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What You Can Achieve in 15-Minute Bursts of Creativity

Few of us have the luxury of ‘vast, unbroken slabs of time’

Photo: Mint Images/Getty Images

“Many people die with their music still in them,” Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said. “Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.”

It’s a sad truth that despite our aspirations and best intentions, our lives are full of factors beyond our control as we juggle daily errands and demands. The result, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, is that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” True creativity, that “music” within each of us, too often falls by the wayside. We start the year with resolutions to do more, be more. Then, halfway through the year, we realize, with that “quiet desperation,” that our resolutions have not come to fruition.

Often we are told that to truly commit to being a “maker,” we must clear our calendars of meetings and other distractions, that creativity requires “vast, unbroken slabs of time.” But the truth is most of us don’t have — and can’t create — many of these precious slabs in our schedules. Even if we triage our commitments, shed entertainments, and juggle our responsibilities, we may optimistically carve out just a few hours to ourselves each week.

The more determined may choose to go scorched-earth on their calendars in ruthless pursuit of their goal. But there’s another option for those of us unwilling to make such a disruptive change:

Work toward the goal of 15 minutes per day.

Even the brightest among us struggle with finding time for true creativity, and many have managed to do so without those great, unbroken slabs in their schedules. Historian and biochemist Joseph Needham, for example, found himself strapped for time while traveling around developing China to compile research for his history of Chinese civilization, which became a series of 17 books on the topic that were released periodically over the latter half of the 20th century.

“The Chinese have a proverb to describe a hard-working scholar reading books all the time, even reading while traveling on horseback,” wrote historian Wang Ling, one of Needham’s close collaborators. “Needham travels by train, always buying a first-class ticket, not because of any snob value but because only the first class has empty compartments where he can spread his books and manuscripts around, jotting down notes.”

A similar approach, minus the first-class cabins, worked for author Austin Kleon, who said in an interview, “I wrote my first book just on the bus and in the basement at my old job.” It was during these 20-minute bus rides to and from his office, time spent tinkering with his newspapers, that Kleon created the blackout poems he became famous for, which would become the material for his first book.

The process is quite simple, but there are a few psychological principles that explain why it works.

Even if your aspirations are not to publish a book or write a great work of scholarship, there’s real value to the 15-minutes-a-day approach as a way to make daily progress on a project you’re passionate about. For one thing, it can make you happier in other aspects of your life, knowing you’re moving forward creatively, albeit slowly. The process is quite simple, but there are a few psychological principles that explain why it works.

Keep the project accessible to your brain

Now, certainly, in an ideal situation, we would all work as the novelist Neal Stephenson does, blocking off four-hour chunks of time. But the next best situation is to work on it every day.

Author Siobhan Adcock started writing her first novel with a seven-month-old baby and a full-time job. She made a deliberately small commitment to herself to write for 15 minutes a day.

Of course, Adcock could have allocated her weekly total time — 105 minutes (15 minutes times seven) — to one day on the weekend. But when she tried that, Adcock said, “I spend the entire time rereading what I wrote last weekend just to remind myself what the hell I was talking about.”

Similarly, author Alex Allain, who is also the director of engineering at Dropbox, committed to writing 10 minutes a day and found saving that time for the weekend didn’t work: “If I’d worked for 70 minutes, every Saturday, I’m sure I’d have made far less progress. I’d have forgotten where I was every time I was ready to start.”

There is a term for what Allain and Adcock struggled with: “accessibility.” Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson defines it in his book Strangers to Ourselves as “a somewhat technical psychological term that refers to the activation potential of information in memory. When information is high in activation potential it is ‘energized’ and ready to be used; when it is low in activation potential it is unlikely to be used to select and interpret information in one’s environment.”

By working on their projects every day for 10 to 15 minutes, Adcock and Allain kept their project accessible. If they were to wait a week before working on it again, their project would grow inaccessible to the point where they’d have to spend significant time making it useful again.

To borrow an insight from Allain’s field of computer science, this is context switching. Basically, working on two projects at the same time doesn’t mean you can dedicate half your time to each project. Instead, you may dedicate 40% of your time to each project. The remaining 20% would be spent on stopping to perform a different task on a different project and trying to get back up to speed on the initial project.

In this graph by Todd Waits at Carnegie Mellon University, based on data from Quality Software Management, we can see the amount of time lost to switching between different projects.

As Adcock and Allain found, a week was too much time for the brain to easily access the latest work done, but a day was enough to keep the stream of thought accessible.

Focus your brain’s unconscious filter

When Allain worked on his book for 10 minutes a day, he explained, his work was omnipresent in the background of the rest of his life.

“Writing every day kept ideas top of mind,” Allain wrote in a blog post.” When I finished writing, I’d carry the puzzles to my commute or the shower, and I’d talk to people about them. My ideas were always nearby, making it easy to jump back in.”

This effect of short bursts of writing draws to mind Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers to know when to stop — and don’t wait until you’re depleted from the day’s writing. “When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop,” he said. “Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.”

Hemingway was not a psychologist, but as a writer and artist, he believed our unconscious minds would process where we left off and make greater use of the material our day-to-day lives provide us with.

In Allain’s case, having the topic accessible in his mind also meant he naturally brought it into conversations, where other people contributed ideas, a process similar to that of the author and poker champion Annie Duke, who practiced her ideas during chitchat at parties.

Blend your worlds

Adcock advises not limiting yourself to 15 minutes if the opportunity to work longer should provide itself. And if you can manage those unbroken slabs of time, go for it. The idea is just to try to work on your thing daily.

Certainly, I’m not saying what you create in 15-minute blocks will rival the work you could make if you were completely devoted to it. But I am suggesting it’s far from a futile practice, and one that could enable you to create more than you’d imagined possible.

It’s a practice that some of the busiest artists keep to. For example, even while he’s traveling and on tour, recording artist J. Cole still makes time each day to create music, “just to get it out.”

And you may end up blending both worlds. Perhaps these scraps of time can set you up so that when you have the gift of a three-hour chunk of time to work, the ideas are accessible in your mind, and you can get started with minimal warmup time.

It’s not the simplest way to work, but it puts you in the position to work with your circumstances. If you’re an optimist, you could even choose to see time as a useful constraint.

In any case, it’s way better than the alternative, which is to capitulate to the tyranny of your schedule and do nothing.

I write about personal and collective growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’ herbertlui.net/reps/

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