Kevin Systrom may be CEO and co-founder of Instagram—but he’s still susceptible to procrastination. And so the 33-year-old billionaire has come up with a simple trick to tackle the tasks he tends to put off. “If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing,” he recently told Axios when asked about his favorite life hack.
Systrom is hardly the first to promote the magic of the five-minute rule and its variations. As I write this article, my Tomato Timer (a website that lets you set a 25-minute timer to complete your tasks) is set. But to fully capitalize on Systrom’s tip, it’s essential to understand why it works so well.
“Most procrastination is caused by either fear or conflict,” says Christine Li, a clinical psychologist specializing in procrastination. Even if we’re motivated to accomplish a task, fear—of failure, criticism, or stress—pits us against ourselves. We want to finish the project, but we also don’t want our fear to become reality. “This conflict makes it seem like it would be unwise or even impossible to move forward,” says Li, “which explains why we sometimes procrastinate even when it makes no sense to do so.”
And so the five-minute rule lowers that inhibition, lulling us into the idea that we can dip quickly into a project with no strings attached, according to Julia Moeller, a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Thus, the person reserves her right to reconsider her engagement after five minutes,” says Moeller, “which might increase the feeling of being in control and making an autonomous decision, rather than feeling forced to do something the person really absolutely does not want to do.”
The tactic also lowers what psychologists refer to as the “costs of an activity,” including emotional costs (fear or anxiety), opportunity costs (missing out on other activities), and effort costs (how exhausting is the activity). Our motivation to engage in an activity increases as costs decrease, says Moeller. So compared to facing down hours of work, a five-minute sprint transforms a burden into something quick and exciting.
The true intrigue of the five-minute rule, though, is why we persist beyond the allotted five minutes once we get started. This is partly because our expectations about how we’ll feel during an activity are often imprecise. Once you’ve started, we often have a more positive attitude toward the task at hand than we expected, says Moeller. For example, studies show that, in general, female students believe they are worse at math than their male counterparts. Yet gender differences disappear when students are surveyed about competency and anxiety during a math test—suggesting that female students’s expectations about their negative feelings toward math do not accurately predict their actual feelings while they are doing it.
Moreover, most activities, even cleaning the dishes or spell-checking a spreadsheet, can elicit the “flow” state, the term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In a state of flow, we become so immersed in an activity that we forget about our surroundings, making time feel as if it’s flying by. Rewarding and motivating in and of itself, flow is also more likely to occur during challenging activities, says Moeller—like challenging oneself to get as much done as possible within five minutes.
Ultimately, Systrom’s five-minute hack, much like the Tomato Timer, revolves around the question of how to give ourselves control over our work. After five minutes of intense work, a massive project may still be massive—but having overcome the initial obstacle of getting started, it will no longer seem impossible.