You Can Do Anything for 5 Minutes

I sometimes share this writing exercise (or rather, who-cares-whether-you’re-writing-or-not exercise) with authors who are stuck, who just can’t make the time to write.

You can do anything for 5 minutes. Even if you hate it, you can do dishes, mow the lawn, listen to jazz, even watch bowling on TV, if it’s only 5 minutes. Knowing that this ordeal will end, and even more, when it will end, fills your unconscious mind’s need for control.

Unconscious Control

In an experiment, subjects were given a sheet of challenging problems to work out. As they were ushered into the testing room, the sound of a giant clanging machine came through another door. The experimenters apologised for the noise, saying they hadn’t been aware the machine would be running that day.

Half of the subjects were simply given the problems. The other half were given a big red button and told that if they pushed that button, the noise would stop for 5 minutes. It couldn’t be turned off completely, but they could have 5 minutes’ respite if they needed.

Not surprisingly, the group with the big red button did better.

Surprisingly, none of them pushed the button.

Simply knowing they had control was enough to help them get through the task.

Promising Negotiation

Here’s how you can use that: your unconscious is a fairly simple-minded child. Incredibly tenacious, powerful, focused, but simple. It’s easily manipulated.

If you give yourself permission to stop after 5 minutes, and really mean it, your unconscious will simply wait out the 5 minutes while you do, well, whatever.

At the end of 5 minutes, do whatever you want. Stop. Do another 5 minutes. Sit and stare out the window. For the first 5, simply commit to doing whatever you feel like doing when the clock runs out. Maybe you’ll stop. That’s okay. You’ve gotten 5 minutes of whatever it was done.

But maybe you’ll decide to spend another 5 minutes, with another decision at the end.

This is Not a Trick

This requires, absolutely, that you mean it when you give yourself permission to stop after 5 minutes. If your secret plan is to simply keep working, to “decide” to spend another 5 minutes (or more) you should keep in mind (ha!) that your unconscious can hear you thinking . . .

Nothing is More Powerful

You can make this even more powerful. Set your timer for 5 minutes, and then do nothing except be available to write. Allow yourself to do nothing at all if that’s what you’d like. Don’t consider this a writing exercise; more of a “being available to write” exercise. If you don’t write, that’s okay—just don’t do anything else, either. No Facebook. No Twitter. No TV, chit-chat online or off, nail trimming, music listening, emailing—nothing.

If you can sit in front of your computer or pen and paper for 5 solid minutes and not write a word, I’ll be impressed. But it’s very important that, even though you know we’re manipulating your unconscious, you’re completely sincere in your belief that it’s okay not to write; it’s okay to just sit. And if you write for 5, it’s totally okay to quit and go to bed or play on Google+ or whatever.

Who’s Fooling Who?

Oh, yeah; your unconscious knows exactly what you’re doing. That’s why it works: you can’t trick your unconscious. We’re not trying to. We’re simply giving it what it wants: control, in order to protect you from the stress of trying too hard.

Case Study

Here’s how it worked for Rex:

I’m about to go to sleep (very late) and said, “what the heck, I can do anything for 5 minutes.”

So I started writing about curious leadership. I noticed that the time went very fast. “What? That’s it? I only have a few lines written.” I sat there for little while thinking about the decision to go another 5 or not. “Well, at least let me finish my thought here that I’ve started.” So I started the timer again and went back to writing.

At the end of the second 5 minutes I didn’t even stop because I was still in the middle of a concept.

At 15 minutes I looked up and said, “ok, I think I’m done with that idea, I should really get to sleep.”

Then I thought, “I should really tell Joel about my experience.” Then I probably took another 15 minutes writing this email because I’m banging it out on my phone with the thumbs. (Too lazy to go downstairs.)

I feel so sneaky. I totally tricked my subconscious. It was fun. You’re right, it’s no match for my cleverness.

And the writing was fun. I think this is going to work. You put some thoughts in my mind that are working.

Everything starts in the mind.

Thanks Joel.

I’d love to hear how it works for you.

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