The start of a new year overwhelms me.
I love the idea of shifting gears and walking into a new year. I love the possibility of a fresh calendar. But I am overwhelmed by all the things I want to do, and all the things I think I can magically begin, just because January 1 arrives at the front of the calendar.
I’m one of those people who believes I can start running, eat all the kale, magically organize my entire life, and become that friend who sends birthday cards in the mail overnight.
I guess you could say I am a recovering resolutions addict.
The new year is tricky because we formulate these big, life-shifting goals and then we wonder why nothing changes. Why we quickly shelf those goals and go back to old habits.
I’ve learned it’s because building discipline takes time. It is a muscle we need to train little by little. Progress is usually made out of small things done on repeat.
At the start of 2019, I was feeling worn out before the new year even arrived on the calendar. I had things I wanted to do but I was drained by the idea of setting another set of lofty resolutions that looked like failures by the middle of January.
So I refocused my thinking. I decided to zoom in small. I picked one primary goal:
Read more, scroll less.
Instead of assuming I had to go out to the bookstore to fill my shelves with new reads that might entice me to create this new habit of mine, I decided to start with what I had. I pulled a book off the shelf and I set a timer on my phone for 15 minutes. Just 15 minutes to read a few pages of a book I already had.
A few years removed from that “read more, scroll less” goal, this is how most of my life operates: in 15-minute increments.
I call it the “15-minute rule.” It’s no fuss. It’s not fancy. You just set the timer and you start.
Fifteen minutes to go for a walk outside. Fifteen minutes to clear your mind and journal. Fifteen minutes to write some good sentences or call a friend just to hear their voice and check-in.
Most of us have 15 minutes. We say we don’t, but we could find the space.
We could put down the phone. We could watch less of that show. We could wake up a few minutes earlier. I think we buy the lie that we need to have the whole day or a whole hour to invest in something we care about that would make us feel like we are moving forward. But I’m afraid we’ll keep waiting on that miraculous free 3-hour time block or that day off only to find it never shows up.
We’ll never find the time. We have to make it and we have to decide that even the smallest actions are going to matter, they’re going to stack up and contribute to much bigger victories ahead.
On days where I feel overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of me, I set a timer and get to it. I remind myself: you can do anything for 15 minutes.
The tasks range from big to small:
Clean the cupboard beneath the bathroom sink. Go through my inbox. Call and make that doctor’s appointment. Scribble out a few cards and put them in the mailbox. With just 15 minutes, I make progress in a direction that matters to me. I change the landscape around me and get closer to the goals that really matter to me.
It’s really all about looking for that tiny thread within a larger task and beginning to pull. Over the years, I’ve found it doesn’t just work for the tasks you are dreading or tasks that need to get done, but it works even more masterfully for things you’ve always said you wanted to do. Those things you’ve quickly pushed to the side with the excuse of, “I just don’t have enough time.”
I’ve wanted to write a novel for years. This idea sat in my brain for so long and haunted me with each passing day. I’m a believer in not letting inspiration and ideas sit dormant for too long so I pulled out a notebook I already had one day and I set my timer. Over the next 15 minutes, I began to do research for the novel. It wasn’t earth-shattering. I was simply using 15 minutes of time to watch a TED talk and scan through some articles. But there was something about carving out that time that lit a fire in me.
It was a small step in the right direction. I was surprised to see it felt like coming back to myself. I decided I was going to keep stoking the fire, fifteen minutes at a time. The number of minutes seems small, but any larger and I’d convince myself there just wasn’t enough time.
It doesn’t need to happen every single day. It’s not about getting the 15-minutes down perfectly. It’s about deciding to show up and put something that matters at the forefront for just a moment in your day.
It might take 15 minutes to write 250 words. That’s 250 more words than you had yesterday.
It might take 15 minutes to research some new recipes but that’s an arsenal of family meals that didn’t exist this morning.
It might take 15 minutes to start cleaning out the closet in your office. You might not finish that big task today but you’re a little bit closer than you where you were before you set the timer.
If you’re feeling like life has been knocked out of you, or you don’t know how to start this new year, it may be time to look around the readjust.
You don’t need to add more to your already full life. You don’t need to make big investments or buy fancy gadgets to make progress. You just need to clear the space, maybe just for 15 minutes. You just need to start right where you are with what you already have.
Hannah Brencher is a blogger, TED speaker and entrepreneur. Her book, Fighting Forward: Your Nitty-Gritty Guide to Beating the Lies that Hold You Back is available now.