What Can I Do in 20 Minutes?

Setting the Scene

I had a few contenders for tonight’s blog and I was going to write a post called Timers and Dice to discuss strategies that help when motivation is low. I had already been thinking about this post when another blogger asked what people did when they had trouble staying with their writing. I suggested setting a timer for ten minutes, a trick that she appreciated. After all, how can I protest doing something for just ten minutes? If the ten minutes gets the momentum going, great! If not, I can still stop after ten minutes, but movement will have occurred in those ten minutes. While this idea has shown up in many time management books and articles. I like to think that experimenting with the idea and combining it with other elements (like casting a die) provides an effective strategy that goes beyond the basics.

Setting the TImer

English: A mechanical kitchen timer

timer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m going to demonstrate what I mean by doing it as I write about it. I’m using a timer to get myself going on the blog entry as a way to get more in control of the process of posting. I’m giving myself 20 minutes to write the draft. I suspect it will take me a little longer than that to finish the draft, but in 20 minutes, I’ll be much further along than I would have been without the timer. Besides, if I gave myself “enough” time, the job would definitely expand to fill the allotted time. This blog is a perfect example. If I let it, I can just play around with the post and not really do my planning and prewriting. Soon, I will be pushing the deadline again. So by using the timer, I create an artificial deadline, something to push for. I make it into a challenging game of “Beat the Clock,” knowing that I can’t finish in 20 minutes, but interested in finding out how far I can get.

Take housecleaning as an example. If things have gotten out of hand–which they do on occasion, setting a timer for ten minutes per room can result in good progress in even 30 minutes, resulting in good momentum to keep the project going. Even if time runs out, it can be picked up again later without having to start from scratch. Besides, ten minutes while I’m challenging myself to see how much I can accomplish, often takes me further than I had thought it would. And I accomplish much more than I would if I gave myself the day to clean the house. I’d let myself get distracted by other things because I “had all day.” The focused drive of the timer running keeps me on task. When my children were young, I’d get them involved with the “just five minutes” or “just put away five items” thing. No one minded doing just five–ok, at least not much.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting started. One foot in front of the other.

Two Hours to Departure

I used the timer yesterday. With two hours left before we had to be out the door to head out to catch a bus for a wedding and our follow-up getaway, I needed to pack a couple last-minute items and give three projects at least some attention. I decided to give each project 20 minutes to start, and see how it went.

To-do list book.

To-do list book. (Photo credit: koalazymonkey)

I chose my first project–a paper that has a lot of problems. I’d broken it down to steps, and one of the tasks with it was to write several notes in the document to the other author so that we can move ahead on this draft. Of course, this step was dependent on a couple other things. Over the last few days, with one thing leading to another, it has felt like just too much.

But yesterday, I found the documents I needed and even started working before I hit the start button, This is significant in its own right because of the overall sluggishness of this project. This time, with the timer running, my fingers started flying. I was able to revise the introduction, move some things around from some three-day-old editing notes, and start writing the various comments that were necessary. Things were going so well, in fact, that when the timer went off 20 minutes later, I decided to go another 20 before switching to another project. By the time THAT 20 minutes was over, I had the project far enough along that I could write the email and send it off.

I moved ahead some on the other two projects, but eventually, I did have to stop. Even though I wouldn’t have given up the outing for anything, I did find myself thinking that my productivity was so high that it would be great to continue working. It’s been quite a while since I was actually excited about working.

Taking a Break

For out outing, I decided to leave most of my work behind, and in fact, the work I did bring, I didn’t even touch. What I did spent time on was something else I had brought along. Farther to Go! is something that Joycelyn is creating to help people who are in middle age unearth what is really important in their lives so that they can create a life that has the meaning and purpose they choose. The idea of discovering what has meaning for me makes my clearing project even more significant. I am making room for the things that are meaningful, not just the things that I can do.

I am currently working on Farther to Go! tasks that include setting a timer for ten minutes a day to make lists with specific prompts. A couple weeks ago, I decided I wanted to create a bag with the working items for the process, including a timer specifically dedicated to it, so that it was always available when I wanted to take the bag somewhere. I have my lists, my journal, a few different colored pens, and a die, which I’ll talk more about in a few minutes. When Dave and I went to breakfast at the hotel today, my Farther to Go! task was to make a list for ten minutes about what I enjoy. Interestingly, one of the things I’m finding is that I enjoy doing the Farther to Go! activities, and that I think about things I could add to my lists at other times of the day. It has me thinking about both what is important to me and what has been important in the past.

Rolling the Dice

English: Four coloured 6 sided dice arranged i...

Four dice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, the trusty die can be a nice addition to this system. Choose up to six projects that need your attention. Cast a die to determine which project gets the first 10, 15, or 20 minutes. Ten minutes is often enough for many projects, but I’ve found that 20 is a good amount for me for the kinds of projects I’m working on.My friend Joycelyn introduces an element of chance into what she does next in a variety of ways by rolling a die. Click to see her post on the subject. When I read the post back in August, I hadn’t started my blog yet, but I posted the following comment on hers.

I tried it using “what chore am I going to do next?” I took six items from my to do list, since I was having a hard time choosing one to start with. I know myself well enough to know if I don’t make some kind of decision, I may fritter away a good chunk of the day with meaningless activity.My list: 1) work on class hand-outs; 2) work on blog entries; 3) move forward on an editing project; 4) decide on my next quilting project; 5) finish sorting the last container of fabric; 6) work on sorting papers and books. I told myself that whatever the choice, I would spend 30 minutes on that project, and then move on to something else. The winner: sorting paper and books.

An interesting thing happened. I ended up (over the course of the day) making this organizational task the focal point of my day. I spent two hours in the first part of the morning, including setting up a filing system to organize the papers. I filed, recycled, and generally remade my workspace. It cleared some physical surfaces and also some mental cobwebs.

When I “took a break” after two hours, I made good progress on the editing, and the course preparations; but interestingly, I kept returning to 15-30 minute chunks of the organizational activity. I was aware that the part of me that wants to do some quilting was not totally happy, but the good news for that part is that there is now plenty of physical space to start playing with that activity, and it’s on the agenda for tomorrow–even without rolling the die.

This experience, combined with what I know about how the use of the timer works for me, provides a way to keep me motivated or to find a new source of energy when needed. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, but I’m not going to argue with something that works.


My morning Coffee-1=

(Photo credit: Sheba_Also)

As I was working on this post, I remember I used a version of this timer thing when I first started my blog almost three months ago. I just let my husband be the one who set the timer. I would ask him to check on me in ten minutes to see how I was doing. That whole accountability thing. But now that I know the timer can serve that purpose, I’m going to put my husband out of that job and focus on using the timer as a tool. In fact, the timer, along with a couple of dice are going to be part of my clearing project for the rest of this semester break. I will use them to both be more productive and to build in some more break time. A 20-minute container holds lots of possibility for getting things done, whether it be a project that’s been nagging for a while, recharging one’s batteries, or just spending some time with a spouse, a puppy, and a cup of coffee.

Oh, and for the record, it turns out I can draft approximately 500 words in 20 minutes. Now we know.