Have you ever had those times when you find yourself with unexpected free time, something cancels or changes, it can be for 15 minutes, or even a few hours. And all of a sudden, you have space and time. After the initial deep breath, the brain starts knocking on the window wanting to show you the long list of things that you can now do. Time, after all, is a commodity.
And this windfall of wide open space, sends a siren call out to the mind and the body to battle for what to do with it. Should you nap, catch up on the sleep that you’re often chasing? How about exercise, burn off the stress and the excess of the previous days? Or how about time with friends and family, deepening connections that stray just outside our daily reach. But remember, says the brain. You have that pile of papers, messages, errands, chores and things with a capital T. The initial dopamine of excitement now is met with a stress chemical called cortisol.
Today, I want to offer a time-based tool that helps in times where you’re evaluating what to do when. This is a tool that helps calm the brain and center your thinking. I call it the 10 Minute Kickstart. You pick a single activity that you want to start without expectation that it will be completed and you dedicate 10 minutes to it. Why 10? I’ll explain that as we go. But it’s the kickstart that is the real tool.
When the brain is sorting through options, its drive is to be efficient. When faced with a list of options, it’s going to look for where there is potential for progress quickly. Otherwise, that found time can start to be really overwhelming to your system. The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that the act of starting an action is the ignition switch to the brain’s navigation system. When used correctly, it can help us go farther faster.
Often when we’re contemplating that looming list in front of us, our feelings of guilt or indecision influence the steps we take next. In fact, when faced with a list of many options, research indicates we’re more likely to pick something that can be done easily and finished more quickly, so that we can feel the satisfaction of Done. This is known as “completion bias” – meaning we will reprioritize our time to seek out the satisfaction of something done over something started. But completion isn’t the key ingredient to satisfaction, action is.
Let’s use an example.
Imagine a sink piled high with dirty dishes. Every time you walk by it, you see the pile and think “Ah, I don’t have time to clean them all right now. Plus, I really don’t want to, I’d much rather be doing this or that or this other thing.” Instead, the 10 Minute Kickstart allows you to take apart that giant pile and look at it as a short-term reward system. Pick just one or two items from that pile, say your favorite cup, and wash and dry. Just that. Put it back where it goes when it’s clean, and that’s it. The rest of the pile is left for another time. But your brain just got a sense of accomplishment and you get a lift next time you want to use the cup and it’s not at the bottom of a pile.
Progress not perfection.
And the gift with purchase of this action is that we get the return of our friend dopamine. Just by starting and finishing one piece of the task, your brain and body still get to do a high five. In turn, dopamine prompts a positive feedback loop that includes improved attention, memory, and motivation. So now you’re more inclined to select the next action that serves you rather than be pulled in the quicksand of perfectionism or overwhelm.
So why 10 minutes? It’s enough of a window that you can navigate multiple steps related to that action. You can find the cup, pick it out, get the soap, wash it, dry it off, put everything back away, and have completed that.
When you’re doing this with things in your list, it gives you enough space to look up a phone number, find your online password, reset it, return a message, start an email, without having to do the entire pile that’s around it. When your brain knows it only has to do the steps for a few minutes, it’s much less likely to procrastinate than if you sit with an open window of time ahead of you.
In the normal course of a day, the average person gets distracted approximately every six minutes. If that happens during this Kickstart, your brain knows it can tend to the distraction at the end of the 10 minutes, thereby removing most of the temptation to wander away from the pile of dirty dishes that you didn’t really want to do anyway.
So the next time you’re faced with a decision on what to do, when, pick one thing and start the timer, literally or mentally. Tell your brain that this is a short-term sprint, and then lace up your cognitive running shoes. When the task actually gets completed, that’s a bonus. But even if it’s not, you shorten the future pile on your plate by making momentum, and you get to enjoy the satisfaction of the action.
You can do several 10 Minute Kickstarts over the course of a day to break up the pieces of larger Meteor actions. And the more you use this tool, the more confidence you build in your focused efforts. You start to see how and how well you use your time. And how much can get done when you do it in a focused way. You also start to see the pile gets smaller with each sprint.
The 10 minute Kickstart is a productivity espresso—a lot of energy in a small cup. So see where you can use this tool as a regular method to organize your daily actions or as a centering exercise when you get the gift of found time. Either way, the act of trying it is already a win.
I hope that helps. And until next time, I hope you take good care.