21 tasks for 20 minutes, and why short bursts are so powerful

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

The day before my tenth birthday, I had my first violin lesson. Miss Godfrey showed me how to put the violin under my chin, and hold the bow. Then I was allowed to put the two together: pulling the bow downwards, and pushing it upwards again to make a sound. 

That was it. I was a violinist, and have been ever since. Playing the violin has lasted through school, university, work and family life, and taken me directly and indirectly all over the world. But whether I’m playing by myself or in a 100-person orchestra it’s still the same principle Miss Godfrey taught me: bow down, up, down, up.

This weekend, I got my violin out to do some practice. But something was wrong. That ‘down, up, down, up’ just wasn’t working. Instead of a smooth, even sound between the notes, there was an unmistakable bump. 

(I’ve done this literally millions of times since I was ten, but somehow things still go off the rails. Sigh.)

So I went back to basics. For each ‘down, up’, I observed how each finger on my bow was working and what it felt like. I experimented with making tiny changes to each of their angles, their pressure, how they related to my wrist and my elbow. I slowed the action right down to see what happened. I tried doing it on different strings to hear and feel what difference it made. 

After 20 minutes I started to play normally again. In that time, everything had changed. Suddenly I could feel my bow again, and understand how to make a smooth line. I had way more control of what sounds I could create, and how easy it felt. 

It made me wonder. 

What do we have in our life that’s so fundamental, we haven’t even noticed it’s not working as well as it used to? 

What would change if we spent 20 minutes (or less) on sorting it out?

Why short bursts are so powerful

There are a few reasons that this kind of short, focused activity is so effective. 

  • With 20 minutes, you set a small goal. That means you’re more likely to achieve it than if you allow yourself several hours with a grand plan. 
  • Having a intense, focused period of time is often ideal for problem-solving, allowing you to make progress on something that otherwise mires you in over-thinking or procrastination. 
  • 20 minutes is likely to be around the limit of an adult attention span. Although the data on attention span varies greatly, most researchers conclude that under 20 minutes is the maximum without further stimulation. 
  • Focusing on something different to your regular work uses a different part of your brain, making it a productive change of focus during your day
  • Tasks that use more sophisticated thinking functions of your brain tend to suppress distractions, so using the time for a challenging task is doubly effective – provided it’s not so demanding your brain is overloaded. 
  • It’s easier to resist other distractions when you know that you’ll be free in just a few minutes.

It’s not the doing, it’s the remembering 

With a bit of focus, finding a few minutes in our day to sort out a problem is generally possible. The challenge is noticing those things around us that we hardly see any more. So here are a few tasks to start with, where the time it takes to do them will quickly be outweighed by the benefits you get. 

21 tasks to do in 20 minutes (or less) that will quickly earn back their time

Declutter – a drawer, your desk, a computer or paper file.

Update – a contacts list, your sales plan, your LinkedIn profile. 

Plan – the week’s food, your team meeting, content for your new podcast. 

Improve – an exercise technique, your filing system, your script for calling clients.

Organise – a cleaner, your holiday flights, catering for your customer breakfast.

Ask – for feedback on a skill you use regularly, for help sorting out an IT problem, for lunch with a mentor.

Grow – walk 2km, watch a TED talk, listen to a Haydn string quartet. 

Over to you! What can you do today that’s easy and quick, and will make tomorrow better? 

When you’ve decided, put in the comments what it is, and what you notice when that time is up. Have things moved on? How does it feel to have ticked that task off? I’d love to know. 

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