The power of ten minutes a day

The power of ten minutes a day

In early 2012, I published Jumping into C++. According to the calendar, I wrote the book between January 2010 and January 2012, but it took me less than 200 hours of work. I know this because for most of the time I worked on the book, I kept careful track of my time spent. Between 1/4/2010 and 9/29/2011 (when I stopped keeping track), I’d worked on the book for almost exactly 156 hours and written over 70,000 words.

How, exactly, did I manage to write a book in this short a time? I had one simple rule: I had to work on the book for just ten minutes, every day, no excuses. Ever.

The original reason I tracked my time, in fact, was that I wanted to motivate myself by having a streak of days, and I figured that instead of just tallying check marks, I’d write down exactly how long I spent. It worked — I never missed a day.

Now, I didn’t say I wrote the book every day — just that I worked on it. Some (many) days, I would work on sample code, futz with formatting, brainstorm ideas, or make edits. All I needed to do was stare at the page for ten minutes and try to do something that felt like progress.

Even when I was in the zone, I really didn’t spend very long on any given day — on 499 days, I spent 15 minutes or less. There were only 5 days where I worked for more than one hour, and the most time I ever spent was 72 minutes. It definitely helped that I was sometimes able to get into a zone, but it was never the flaming hot zone Jack Kerouac described in claiming to have written On the Road in a 3 week blur.

Instead, I got into a different kind of zone — one where the work was omnipresent, but in the background. More sous vide than flame grilled. Writing every day kept ideas top of mind. 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. 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.

On some days, despite that, I’d get stuck. On those days, I gave myself permission to make small tweaks rather than forcing myself to write reams of new words. If I had writer’s block, I didn’t beat myself up about it — today might not be a good day, so let’s use it for something I have to do anyway. There’s always tomorrow to take another crack at writing.

On those days, I would often review and edit dozens of pages, which kick-started my thinking by reminding me of the big picture — and of the gaps — in a way that I couldn’t when my cursor was sitting and blinking in the middle of a sentence. I rarely found myself unable to write for more than a few days or a week at a time.

The other thing that really helped is that I didn’t allow myself to check my email until I worked on the book. It wasn’t until recently that I realized (after reading that I was really creating a habit loop — I gave myself the reward of checking my personal email in exchange for putting in the time on the book. It also tied the concept of working on the book to something very concrete; it was impossible to forget to do.

There were certainly times where I felt like the book was never going to come together — that it was an enormous hill that I was barely scratching. When that happened, going back over what was already there and making edits showed me just how far I’d come and inspired the next wave of work.

So, what are you doing for the next ten minutes?


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