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The 15-Minute Method

July 11th, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

Here's a simple yet very powerful productivity method I'd like to share with you. I call it the 15-minute method.

You've probably heard the phrase "chunk it down" in reference to breaking large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. Sometimes it's easy to break projects into bite-sized pieces, but other times it can be more difficult to do so. Especially when you're doing very creative work, it can be nearly impossible to identify all the steps in advance, and clearly defining those steps may be tricky.

Even after we chunk a project into smaller tasks, some of those tasks can be intimidating when think about doing them. I find this especially true with tasks that can be very tedious. Even if the steps are clear, I'm more likely to procrastinate when I look at a 3-hour block of relatively dull work.

We also know that getting started on a task is usually the hardest part. Once you get past the first 15 minutes or so, it's easier to keep going. Once you've built up some momentum, two hours can flow by like it's nothing. We just have to find a way to get started without delay, overriding the desire to procrastinate.

The 15-minute method is a way to help overcome inertia and get moving on a task. It's basically a psychological trick, and it's very simple.

How It Works

All you do is tell yourself that you're going to work on a particular task or project for only 15 minutes. You can work longer if you feel like it, but you won't worry about that until your initial 15 minutes are up. Only after you've completed those first 15 minutes will you even think about working longer.

Prepare your environment in advance. Set out all the materials you'll need to work on your task for 15 minutes. Do what's necessary to make sure you won't be interrupted during that time. This is very important. When you begin your 15 minutes, do nothing but the task at hand. Don't get up for any reason. If you're working on your computer, don't open any applications but the essential ones. If the phone rings, let it go to voicemail. If a text message comes in, let it wait. Don't even think about checking your email or Facebook. If someone pops in and asks, "Do you have a minute?" tell them to come back when your 15 minutes are up (or later).

For those 15 minutes only, commit to not distracting yourself in any way. Focus single-mindedly on the task at hand.

Work quickly during this time. Focus on speed. Try to make as much progress on your task as humanly possible. If distracting thoughts come up, say to yourself, "Focus! Focus! Focus!" Then ask yourself, "What's the very next step?"

Put some kind of clock or timer in front of you, so you can see the minutes counting down. It's important to create a sense of time pressure. Know that you aren't swimming in time — you only have 15 minutes here. The time will pass quickly. I use a digital kitchen timer that counts down and sounds an alarm when the time is up.

Chaining 15-Minute Chunks

After your 15 minutes are up, now you can decide whether you wish to keep going with the task at hand. At this point your mind is in a different state than it was when you first began. You aren't in the same mental state you were in 15 minutes earlier. Your neurons are saturated in task-related activity. Your mind will have a strong tendency to want to keep going and to resist stopping.

If you want to stop, give yourself permission to stop. Get up, walk around, take a break, or switch to some other project. When you're ready to do another 15-minute chunk, then do so. Otherwise, let it be okay to stop after 15 minutes.

Most likely when those first 15 minutes are up, you'll want to continue. You may even be annoyed that your time is up. Feel free to keep working. If it's easy to do so, restart your timer immediately, and commit to doing another 15-minute chunk.

Once you get moving, it's much easier to keep moving. It's hard to get started when you're staring at a two-hour task or longer. That may seem like a big commitment, so don't commit to that much up front. Only commit to 15 minutes.

When you notice that your 15-minute segments are becoming less productive, or you're getting distracted, stop and take a break. That's a good time to go for a walk, have a meal, or switch to other tasks. Then when you're ready to begin again, start with a fresh 15-minute commitment.

With practice you can challenge yourself to chain several 15-minute chunks together. Typically I will chain 7 or 8 of these chunks in a row before taking a break.

NEVER allow yourself to do anything off-task during a 15-minute chunk. If you feel the urge to check email or return a phone call, do it between — never during — 15-minute chunks.

Benefits of This Method

The 15-minute method has many benefits. First, it helps you overcome inertia and gets you moving forward productively. No matter how unpleasant the task may seem, it isn't that difficult to commit to working on it for only 15 minutes.

Second, it gets you past those "I don't know what to do" excuses. You can easily figure out what to do for 15 minutes. If you really don't know how to begin, journal about the task. Make a very short to-do list. Or call someone to ask for advice on how to start. You only have to figure out 15 minute's worth of the task to get started.

Third, it keeps you focused. You're compelled to make clear distinctions between real work vs. distractions. You can't delude yourself into thinking that web surfing or checking email is working. When you use the 15-minute method, you're getting real work done. A whole day spent using the method can sometimes be more productive than a whole week without it.

Fourth, it helps you work faster. You'll find that the act of checking in with yourself every 15 minutes helps you maintain a fast tempo. Even if you keep working for hours at a time, those frequent check-ins are valuable, and they only take seconds.

Finally, it helps you build more discipline. You'll train yourself to stick to the task at hand and put off distractions. And you'll challenge yourself to work flat out instead of procrastinating.

First Thing in the Morning

If you want to have a really productive day, get started with the 15-minute method first thing in the morning. Don't allow yourself to have breakfast, check email, or do anything else that could chew up your time until you complete at least one 15-minute chunk on a key task.

I sometimes challenge myself to do 4-8 chunks first thing in the morning before I do anything else. Then I'll have breakfast, handle my communication, etc.

I used this approach when writing my book. I'd frequently push myself to complete 2-4 hours of writing first thing in the morning before giving myself permission to do anything else.

Variations

Feel free to vary the 15-minute method to suit your situation. You can do 10- or 20-minute chunks if you'd like. Just make sure the chunk sizes aren't so big that you have a tendency to procrastinate. The point is to make it easy to get started by lowering the perceived commitment.

You can also use the 15-minute method to monitor and control how much time you spend on activities like web surfing or email. Limit yourself to a certain number of 15-minute chunks. For example, I'll often devote a 30-minute block of time to handling my online communication. Hitting the halfway point after the first 15-minute chunk helps me pace myself and make sure I'm not getting bogged down (like over-engineering an email that only requires a short response).

I recently applied the 15-minute method to the task of creating and posting an updated version of the Conscious Growth Workshop web page. It was a creative task that took about 16 hours to complete, spread over a few days. In one day I completed 33 chunks (8 hours, 15 minutes). Given that all of those chunks were fast tempo and distraction-free, that adds up to a lot of real work completed. I liked the sense of progress that came from checking off chunk after chunk. This made the task seem more manageable. I knew that if I committing to one 15-minute chunk at a time, eventually I'd complete the project.

Give the 15-minute method a try. I think you'll find it useful on many levels. It only takes 15 minutes. :)