Use the “French Press Theory” to Get Things Done More Easily

Photo: Videman Alexander/Shutterstock

Dirty dishes in the sink. Putting your clean socks away. Replying to that one email that's been sitting at the top of your inbox for longer than you'd be willing to admit out loud.

We all have that small handful of tasks and chores that weigh the heaviest on our souls and our to-do lists. Most often, they're the things that occur multiple times a week, so that when you look at them, you think, “Didn't I just do that? And doesn't it take forever?”     

And that's where our brains lead us astray. Because, although, yes, you did probably just do that – no, it doesn't take forever. 

Last year, the New York Times ran a guide exploring A Smarter Way to Clean Your HomeThere, author Jolie Kerr suggests a simple trick to get a realistic view of the task at hand: time it. 

If you’re a person who tends to let dishes pile up in the sink to avoid washing them, try this simple trick to put the effort involved into perspective: For a few days, as you think of it, set a timer before you begin washing the dishes, and make note of how long it took to clean up. If you know the task will take just minutes to complete, it will be less difficult to convince yourself to take care of those dishes now.

Almost always, the process will take way less time than you think. For many everyday tasks, it could be as little as half as long as you've convinced yourself it will.

I call this the “French Press Theory.”

I like to have my coffee around 9:30 or 10:00am, instead of first thing in the morning, so, when I make it, I'm already showered and dressed and have at least an hour or two of work already accomplished. (I work from home.) Once the water is boiled, it takes four minutes to brew the coffee in my French press. So, I set a timer, and go about all those little tasks around my house, seeing how much I can accomplish in that little window. And… nearly every morning, I marvel at how productive that brewing time can be.

Fact: the number of things you can get done in four minutes will blow your mind. 

Just try it. This morning, I brought the recycling bin in from the curb, loaded the dishwasher, located some leftovers in the freezer and put them in the fridge to thaw, and went through the pile of junk mail/magazines sitting on our kitchen counter. Often, I'll run around the house fiddling with things, and I'll think to myself – “Oh, did I forget to set the timer?” And I'll rush back into the kitchen, only to have a minute and fifteen seconds still counting down on the clock. 

For some reason, our brains trick us into thinking these resistant tasks have such a huge impact on our time. And, when you let those things pile up into unmanageable sizes, they do. But, when you're focused, you'll be seriously surprised how quickly you can get those things done. 

So, set a timer. Try it three times, and remember the average. Keep that figure in your head the next time you face the task, and, after a few rounds of practice, you'll have a better, realistic perspective on how much you can actually get done with a few spare minutes. Most importantly, you'll experience a brain that feels much less cluttered.  

Go be productive.