One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve been given was by my dear friend and novelist, Stephen May (Life!Death!Prizes, Wake Up Everyday Happy). We were at a writing retreat in the beautiful Moniack Mhor, right at the top of Scotland. If I recall, we bumped into each other on the landing: we had that slightly crazed, been scribbling and concentrating for too long look – we were in need of human company.
How do you balance your writing life and your working life? I asked Stephen. It’s the writer’s equivalent to the more common work-life-balance question. His answer was profoundly simply: Write five minutes every day. I left our conversation feeling a little underwhelmed. I’d hoped for a more complex answer, a big shiny gold key to unlock the dilemma of my writing life. Five minutes? How could that help?
But then I tried it. I set up a calendar and told myself that every day that I wrote for give minutes, I’d draw a coloured line. Soon, my calendar was full of coloured lines – and, guess what? Every time, I ended up writing form much more than five minutes. Because it’s the sitting down that’s hard. It’s the beginning that scares us. It’s the finger-wagging, make-you-feel-guilty voice that says: you’ve got to make time for your writing, that makes you feel like you don’t have the time, not real time, not proper, serious time. Once you have vanquished those gremlins, your words will fly.
You see, the five minute rule is sneaky, it plays a trick on our procrastinating, make excuses, defeatist selves.
First: because it’s only five minutes, there’s no way we can say – I don’t have time for that. Everyone has five minutes in their day. The Prime Minister has five minutes. Mother Teresa had five minutes. A mum with ten children has five minutes. It could be waiting for the bus or for the water to boil, it could be sitting at the dentist’s or at the end of a lunch break or or just before you go to sleep. It could be sitting on the loo ;). Our day is packed with five minute windows – your job is simple: snatch them and scribble.
Second: like I mentioned above, because it’s only five minutes you’ll always end up writing more. It might be six minutes, it might be six hours, but once you’ve talked yourself into putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you’ll keep going. You see, success is the greatest motivator. Because you’ve told yourself that if you manage five minutes you’ll have met your goal, you won’t give up – once your (and my) fragile writer’s ego is jumping up and down with joy shouting, Yay! I made it! I did my five minutes!- you’ll want to keep going. And by then, I can’t do it gremlin will well and truly have retreated behind enemy lines.
I’ve thought about how the five minute rule could apply to other disciplines too, from getting fit, to encouraging your child to practise the piano, to meditating, to making sure you give time to your partner – and though I haven’t tested it, I reckon it’ll work. In this crazy, I’m too busy world, the Just Five Minutes Rule might well allow us to lead better lives and to follow our dreams.
So here’s my challenge – and I want you to do right now, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing: get out a piece of paper (the back of a receipt will do), draw five boxes and label them Monday through to Sunday. Pin it on our noticeboard or tape it to your laptop – or to your bathroom mirror. Then, at some point today, write for five minutes. Ideally, ride the energy of having read this post and start writing now. If you really can’t stop to write now, promise yourself that you’ll find five minutes before you go to sleep. And, as soon as you’ve done your five minutes, draw a line through each box. Now repeat this every day this week. If you like, write a small reply to this blog every time you do your slot – I would love to celebrate with you :).
You’ll see, you’ll get addicted, you’ll feel compelled to keep going and, come next Monday, you won’t want to get through the day without being able to draw that little coloured line. That coloured line is something you want to get OCD about. And, if you manage more than five minutes, why not mark that too? Choose a different colour for the +5 minutes line or draw a smiley face -whatever makes your heart sing. And then celebrate that you haven’t let a day pass without doing what matters so much to you.
Remember: it’s Just Five Minutes – so start now.
Health Warning: five minutes might turn into an hour, or two, or five – once you start, you’ll get lost in the bliss of what psychologists call flow – and when you look up again, the world will have changed. Your dinner might be burnt. Your bath might be running running over. Your kids might be screaming. Your boss might be writing your P45. But you’ve written – you’ve written! And, as we writers know, that means the biggest battle’s won.