A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for interacting in the modern world. This article is an interlude, a brief aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses; it’s just something people might want to know, and this time around we’re talking about a phenomenon I call “the Five Minute Trap.”
How often do you find yourself putting off work that would only take a few minutes to accomplish? I call these types of tasks Five Minute Problems, and I know I do this all the time — mostly with dishes. I get done with a meal and dump the dishes in the sink, promising myself that I’ll do them later, when I have more energy. And then I do the same thing the next day. And then they pile up and pile up, and eventually it starts to look more and more formidable, and then there’s a much bigger job of work that takes much more motivation to do.
This is the Five Minute Trap: the temptation to put off small jobs until they turn into big jobs. This is how laundry piles up, how houses get dirty, how dishes stay in the sink, how paperwork piles up at the office, and why your garage looks like a war zone. So much in life takes just a little bit of effort to fix… but it’s so hard to get the motivation for that little bit of effort.
Now, there’s a key point I want to make early here — this is not indicative of laziness. Some of the hardest working people I know fall prey to the Trap all the time. Rather, it’s indicative of human psychology. These are tasks that are just small enough that you don’t feel the burning need to finish them off right now.
Here’s an experiment — put an obstacle in someone’s way. But not directly in their path, just enough in their way so that they have to make a minor detour around it. Maybe this is a stapler on someone’s desk that’s blocking writing space, or a trash bin in a hallway, or a salt shaker at the dinner table that’s between a person and a food dish. Wait and see how long it takes people to move the obstacle. It’s usually not immediate — people will usually work around it for a while. This is fascinating to me. People will recognize the obstacle, will recognize the minimal effort required to remove it, but often won’t do anything about it.
This same thing is going on with the dirty dishes, or the laundry, or that spreadsheet Bob sent you to review at work, or a slightly awkward conversation with your romantic partner: it’s a minor job, probably won’t take five minutes, but it’s just enough effort that it’s easy to prioritize other things higher. And so the job that should take five minutes sits around and gets worse, until it takes way more time and effort to resolve.
The Five Minute Trap is, in my humble opinion, one of the largest sources of everything from everyday stress to serious anxiety in life. It’s easy for small problems to become large problems, and large problems develop into stress producers. It’s also easy for the Trap to proliferate small problems into lots of small problems, which is no less of a stressful situation. Stress is bad; proliferating problems is worse. So we have to find a way out of the Trap.
There are a few ways to do this, as I see it: incentives, scheduling, and… sheer willpower.
This is a simple and effective cognitive trick — link completion of a task to some form of reward. Maybe you treat yourself to a piece of chocolate every time you do the dishes. Maybe you give yourself an hour on the PS4 for doing the laundry. Maybe you get a note from your significant other for making the bed, etc.
Whatever it is, the incentive is there to link the concept of solving the Five Minute Problem with a reward, so that your mind starts to associate doing a task with receiving the reward. This can increase your natural inclination to do these things, meaning you do them more often and more readily, thus avoiding the Trap.
A lot of Five Minute Problems that lead to the Trap can be made easier to solve by simply designating time to solve them. It’s easy to put off doing the dishes with the “I’ll do it later” excuse. Having a designated fifteen-minute interval in the evening that you set aside for doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen gives you something to plan around and towards, and makes the concept of solving the problem “real” in your mind.
Scheduling in this manner is a great way to eliminate the Trap from your daily life, simply by knocking out Five Minute Problems in a regular, expected sequence. I’ve also noticed over the years that many people will more readily do tasks if they are expected, as opposed to something that comes up ad hoc.
Last but by no means least, willpower is a major component of solving Five Minute Problems and getting out of the Trap. The key component of this strategy is to simply recognize problems and then solve them immediately, not waiting for any future event to provide you with an excuse for doing so.
This means doing things like answering that email message right now, or wiping that toothpaste stain off the mirror immediately after you make it, or cleaning the dishes immediately after use. This method is intended to get you out of the habit of procrastination, which is a key component of the Trap. Make like Nike and just do it.
In summary, these three methods are pretty good ways to escape the Trap, and at least one of them will probably work for most people. It’s worth noting that all of these methods rely on one key element: discipline. You have to be able to commit to the strategy, stay with it, and not backslide into procrastination and work avoidance.
This element is something that you have to either instill in yourself or get someone else to enforce. If you live by yourself or work by yourself, you’re going to have to instill your own discipline. This is a part of adulting, and we all have to do it eventually.
If you live with others or work with others, it’s still better to instill your own discipline, but if necessary you can rely on other people to help. Other people can enforce discipline by reminding you to do things, but know that they will not like doing this. Very few people enjoy being responsible for forcing another person to act like an adult.
All in all, it’s a good idea to recognize the Five Minute Problems in your life, figure out which are likely to become Five Minute Traps, and implement a strategy to solve the Problems and escape the Trap. With any luck this will decrease the problems in your life, decrease your stress, and, given the prevalence of cleaning-related tasks in everyday life, increase the attractiveness of your living space. These are all good things with intrinsic value and real-world rewards.