25 Minutes

One of the universal truths regarding projects is it’s impossible to know exactly how much time and effort it will require to complete. Other times, we can find ourselves intimidated by a project and get into the trap of thinking that we have to get it all done at the same time. The reality is that you can only work on one thing at a given time. When you make peace with that, it gets easier to do the work. I propose that 25 minutes is the way to complete projects, one step at a time.

Also, no amount of procrastination or avoiding your work will reduce your anxiety. Doing the work is often easier than resisting it, so why do we resist? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll make this project so big and intimidating in your mind that you can psych yourself out. You’ll strive for perfection when you should strive for making progress. When you get started often, finishing will take care of itself.

All it takes is 25 minutes of focused work (followed by 5 minutes of rest) to make some progress on your project. Here’s why:

Getting started is often the hardest part; committing to yourself to work for just 25 minutes is a great way to get started. Don’t worry about finishing; just focus on getting started as frequently as possible.

As Woody Allen so aptly put:

Eighty percent of success is showing up.

25 minutes is enough time to start anything and produce something; in other words, it’s long enough to make some progress on a project, while not so long to get intimidated.

25 minutes also acts as a terrific time constraint. When you know you have only 25 minutes to work (in a given 25/5–time block), you’re much more likely to make progress on that thing you’ve been resisting. Having time constraints is a good thing. You’ll be more focused, and you’ll waste less time doing trivial things and more time getting real work done.

By working for 25 minutes, you’re tricking yourself to work for almost 30 minutes. The big difference? 25 minutes makes it psychologically less intimidating than 30 minutes.

By keeping each work session to 25 minutes, you’re breaking down large projects to small, manageable chunks, which makes it easy for you to complete them.

It’s also easier to track time worked when a 25–minute “sprint” is combined with a 5–minute moving break.

Last but not least, when you work for 25 minutes and then take a 5–minute moving break, you’re making a positive choice that affects your physical health and well-being. I wrote about why excessive sitting is bad for you, and how to sit less, and these 5-minute breaks are a perfect start to sitting less.

When you’re struggling with a difficult project, or one that seems overwhelming, ask yourself what is the one thing that you can do to move that project forward. You can get a lot done in 25 minutes if you keep yourself focused — you’ll make progress on things that matter to you. When you focus on getting started as often as possible, finishing will take care of itself.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you get started when getting started is exactly the thing you’re struggling with? Commit to starting for just 25 minutes. Then, set a timer for that length of time. At the end of 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break by standing/moving around. That’s it. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

You can also use software like FlexTime or BreakTime to keep track of your time. The idea, of course, is to alternate between work (full, focused intensity) and rest. Think of it as interval training for your mind.

While 25 minutes may not seem like much, getting started means you’ll make some progress on a large project, and sometimes that’s all you need to gain momentum.

When a potentially meaningful idea or thought comes to you whilst you’re working during a 25-minute session, capture that idea quickly in your list manager, and then get back to work. That way, you don’t lose the idea when you’re working, but you’ll know you can deal with it later.

The 5-minute breaks are meant for you to take a quick breather by getting up from your chair and moving around before resuming work. You can use those to take a short walk, drink a glass of water, perform a stretch, have a quick chat with a colleague, or just close your eyes and breathe deeply — all of these while not sitting.

These breaks are meant for doing anything relaxing that is not work-related or consumption-driven. Also, resist the urge to impulsively check your phone, and avoid social network dives or other distractions. Better yet, refrain from using any electronic devices during your break. Give your brain some time to think on its own.

Here’re some ways you can begin using the 25 minute method:

  • Write Morning Pages.
  • Perform a Daily Review.
  • Exercise five days a week for no more than 25 minutes.
  • Use 25-minute playlists in iTunes, the end of which acts as triggers for taking breaks.
  • Keep your meetings to 25 minutes (or less); save the last few minutes to debrief.
  • Do a review at the end of workday to bring closure to your day.

The next time you find yourself less-than-motivated or struggling to get started with a project, give yourself just 25 minutes of focused work to get started on it. That’s it. That’s all you’re allowed to do. You’ll be surprised by how much work you can accomplish during that short time-frame. You’ll be tempted to skip the break. Don’t. Take the break. After you take the break, you’ll find yourself naturally motivated to continue working. Motivation follows action, not vice versa.

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