Why 15 is the Magical Number in the Face of Procrastination and Stress

It’s really hard to scale Mt. Everest. I should know, I read a book about it. And they don’t do it in one day. They take their time. Slow and steady progress is the name of that game. Or you’re likely to lose a toe. Or four.

What I have learned in my time as a health coach and semi-professional graduate student is that the key to getting Seemingly Impossible Things Done is giving yourself permission to put one foot in front of the other, and to take small steps up the side of that mountain, not to leap to the summit in a single bound. Procrastination is a plague upon most of us. If you’re the kind of person who sets your mind to 47-thousand-things and instantly gets them done, then Bravo to you, you may move along to another blog post, get out of jail free and collect your $200. If you’re amongst us super busy masses with pages long to-do-lists that likely never get done, overwhelmed with tasks and short on things crossed off the list, this post is for you.

Learning from Cats

When we try to do it all at once, whether we’re talking about applying for jobs or school, starting to exercise, eating healthy or simply getting your apartment to look less like the Pit of Despair, we are bound to fail if we start by taking it all on at once. In coaching I often reference my tiny cat Moxie, who, while full grown, prolly weighs all of 5 pounds. (that's her with a broken leg!) She’s my role model. Whether it’s catching flies (she has a gold medal) or destroying my flowerbeds one by one, she takes her time and never seems rushed. She takes Moxie-sized-steps, which are notably smaller than Baby Steps, and divides her work in to Moxie-sized-chunks-of-time. I urge us all to be more like Moxie, and here’s how.


 This is not a new concept. When we say to ourselves “I’m going to sit down and write that great American Novel today,” we tend to succeed more at checking FaceBook, organizing the sock drawer and watching online videos of cats like Moxie.

The human psyche rebels when too much is demanded of it, when our brain fears that if you start this project you may never finish. You may die in the middle of it. And that evokes a sort of deep anxiety that often keeps us from starting something that simply has to get done, or whose completion will be deeply and greatly fulfilling. Sometimes procrastination is based on a fear of failure – if you don’t start, then how could you ever fail? Sadly, we all know in our logical minds that not starting Is the failure. And I’m all about helping you find the way to Success.

I hereby give you permission to get started on that daunting task, by committing to working in 15-minute chunks of time. Let’s say you want to write that novel, or do something more mundane and vital, like organize your closet:

Start by clarifying your goal, the tasks that will lead you to that goal, and your intentions around it. For example: It is a goal of mine to lead a less cluttered life. The tasks that will lead to success around that goal are taking everything out of the closet, sorting it, trying it all on, sorting it again, washing the things I’m going to keep, donating or selling the rest, and put it back in the closet in an organized manner. Panicked yet? The thought of having to do all that in one day, in one sitting, gives me hives. But starting by sorting all this out mentally, before you get started, will give you the motivation you need to put the following techniques to work.

Schedule 15 minutes a day toward this task: put a strict time limit on the work. It’s 15 minutes. You can spare that. I promise. And it won’t feel as overwhelming as spending 6 hours locked in your bedroom. Start with pants. Do sweaters tomorrow.

Schedule 15 minutes each day so that you can get visible work done on it and feel accomplished. Put it in your calendar. Don’t expect the time to magically show up. Commit to it.

Set a timer. Preferably a loud one. Stop when the time is up. Even if you’re mid-task. You promised yourself to only do 15 minutes. Are you really gonna lie to your own brain? But seriously, when we make a commitment to a do-able amount of work and give our psyche the rest it needs when that time is up, our brain will believe us tomorrow. This is brain training.

If you skip a day of work, that’s cool. See #4: Don’t do 30 minutes tomorrow or your brain won’t believe you when you tell it 15-minutes the next time.

No need to beat yourself up, but get back to it as soon as you can. Little, steady bits of work equal big pay off. Ask any ant.

Decide when you’ll work on your task and what the reward is. For example, you are not allowed to take your llama for a walk if you don’t get your 15 minutes done on the task at hand. Once you get the pants sorted, give yourself 10 minutes to check FaceBook or watch pandas farting online (you already watched all the kitten videos while trying to write your novel, remember?). Best not to make it a food reward.

When you’re done with your reward, you can choose to go back to your task if you were feeling good about it, setting another 15-minute timer. Start in on the sweaters. If it has a moth hole, put it in the freezer for two weeks to kill the eggs or throw it out. For reals. Moths will take over your life. They are not a joke. Those cedar blocks don’t really help, and Naptha/moth balls are crazy toxic.

Make a chart to memorialize your success. Stick to it. Your brain will start to recognize that you’re getting things done when you check them off a list. Everyone loves checking things off a list! It feels amazing. Give yourself that gift, and in this example, the gift of a less cluttered life and a clean, easy to manage closet. Trust me, it feels Great.

You can start back on the novel next, and Everest after that. Badda Bing.

I invite you to give this method a try. It really works for me. Feel free to write and let me know if this technique works for you. Good luck out there