If you think you have no time to squeeze creative work into your daily life, ask yourself: Do I have five minutes to spare? Chances are, you do.
Giving yourself five minutes every day to focus on a creative task–writing, doodling, brainstorming ideas–can have a profound impact over time. Cognitive behavioral therapists call it (appropriately enough) the Five-Minute Rule. Commit to doing something for this short interval of time, they reason, and you’ll overcome the psychological barriers of getting started in the first place.
“We’re scared of the big, amorphous blob of a task precisely because it is so big and ill-defined, and because we worry that it will take two hours or two days to get to the bottom of it,” she says.
Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of creative work. Not only is it terribly subjective and ambiguous, there will always be stuff in your life that shouts more loudly for your attention than your creative work. Always.
Writer Goldie Goldbloom knows this better than most of us. I met Goldie in graduate school and have been in awe of her super-human capabilities since. Goldie has eight children. She’s a single mom. She teaches at Northwestern University. She’s published two books of fiction and just finished a third. She is in the middle of working on four different writing projects right now.
What’s her secret? “I just cram it in,” she says. “I have between nine and 20 appointments during the day for my kids and I don’t have time for creative work during those hours. I really just have to block out time.”
That means writing on a scrap of paper when she’s waiting in the car for her daughter to come out of ballet class. That means writing when she has a moment to spare stuffing laundry in the dryer. Her desk is riddled with scraps of paper that she’s written on and while she also commits to writing late at night after her kids have gone to bed or early in the morning, those daytime doses keep her momentum going.
Giving yourself five minutes to focus on a creative task, even if it’s crammed between other obligations, will help you overcome the hurdle of just starting, which is often what keeps people from ever pursuing their creative passions in the first place.
“‘What can I possibly get done in five minutes?’ you ask yourself. But that is the procrastinator talking, the voice that would at this very moment lobby for doing nothing rather than doing anything at all,” writes Bonoir. “So let’s ask again: what can you get done in five minutes? Five minutes’ more work than you would have done otherwise, and often the hardest part of all.”
Patrick Branigan always has a pad of Post-it notes handy. An art director at Overit, a digital marketing firm in Albany, New York, he’s made a habit of taking a few minutes to doodle on a Post-it when he’s trying to brainstorm ideas, clear his head, or get inspired. “That ability to make something out of nothing in that short period of time inspires me to think, ‘If I have this bigger idea in mind, how do I go about it without as much fear?'” he says.
Branigan’s Post-it note technique has another benefit: It can help you stop being precious about your work. “Post-its are used and tossed and replaced. It’s never this feeling of trying to do something correctly, which can be overbearing for designers,” he says. “It’s this great feeling of making something and being able to toss it in the end.”
We often push aside tasks or projects that we know will eat away a chunk of time. But knowing you’re going to give yourself five minutes for something will make you more likely to return to it. You might even be up for focusing 10 or 20 minutes on it the next time around, says Bonior.
“It’s those small openings and unzippings that in many ways are the biggest psychological barriers of all,” she writes.
“If you conquer them–doable in just a couple of minutes–and then you force yourself to stop after just that incremental progress, your energy and momentum will have started to flow.”