of steps that will allow you to break down the task. But you don’t have to break the task down into discrete steps to avoid tackling the whole thing at once. You can “just get the file out”. That means you decide you’re going to work on the project for just ten minutes, or five minutes, or whatever you feel you can manage. You set your timer, you tell yourself you are just going to work on this for five minutes, and that feels so much more manageable than trying to summon up the motivation to tackle the whole project.

Once you’ve done the easy job of setting your timer, you’ve made a commitment to yourself to get started, and you’ll find it that much easier to get going. And here’s the magic – once you’ve got going, you’re quite likely to want to continue once the timer goes off. You’ve given yourself the gift of momentum, and, if you want to (and only if you want to), you can choose to carry on. You might surprise yourself by how much of the task you get done before you feel like stopping.

That’s how a timer can help you with procrastination, but how does it help with perfectionism? When we are striving to complete the task perfectly, we almost always to take far too long over it. And even when we’ve spent so long on the task that other tasks have been pushed out of the way to make room for it, we still don’t feel as if we have done enough. But, by deciding at the outset how long the task is going to take, you give yourself a definite end point. Instead of defining the task by the end result – the report must be finished, the house must be tidy, etc. – you define the task in terms of its time allocation. I will spend 20 minutes writing this report, or I will spend 10 minutes tidying up. When the timer goes off, you’ve finished the task. It takes a bit of practice to see the positive side of what you’ve accomplished in that time rather than the negative side of the things you didn’t fit in, but eventually you’ll find that you’re able to move on to the next thing with fewer regrets about not finishing the task perfectly.

Using a timer in this way makes it easier to plan your time such that all the things you need to do get done. Perhaps none of them will be done perfectly, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perfectionism leads us to do one thing well (but usually still not up to our exacting standards) while several other things don’t get done at all. Using a timer means we can ensure that everything does at least get started. We only have a fixed amount of time in every day, and using a timer can help us stay in control of that time and get the very best out of it.

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