Can you think of an important task you know you should be completing but you’re just not getting around to it? Maybe it’s an assignment, or some cleaning and organizing, or your workout. You want to do it, really, you do. Particular goals or dreams may even be tied to this task. You want that end result of a good mark, a clean house, or reaching that target level of fitness, yet you find yourself putting things off. I’ve found a trick that steers me away from overthinking and non-doing and into productive action. I call it Seventeen Determined Minutes.
I know what you’re thinking: seventeen minutes is not enough, not for something important or meaningful. Maybe you’ve automatically rounded the time down to fifteen minutes. Is this your pessimism coming through? Perfectionism? Some all-or-nothing thinking? For whatever reason, your mental refrain probably sounds like this: I’ll get into it when I have more time or a better mindset, and then I can do a better job. I hate to break it to you, but that sort of thinking only keeps us stuck and disappointed in ourselves.
When faced with this tiny chunk of time (it’s only seventeen minutes after all), many people will check email, scroll through social media feeds, and see what’s new in the headlines or on YouTube. With that kind of mindset, we’re blinding ourselves to many daily opportunities for productivity by killing our time instead of making the most of it.
Seventeen minutes can be beneficial, however. In this short period of time you can start that assignment with a brainstorm and notes, you can tidy up, or you can do some cardio. I’ve used this trick for all those tasks. I swear by it for doing some new writing every day. And guess what: Seventeen Determined Minutes may also help you continue the task past the allotted time. It can also make the next step, which is doing it again, more likely.
Pick a task you dread or have been putting off. Designate a start time. Adjust the alarm on your phone so that when the time expires, you hear something cheerful. Adjust your thinking from the whole task or goal to merely seventeen minutes of effort. Prepare yourself for a tiny bit of progress.
Start your timer and then give it your best shot for seventeen minutes. Open your mind to the experience of doing this one task, right here in the present moment, ignoring inner chatter or distractions.
When the alarm signals your achievement, enjoy that moment. Take a satisfied breath and then either keep going or schedule your next session.
Why it Works
When we change our expectations, we change the experience. At the end of seventeen minutes, the larger task or goal may not be complete. The quality you expect at your finish line may be a far cry from these early efforts. But for that chunk of time, you are turning off cognitive distortions (the perfectionism, pessimism, fear, and all-or-nothing thinking) and instead achieving marginal gains. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that marginal gains made over time are key. “If you want better results,” he says, “then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead” (Clear 2018). By systems, Clear is referring to the processes you employ to get things done. In other words, how you do things impacts your likelihood of success or failure. Runners don’t reach a finish line just because it is their specific goal. They get there through months of building strength and endurance. They get there one stride at a time. I don’t get to be a writer without writing regularly.
Seventeen Determined Minutes can be one of those small but effective changes to your systems. Once we start something and sustain our effort, even for a short period of time, the task no longer seems so uncomfortable. If you’re out for a run, you eventually reach a moment when you settle into a comfortable pace and the rest of the run is easier than the first block or so was. In yoga or meditation, the rewards arrive when we can focus more on our body or breath than on our busy day or the world around us. More often than not, those moments of change do not come in the first five minutes. We have to settle into a bit of a commitment, but not one that seems too daunting.
When the alarm sounds at the end of Seventeen Determined Minutes, we’ve accomplished something. We are in process. We have moved. We’ve achieved a marginal gain, which is way better than no gain at all. Seventeen minutes ago, we had the entire task ahead of us. Now we don’t.
After only seventeen minutes of effort, we have put in the time and honoured our commitment. We’ve made visible progress and built confidence that we can carry forward. We are now more likely to repeat this success. Almost certainly there will be more to do. Quite often our first efforts are pretty rough. However, we will take the next step with more certainty when we know that our previous step was sound.
I see Seventeen Determined Minutes as crucial to my writing system. Plus, it almost always leads to a period of productivity that extends beyond the set time. It’s my warmup. It’s my confidence builder. It gets my butt in the chair, brain working, and fingers moving. I write in stream-of-consciousness style and let any and all ideas, thoughts, and details pour onto the page. This brief period of time is also a respite from my critical mind, which I’ll employ at a later stage. While I didn’t write this article in seventeen minutes, I did use seventeen-minute chunks of motivation to help me write it.
There’s nothing magical about the minutes themselves. The magic comes from how we see those minutes and the system we’re building through them. Putting in seventeen minutes of determined effort builds confidence, fights procrastination, and increases productivity. If we know we can meet that simple objective once, we know we can do it again, and again, and again. It’s arriving at your finish line one manageable step at a time.
Clear, James. 2018. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. New York: Penguin Random House.
From our May 19th edition, issue 3119, this article was nominated by a couple of readers, with one pointing out that it actually worked to help them keep on track. We all know how hard it can be to keep up with what we need to do, so with this method now having been vouched for, I figure it deserves to be here among The Best of the Voice 2023. Hopefully you’ll find its help is still accurate.