Writers: are you feeling guilty because you're not writing for hours or jotting down thousands of words a day? There's no need. Instead of sweating the details, try 15 Magic Minutes.
You can do anything that advances your writing in those 15 Magic Minutes. I've had days with a heavy teaching schedule, a project deadline, a sick dog to care for and a social event to attend that left me exhausted by 11:00 pm... just about the time when I realized I hadn't given my novel any time.
If I thought I had to write for more than 15 minutes on those days, I'd like to think I'd do it, but I know it's more likely I'd just give up and promise myself I'd get to my novel "soon."
But no matter how tired I was, I knew I could invest 15 minutes of Internet research or mind-mapping plot possibilities.
Before I discovered the magic of a 15 minute commitment, I'd tell myself I couldn't write when I was so busy, that I would do it tomorrow when I had more time. But I never seemed to have any more time the next day. Sound familiar?
Former coaching client and aspiring novelist Eileen Peterson observes, "The thing that amazes me is how much I can get done in only fifteen minutes. Incredible revelations come to me about who my characters really are, what their motivations are, and where the story is going--all within a fifteen-minute session. My novel and essays are getting done in fifteen minutes a day, one day at a time."
Some writers worry that they won't be able to really accomplish much in just 15 minutes. Unfortunately, these are often writers who haven't accomplished anything for weeks, months or longer because they just can't seem to find big blocks of time for writing.
A little something repeated regularly adds up to a whole lot more than what might be a lot of something if you ever got around to it (but never do).
Besides, I'm not suggesting that you never do more than 15 minutes. I'm recommending you commit to no more than 15 minutes a day, four to six days a week. If you work beyond that commitment, fabulous! You can even schedule and reserve a target time beyond the 15-minute commitment. But the commitment needs to be so small that you know you can and will do it every day.
Almost convinced? Here are 10 reasons to keep your writing commitment to 15 Magic Minutes.
Rosanne Bane is the author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance.
You don't really have a brain. You have a brain system. Your cortex, or your creative brain, makes new connections and associations, alternates between divergent and convergent thinking, performs complex analyses and predicts future outcomes from present actions. As long as your cortex is in charge, you're able to think creatively and honor commitments to your writing. But when you're stressed, the limbic system, sometimes called the mammal brain, will push the creative cortex out of the driver's seat. The limbic system relies on the fight-or-flight instinct and the habits you've acquired through intense training. Your limbic system doesn't care about creativity or your aspirations to write - it cares only about survival in the here and now. Planning to sit down and write for hours on end is often stressful enough to trigger a limbic system takeover. But a commitment to no more than 15 minutes, on the other hand, is small enough to not intimidate or overwhelm you. Your limbic system is less reactive and your creative cortex stays in charge.
Newton's First Law of Motion states that a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Likewise, a person not writing tends to continue not writing. A Hot Wheels car poised at the top of a ramp has something called potential energy. The only thing holding it in place is inertia - it just needs a little push to get started. You are that Hot Wheels car. Your potential energy comes from your life experiences, observations, ideas, insights, creative inspiration and writing experience. What holds you in place is a little speed bump of initial resistance. Knowing you're going to write for no more than 15 Magic Minutes gives you the push to put you in motion. Once you get started, it's easy to keep going.
A small commitment encourages you to show up for your writing more often, which will create a stronger habit. The power of habit lies with Hebb's Law, which states that "neurons that fire together, wire together." When a group of neurons frequently fire together or in sequence, a layer of fatty white tissue called myelin insulates the neurons in that neural pathway, making the circuit more effective. The more often you give the collection of "writing" neurons the opportunity to fire together, the more myelin gets wrapped about those neurons, the stronger the network that connects those neurons becomes, and stronger the habit becomes. Habits also soothe the limbic system and reduce the likelihood of a limbic system takeover.
On a practical level, it's usually easier to find time for five 15-minute sessions throughout the week than to find a block of 75 minutes of unscheduled time. It's always easier to actually show up for five short sessions than to show up for one long one. The longer you think you're going to write, the more likely you are to procrastinate, postpone and distract yourself. And the more likely you are to be interrupted and delayed by others.
Because they simplify the planning logistics, shorter sessions are easier to repeat. The more often you successfully honor your commitment, the more confident you are about your ability to honor your commitment. You become more invested and engaged. Repetition also builds momentum. Your unconscious mind will continue to work on the writing challenge even after your conscious mind has moved on to other tasks. As we've seen before, repetition strengthens habits, and habits, in turn, reduce the likelihood of a limbic system takeover.
Not only is Initial Inertia working against us, most writers feel trepidation or anxiety before we get started. The bigger we imagine the writing challenge is, the greater our resistance will be. The anxiety triggers the limbic system and a variety of resistance behaviors can arise: postponing or procrastinating, distracting yourself with checking email, Twitter, Facebook, etc., promising to start just as soon as you finish the laundry, cleaning your desk, reorganizing your bookshelf or some trivial task. Knowing you're going to write for no more than 15 minutes reduces your perception of the difficulty, which significantly reduces the resistance.
If you do feel a bit a little anxious, you can talk yourself out of it. You can reassure yourself, "It's only 15 minutes. I can do 15 minutes. It's nothing to freak out about." In other words, you calm your limbic system enough to keep your cortex online. Small commitments also lower expectations. Because you're going to work for such a short time, it's okay that what you do today is imperfect and incomplete. You begin to see that imperfect progress is still progress and that mistakes are a normal part of the creative process.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Of course, elephants are endangered and so no one should actually eat elephants, but if you were going to eat an elephant, you'd have to do it one bite at a time. When you show up for just 15 minutes, you know you're going to have to break your writing tasks into bite-sized pieces. This puts you on a positive track. The smaller the task, the easier it is to imagine yourself completing it. The easier it is to imagine completing it, the easier it is to get started, which makes it easier and quicker to complete it.
If it's for only 15 minutes, you can justifiably postpone other tasks. You can reverse-procrastinate--instead of delaying the start of your writing, you delay the distractions that used to keep you from writing. Remind yourself, "It's only 15 minutes. The world will keep spinning even if I ignore it for 15 minutes. My family, friends and colleagues will keep breathing without my attention for 15 minutes."
Because it's only 15 minutes, you can envision letting go of all the other things competing for your attention and allow yourself to really focus on the task at hand. This kind of focus, where we get lost in our work, is one of the biggest joys of writing. It is also an endangered state of being. According to the <em>New York Times,</em> the average computer user checks email, changes windows or changes applications "nearly 37 times an hour." Imagine what a relief it will be to expand your attention span from just under two minutes to a whole 15 minutes! And 15 minutes spent on something that captures your imagination and maybe even expreses your soul.