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The Buckblog

assorted ramblings by Jamis Buck

Fifteen Minutes at a Time

7 November 2015 — The author describes the value of fifteen minutes, and describes several tasks that he's found fit neatly into buckets of that size and shape — 5-minute read

Here’s something I’ve learned: I can fit a surprising amount of work into fifteen minutes.

What is more, I can fit a surprising number of fifteen-minute blocks into any given day.

Combining those two realizations, I’ve found that I can stop complaining to myself about all the things I wish I had time for, and just start doing some of them.

This, in spite of the fact that I’m busier now than I’ve ever been. My wife is a full-time student at USU, studying music therapy, which means my daily responsibilities include not just working to support our family, but also doing a lot of the cooking and housework, as well as overseeing the homeschooling of our four children. (This is not a path I would ever have seen my life taking, and I’m not going to lie: it’s been hard. But it’s also been amazing.)

Still, I’m realizing that I’m almost never so busy that I can’t afford to take a few fifteen-minute breaks here and there, and I’ve been amazed at what I can fit into them:

  • Naps. This is far more important to me than it was a year ago. Waking up at 5am means I’m significantly tired by the middle of the day. A fifteen minute nap (or a “fifteener”, as my wife and I call them) is just enough to take the edge off. In fact, research suggests that 10-20 minutes is about the perfect nap length to boost your energy and alertness in the middle of the day.
  • Guitar practice. I was great about practicing every day, six years ago when I first started learning. Then I got busy and started making excuses. Fifteen minutes, though, is just enough to keep the patterns (and calluses!) fresh. I play a few scales, riff on a few tunes I want to learn, and put the guitar away.
  • Reading Korean. I spent two years in Korea, from 1993-1995, immersed in the language. Sadly, twenty years is a long time, and my language skills have grown unbearably rusty. What to do about it? Fifteen minutes won’t make me fluent, but it’s enough time to read through my Korean books, brush up on some vocabulary, and practice speaking aloud. I’ve been surprised at how much has come back to me.
  • Bake bread. Okay, so you can’t actually make a batch of bread in just fifteen minutes, but that’s enough time to start the dough and get it rising. A few more fifteen minute chunks over the next two hours is all you need to have fresh-baked bread. I’ve done this once or twice every week for almost two years now. It’s wonderful.
  • Stave off email bankruptcy. I hate that feeling of helplessness, watching my inbox fill up and feeling like “I’ll get back to them later” or “I’ll organize this all next week.” It’s so much better to take fifteen minutes, once per day, to give my inbox the love it needs. (I’m not at Inbox Zero yet, but I have hope that I’ll get there in the next week or so. Fifteen minutes at a time!)
  • Meditation. A loved one was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the neurologist (while making very clear that it will never cure it) recommended a regimen of Mindfulness to help prolong quality-of-life. I’ve decided to give it a go, myself, and these fifteen minute chunks have been perfect.
  • Keep a tidy work area. Fifteen minutes is practically an eternity when it comes to desk-cleaning. It almost doesn’t matter what kind of trainwreck your workspace is. And then, once it is clean, consistently spending a few minutes on it each day will keep it that way.
  • Keep in touch with someone. I’ve always been pretty terrible about keeping in touch with friends and family. (Just ask my mom.) But fifteen minutes! I can write an email, or make a short phone call. Often, that’s all it takes.
  • Dabble in a new programming language. Want to know more about Go, or Rust, or Elixr, or any other language du jour? Fifteen minutes won’t make you an expert, but it’s more than enough time to learn what the buzz is all about, and to get acquainted with syntax and form. It’s like a first date with the language. You can always call them up again for another date, if the first one got you interested. Or ask them to marry you. Or whatever.
  • Writing. I probably won’t write the Great American Novel fifteen minutes at a time, but I’ve found that it gives me just enough space to keep an idea percolating. I’m able to brainstorm, outline, and even sketch out scenes and dialog in fifteen minutes. It’s like a burst of literary weight-lifting in the middle of the day. (I’m actually participating in NaNoWriMo this year, so I’m spending a lot more than fifteen minutes per day on this right now. It’s a temporary burst, though.)

The list could go on, but you get the idea. Sometimes, I really am too busy to fit fifteen minutes in, but that’s rare. I’ll usually have to sacrifice something to get the time I need (sorry, Kerbal Space Program–I’ll finish that base on Eeloo someday!), but I can almost always find it somehow.

Lastly, a plug for an iOS app that has been amazingly helpful for keeping track of all the stuff I want to do: Productive. Instead of trying to arrange things out in a strict calendar or day planner, it simply lets me list the tasks, and specify roughly when I want to do them. (Daily? Weekly? Afternoons? Mornings? Weekends?) Then, every time I finish something, I check it off. The app automatically brings it back again the next time it is due. It encourages me to not break the chain by showing how many days in a row I’ve finished each task. And it does all this without making me feel like I have to endure the tyranny of a minute-by-minute schedule. Very motivating.

So, how many fifteen-minute chunks can you spare? How much more can you accomplish? Take a close look and see what you find.

(Ironically, this post took a lot more than fifteen minutes to write. You just gotta pick your battles, I guess.)