Maintaining Momentum, 15 Minutes a Day

As I mentioned earlier, I’m starting a one product-a-day push on February 1st. It may seem ridiculously ambitious, but I think I can do it because of the “digital coworking” I’ve been doing with my friend Brad. Every morning we meet at 715AM in a chat room and work for 15 minutes on an important personal project. While it may not sound like enough time, it’s certainly enough to break the resistance. Here’s how it works.

Handling the Elements of Resistance

When faced with a daunting personal project, I find that getting started is the hardest step of all. That’s because personal projects tend to get buried by other priorities, until you WAKE UP and realizes that you are just CHEATING YOURSELF out of a brighter future. The challenge, thereafter, is managing the uncertainty one feels about doing the “right” things the “right” way. There’s also the risk of having a closely-held personal dream turn into a very real failure, like that cute girl/guy you never asked out in the 7th grade. Personal projects are also easy to put off, since they exist due to your own authority and not someone elses. With no threat of punishment, there is no incentive to start.

Brad and I had talked through these issues while I was visiting in Maine. Catching up in our private Campfire chat room a few weeks later, we had the bright idea of trying an accountability experiment:

  • We would make a commitment to show up in the chat room at the same time every day, no exceptions. We picked 715AM.
  • At 715AM, we would declare what we were going to work on for the next 15 minutes.
  • After the 15 minutes were up, we would report on what we got done.

We had no idea what would happen. I spent my week revising the same mission document and came to a (to me) startling conclusion about my blogging efforts, reorienting my direction. Brad got his stock illustration shop converted to a new system. We discovered that we have the ability to control our own destiny, 15 minutes at a time. Most importantly, we’ve found an effective means to share our efforts with each other, which creates the energy for us to keep moving. The results were hugely gratifying, and so we decided to keep doing it. There’s no official name, so for this blog post I’ll call it The 715AM Ritual.

It’s amazing what you can do in 15 minutes. Even when the rest of the day is spent working on other people’s projects, it feels good to know that you’ve made progress on your deeply-important personal goals—the ones you’ve been slacking on for years—as a morning priority. All it took was a bit of camaraderie, a commitment to meet, and a private online chat room to provide a place to journal our experiences. And since I don’t have to leave the house, I am saving a ton of money on gas and coffee.

The 715AM Ritual, Examined

The ritual is a mashup of several tricks and tips gleaned over the years. For example, the 15-minute period is something I’ve used on many of my own time tracking efforts, as an hour can be divided cleanly into 4 pieces for easy mental processing. Thinking in terms of quarter-hours is a skill we’ve mastered through reading clocks, and I also like that it works with my Excel timesheet formula.

Beyond that, there are several other advantages I perceive:

  • A 15-minute chunk is large enough to get something done, but small enough to not require a lot of planning. That helps reduce overthinking, which can lead to procrastination.

  • Because 15 minutes isn’t a lot of time, we’re more willing to commit. When thinking of those huge projects, it’s naturally to assume that a HUGE chunk of time is necessary, and that’s difficult to schedule so it gets delayed forever. But who can’t spare 15 minutes? Because it’s small, a 15-minute chunk doesn’t feel like a trap.

  • Despite its smallness, a 15 minute chunk is enough to get started, catalyzing further action. My musician friend Elise gave me a tip about practicing: if I don’t feel like practicing music, allow yourself to skip AFTER you put at least 15 minutes in. If I still don’t feel it, I can quit. For herself, she finds that after that first 15 minutes she’s likely to keep going. I have found this to be true in my case as well; that first fifteeen minutes sets the stage for productive work later in the day.

  • With my mind fresh and clear of distraction, it is easier to chomp down onto the first hairy problem of the day. I used to do something similar at Starbucks. I’d make it a priority to get out of the house as soon as I woke up and get situated with my coffee by 730AM. Purposefully ignoring my email and Twitter, I would jump to the first project on my list for the day. Getting to a resolution usually took between 1 or 2 hours. By then it was 1000AM, and with the hard conceptual done I could afford to read email and refine the work of the morning. Something similar happens with the 715AM Ritual: the first moments of the day are given to a rested, energy-filled brain that hasn’t been cluttered with other junk. Those first fifteen minutes belong to me and my future.

  • The 15-minute time limit helps me be more aware of time itself, a critical element of developing better time management habits. My writerly friend Colleen shared a tip from her publishing coach, who started her on a strict 15-minute only writing block. Only after sticking strictly to the habit for several weeks was the time allotment increased. This enforces discipline and efficiency while building the habit. The daily nature of The 715AM Ritual has helped me value time, and I’m actually waking up at 630AM almost every day. This is a big change.

  • I’m an impatient person, and it was difficult to accept slow-but-steady progress as a way of working. I like getting results right away, and get sulky if I have to wait for more than a couple of days for anything. The experience of National Novel Writing Month showed me otherwise. I learned how to get past uncertainty in my creative process to make the daily word counts, which showed me the power of daily incremental progress. For it to work, though, it truly has to be daily. This is related somewhat with the idea that it’s higher frequency of mindful engagement that contributes to learning efficiency, as opposed to the total length of time spent. The frequency of project work, however small, also helps keeps the work in our consciousness, which helps me feel in-synch with my goals. I’m now a total believer in incremental progress, and this gives me the faith to continue pounding away.

  • Having another working person in the room with you, virtual or not, is a tremendous energy boost. There is a sense of accountability and camaraderie, and there’s someone to talk to be an occasional sounding board. The other person is also a source of energy, different from your own, that lowers the total energy cost of starting anything. We are heroes of our own quest, living the dream 15 minutes at a time. And as the work we do starts to reap tangible rewards, the incentive to keep going grows and grows. It’s a virtuous cycle.

My Ritual Projects

So how did it work out for me specifically? My first project was, as one might respect from me, typically meta: I wanted to first figure out what I ultimately wanted to work on. I decided to spend my 15 minutes writing down what was on my mind, with a twist: I would spend the entire week refining the same document over and over again. With each pass, I hoped, it would become clearer and clearer. You can see the document as it evolved by looking at these side-by-side comparisons:

If you look at the last html file, you might recognize the seeds of the reflections on failure series, so I certainly got a lot out of the process. It’s set the tone for the entire coming year, and it happened 15 minutes at a time over the course of a week. I was amazed, and again saw how uncertainty can be broken by small doses of applied daily thinking. The week after that, I worked on learning how to use XML with InDesign to create automatically-generated documents; the 365-Day Almanac was the first fruit of that labor. While it took me a week of long mornings to get there, I can now generate documents like this in minutes as opposed to days: a huge production capacity increase. In the weeks since then, I’ve been using the time to unblock myself on anything that created a mental burden. One morning, I used the time to start sorting my bills and do a sorely-needed load of laundry. Another morning I read about a jQuery plugin called Masonry, which creates a Pinterest-style display of blocks. I’ve also kept my meta-planning document up to date, saving a new copy of it every morning, using it as a digital notepad for scraps of code, interesting URLs, and next steps. Some activities haven’t gone anywhere, but such is the nature of uncertainty and creativity. I’m learning to be OK with it.

Is it a Fluke?

While I’m tempted to recommend The 715AM Ritual for everyone, I think I’ve been lucky in finding a great collaboration partner. Here’s some thoughts on what makes it work:
  • WE COMMITTED TO THE PACT – We were both in a place where we wanted change in our lives, and therefore were willing to give up some comfort to make it happen. We were not going to let each other down by NOT showing up. No rescheduling when something “more important” comes up, or bailing when someone isn’t “feeling like it today.” We know that’s the Resistance talking, and it didn’t happen. We had matching levels of commitment and followed through. There have been a few mornings that started a few minutes late, but in such cases we just started ritual until the other person showed up. There have been no missed days.

  • WE HAVE SIMILAR PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE – We have worked together before, at the same company, on long and arduous projects. We have overlapping experience in interactive design, though I am more on the programming side and he is on the art side. Our shared experience with advanced digital production is directly applicable to our entrepreneurial ambitions, and we can talk shop without leaving the other behind. It would have been more difficult, I think, if one of us needed to learn a lot to get up-to-speed with Internet technologies; that would be more of a coaching or mentoring situation. In that case, the value proposition would have not been equal, with one taking more from the other. That is not sustainable.

  • WE HAVE OVERLAPPING GOALS WITH DIFFERENT MARKETS – While our strategies are different, we are both trying to build something that makes our lives easier financially. For me, I want the freedom to continue doing what I do, pay off debt, and afford to buy more gadgets and see the world on my own terms without selling out. For Brad, he wants to take care of his family and probably do a lot more fishing. In both cases, we’re looking for FREEDOM as an ultimate goal, achieved through the mastery of our own creative processes. After we achieve that, we can figure out what’s next. We’re also using the same technology to achieve these dreams: our websites are the business platform for showing and sharing what we do to a potential audience. In my case, I’m hoping to strike a balance between sharing freely, connecting with awesome people, and offering goods that people like enough to buy. Brad is more focused on providing a product to certain market segments, and optimizing his website so they can connect. For both of us, making our websites as fast, beautiful, and approachable as possible is part of the overall strategy. We can leverage each other’s efforts to move forward quicker yet independently. We benefit from the others advance because we’re doing different things. If we were both illustrators or productivity tool makers, it would probably take more effort if we didn’t know each other as friends first.

  • WE HAVE TRUST – We both find it frustrating when we aren’t making progress. Like many, we are also prone to self-doubt and anxiety about the path we are following. When one of us is feeling doubtful, the other can step in with a perspective-correcting observation: sometimes it’s easier for us to see the other person’s strength than our own, and in any case hearing the affirmation from someone you trust goes a long way. That is a tremendous boon. At other times, we see paths that the other should take and offer them as a challenge. This is all very candid discussion, and it’s possible only with the transparency and good will we have built over the years. I’m happy to help Brad, and he’s happy to help me, and we also are careful about not abusing the privilege. We go out of our way to offer assistance, or volunteer information that we think is helpful.

So yes, perhaps it is a fluke. The structure of the 715AM ritual may merely provide a reason for us to continue our conversation in the context of shared dreams, an extension of our existing friendship. It would be interesting to try this with a group of relative strangers, perhaps meeting in an FreeNode IRC chat room… But I digress. Tomorrow I’m starting my PRODUCT A DAY challenge, and it will be an excellent test for The 715AM Ritual’s effectiveness under stress.

UPDATE APRIL 4, 2013

It’s been two months since I wrote this blog post. Around April 25, we decided to take a break for a month. These are the contributing factors:
  • I woke up late on three occasions in the same month – I had been staying up much later to play some online games with my California-based cousins in the evening. It’s been a while since we’ve really spent time together, and it’s been an ongoing mission to ensure close family ties this year. However, being on the East coast, I’m 3 hours ahead of them, and I’d been going to sleep past 3AM to wake up for the 715A meeting. I couldn’t maintain it.

  • Change in Work Focus – Over the past month, the 715A Ritual had been less about doing STUCK projects and more about JUST WORKING. And thus, the ritual time became more like the beginning of a long day.

  • Increased Non-Stuckness Activity in the Chat Room – I had run a separate chat room for my colleague Ben, who was facing similar stalled personal projects in the face of work commitments. I convinced him to try the 15M unsticking ritual, and it worked well enough that he also made it a habit. We then merged into the same chat room, so it became me, Ben, and Brad. This has resulted in more energy when reviewing artwork, but also I had started talking about work-work with Ben in the same room. This decreased the utility of the room for Brad.

<

p>After talking it over with Brad, he was amenable to a break until May. We’re keeping the chat room open, but we’re no longer doing 715A check-ins this month. If we pick it up again, we may make it more like 8 or 9AM; both Brad and I tend to be night owls, so perhaps this is better in the long run; the 715A ritual was more of a statement that we needed to get started early enough in the day so we could ignore email and other distractions.

Here are a few new takeaways:

Starting Time

While we’re not doing 715A checkins, I’m still popping into the chat room around 915A and doing my 15M burst. That first burst of the day still is incredibly powerful and important for setting the tone of the day. This is a keeper.

I must admit that being able to stay up later, to around 2AM, feels so much better. I’ve been still waking up relatively early, around 830AM, and starting the work.

The time to form a habit

The habit I have now is the chat room and bursting for 15 minutes on a tone-setting activity. After doing the 715A ritual for close to four months, this feels like it’s a habit. What helps is knowing that this is a habit that has kept me more focused and productive, and I can look back and see the benefits. Being able to talk about those benefits in the chat room is affirming, thanks to feedback from Ben and Brad. That helps me see the benefits more. I also have been unusually focused in documenting the daily rituals, so I’m able to look back and see just what I accomplished.

Chat Room Etiquette

With three people in the chat room, it’s important to make sure it’s still focused. It’s a working channel more than a social channel. I had been bad about polluting the chat room with random talk, so I have instituted a policy for myself to keep that stuff on Facebook and Instant Messenger. Also, project work that is unrelated to achieving our personal dream projects is not appropriate either.


That’s it for now. More updates as events warrant :)