Wednesday, January 4, 2017

52 Weeks of Focus - The 10 Minute Rule

So I have a mixed history with new years' resolutions. Over the years I've had serious ones (usually about climbing mountains), lighthearted ones (like 2016's resolution to eat more bacon) and occasionally philosophical ideals. But this year I'm going for something different.

For 2017, my resolution is to continually work on living a better, more focused life.

I'm not committing to a set goal or any specific means to that end - rather, I'm committing to making an honest effort at it, and to re-evaluate myself at least once a week. If something isn't working, I'll change it. If I find another aspect of my life that I want to work on, I'll devise strategies to help out.

I didn't come up with this idea in a vacuum - I've been thinking about ways to improve my company (Rogue Panda) for the past few months, and I have changes coming there for the new year. So it was natural to extend that idea to self improvement. Plus, I read a really excellent book on the plane back to Flagstaff - Deep Work, by Cal Newport. Some of the ideas I have for the new year are straight out of that book, and others are inspired by reading it.

I haven't figured out exactly how I'll approach this self-improvement, but right now my plan is to implement a new strategy every week of the year, in addition to evaluating how the previous week went. With that in mind, let us begin:

Week One: The Ten Minute Rule

This week's new strategy is one that I came up with while reading Deep Work, and I call it the 10 minute rule. It came about because I, like many people, find the internet to be my greatest weakness when it comes to maintaining focus. The rule is pretty simple:

Any time I'm on my computer/smartphone, I'll divide my time into 10 minute blocks of mindful activity. I will never spend fewer than 10 minutes at a time on a task.

The idea behind this is to spend my online time mindfully, yet maintain flexibility in scheduling and keep the aspects of social media that I enjoy (and that are essential to my business). Disconnecting completely is not an option, so I needed a way to have my cake and eat it too.

In order to help out with this, I created a very simple script on my computer that launches a little pop-up window every 10 minutes. When the window pops up, I make a quick plan for how I'll spend the next 10 minutes, or I turn off the computer if I'm done.

Usually the plan-making takes just a few seconds. Example plans might be as simple as "keep answering work email", or something more complicated like my usual social media rounds: "check Facebook, check Instagram, check mtbr forums, use any extra time to go find bikepacking-related posts on Instagram and comment on them".

That's the gist, but there are a couple other things required to make this one work:

  • I turned off notifications on my phone, of all kinds
  • I find I need to keep a "Look-up list", to write down things to look up later
  • If I happen to finish a session early, I never spend the time on social media or email
I've been following this rule for the past few days, and I've noticed a couple things so far. First, I'm not as tempted as I used to be to go check Facebook or Instagram after I make a particularly engaging post. It's easier to deny those urges because I have a clear boundary, and most of the time I don't want to go spend a whole 10 minutes on the computer - what my brain wants to do is go check Facebook, Instagram and Email in a quick round. The 10 minute rule gives me an easy excuse that doesn't require a lot of willpower*.

The second thing I've noticed is that, when you're acting mindfully, 10 minutes is a really long time. I continue to be surprised at how quickly I accomplish my 10-minute plans. It's amazing how many emails you can answer in a quick, focused session - and how few you can answer in a couple hours of semi-mindless idling.

*The idea of avoiding use of willpower sounds like a weakness or failure on my part. It's hard for me not to feel that way, but I have science on my side here: Willpower has been shown in multiple studies to be an exhaustible resource that actually uses glucose in your brain! Conserving it is smart strategy, not weakness.

So that's the 10-minute rule! It might not apply to you, although I know that checking social media frequently is a problem for more people than me. It never used to be, but then I started a business that relies on it and that's made it much harder to stay away. Between Facebook, Instagram and email it can feel like there's always something to check. So far this strategy is working out for me, but I'm sure I'll end up tweaking it over time.

Next week will be about embracing boredom, and after that I've got ideas for exercising more, eating more vegetables, eating more bacon - all the usual suspects. Also a brief overview of the science of willpower and how to create strategies that are easy to follow. Right now I'm sick with a cold, so all of those sound very daunting. It's taking all my limited willpower to stick to the 10-minute rule.


If you want to try this, you can tweak it to fit your specific situation. For example you could do a 20-minute minimum instead, or divide your time into different-sized blocks. But the important thing is to keep it simple and make the decision-making easy on yourself. Conserve your precious willpower.

For the 10-minute popup timer, I use linux so my method won't work for most people. But here's a way to do something similar on windows.

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