Art, I made this, Writer's life

Level Thinking: 168 hours; 15 minutes

Recently, I had the pleasure of taking a course with Melissa Dinwiddie. All of the participants came with unfinished projects. In my case one thing I brought to the course was a project I last worked on in June 2012 – a whole two years ago. The idea was that through a combination of goal-setting sessions, rally calls, and encouraging one another we would complete these projects. It worked.

Everyone finished something, though a lot of people were surprised to discover they really wanted to finish something totally different than they thought they wanted.

One of the biggest topics we talked about was time. Many of our discussions centred around two time time constraints: 168 hours and 15 minutes.

168 hours

This is 24 hours a day x 7 days in a week. No matter how we slice or dice it, it’s all we’ve got and all we’re going to get. We might think of it as the ultimate time constraint.

And no, multi-tasking doesn’t add hours to the week. In fact it subtracts them. We now know from all those peek-a-boo machines that can look at our brain in motion that multi-tasking doesn’t exist. It is really very rapid shifts, sometimes measured in milliseconds, from one project to another. These rapid shifts decrease concentration and memory and rapidly fatigue the brain.

As a reminder, I made a mini-quilt to celebrate the number 168. It’s called 168: butterflies, birds fly and time flies. I’m going to hang in my writing area.


15 minutes

All creative people get behind, and we have a devil of a time getting started again. Those same take-a-peek at the brain machines tell us that fear is the reason restarting is so hard. This isn’t fear that we won’t do the project well; it is fear and guilt about starting. We should have done this earlier. Because we haven’t done it according to some magic time frame we are weak, lazy, bad, and not really worthy of the title artist or writer. The longer we keep from starting, the more fear about not starting builds and the harder it becomes to start.

Here’s the secret to starting again: touch the materials. This is where artists have a  heck of a lot easier time than writers. It’s a lot more tactile to touch fabric or paints or beads than it is to touch paper or keyboards. This is the time that we need to write with a pen in a journal or notebook. Here’s how it works.

  •  Find a notebook or journal; pen; and timer. Yes, we really need a timer. Don’t try to wing this without one.
  • Promise ourselves we’re going to touch the materials for 15 minutes.
  • Set the timer for 15 minutes.
  • Play with the materials. Run our hand over the notebook. Look at how it’s lined or not lined. Feel the shape of the pen.
  •  Remember back when we wrote our names, or the name of someone special, over and over in our notebooks. Or drew flowers in the margins? I have it on good authority that boys drew tanks, cars, or airplanes. Whatever. Do some doodling. Practice Zentangle.

Two things are going to happen, likely before we write the first word.


The first is an outpouring of guilt. We should have done this earlier. We’ve wasted so much precious time. We are bad, bad people. We are crap as writers.

In fact, we are doing what we’re doing at exactly the right time. Every coin toss has a 50% probability of landing on heads; 50% probability of landing on tails. Had we not procrastinated, had we started at some other arbitrary point, what we’re writing would be different, and not necessarily better. There is an even chance that if we’d started on time, what we wrote then would have been a disaster.


The second is an intense, almost obsessive desire to do something else. Anything else. Wash the kitchen floor. Organize a high school reunion. Research the War of 1812 for that book we intend to write some day.

This is like a dog in the park being distracted by every squirrel she sees. It’s where, as writers, we need to exercise our concentration muscles. We promised ourselves 15 minutes. We’re counting on ourselves. We’re learning to trust ourselves. Fifteen minutes is not that long.

If we can ditch the guilt, and ignore the squirrels, and keep touching our tools, the writing will start. Guaranteed, absolutely, 100 %.

When the timer goes off, if we haven’t written much or anything, stop. When the time goes off, if we’re deep into writing, stop.

We promised ourselves fifteen minutes and, today, we have to honor that promise or we won’t trust ourselves next time. “You promised me fifteen minutes, and you’ve been writing two hours. I’m tired and hungry, and we should be in bed, and getting up tomorrow is going to be a real pain. Next time you promise me only fifteen minutes, I’m not going to trust you.”

Baking in the habit

The second step is what we called in Melissa’s course, baking in the habit. Do fifteen minutes at a time until it becomes a habit. For some people three or four sessions will do it. For other people it takes longer. We know the baking is done when the task feel almost second nature. At that point, we have two options:

  • Lengthen the time and keep baking. Move from 15 minutes to 30, or 30 to 45, but still stick with the timer and stop when it goes off.
  • Negotiate with ourselves for a long time period. I’m going start with 15 minutes today. If it’s going well, I plan to continue. Is that okay with me?
  • Keep in mind that Jonathan Fields says in his book Uncertainty, that — here come those sneaky machines again — the most productive length of time to do creative work is 45 to 90 minutes at a time. Longer than that and the brain is too depleted to do good work.

This is an especially hard idea to swallow if we have limited creative time. “The only time I can write is when my son takes a nap.” or “I’m getting up at five in the morning so I can write before I go to work. I have to squeeze in every minutes of writing possible.”

How to squeeze in more creative time

  • Work for 45 minutes.
  • Get up. Stretch. Drink water.
  • If we meditate or do yoga or tai-chi, do a couple of poses or concentrate on breathing.
  • Have a slice of fruit or 12 raisins: this is equivalent to about 3 grams of carbohydrates, not enough to send our blood sugar soaring, but enough to replace the glucose our brain has used.
  • If possible, go outside, even if it’s just stepping out on our balcony or into our back yard. If we lack a balcony or the weather is crappy, look at nature photos. There are plenty on the Internet.
  • Don’t talk.
  • Absolutely don’t check e-mail, look at Pinterest, make phone calls, start a load of laundry, or feed the cat. This is still creative time. It’s just creative time devoted to a different kind of activity.
  • At the end of 15 minutes, we will likely be ready to go for another 45 creative minutes.

There’s a companion 15 minute quilt in progress to go along side the 168 hour quilt. This is how far I’d gotten when my last 15-minute touch-the-work session ended. When It’s finished, I’ll post an updated photo.

15 minute quilt

More art photos this weekend in Art I Love.

Tuesday, June 24th, Write the Novel will be part 3 on book killers. We’ll be looking at those killers lurking at the end of the alphabet, from major flashbacks to wishy-washy.

Hope to see you again soon.