20-Minute Wonder

There’s something about 20 minutes. Maybe it’s because it represents the average adult attention span, but spending this time-slot on activities of all kinds seems to bring results:

20-minute meals are the promise of many a recipe website; 20 minutes of regular, vigorous exercise reduces the premature death-rate by…. you’ve guessed it, 20% (Beyond that, the percentage difference drops considerably); and proponents of contemplative prayer recommend daily 20-minute periods of meditative silence.

In the 1980’s Dr. James Pennebaker’s ground-breaking research into the health benefits of expressive writing involved asking students at the University of Austin in Texas to write daily for around 20 minutes. One group wrote about their deepest concerns and heartfelt experiences; the control group confined themselves to everyday matters. The former group were subsequently shown to have fewer health problems than the latter.

Writing for 20 minutes allowed time to access deeper material, but protected the writer from becoming overwhelmed by issues that emerged.

Perhaps 20 minutes is a golden period as an achievable amount of time for those who might struggle to set aside anything longer, for whatever reason.

Michael Nobbs, creator of www.sustainablycreative.com, found that having ME so drained his energy, he had to budget the daily 20-minute period of activity that he could manage with great care. (What would any of us do if we only had 20 minutes’ worth of energy per day? How would we prioritise usage?)

20 minutes is certainly not enough time to do everything, but it enables us to do something towards our bigger goals. As we keep concentrating patiently on doing what we can step-by-step, we will eventually reach our destination.

We may not feel we can spare a two-hour block of time in a week for that project we keep putting off, but 20 minutes set aside for six days in a row takes us there. If we can’t sweet-talk 20 minutes out of our day for something we say we want to do, then maybe lack of time is not our problem.

When we can find that 20 minutes, and commit to keep on finding it day after day, something else starts to happen: After a couple of months or so, a new habit is forged. We do not change when we do something different; we change when we keep on doing it.

If you want to develop a regular activity, from writing or meditating to exercising or doing the cleaning, why not experiment with devoting 20 minutes of your day to it? You may be surprised at how much you can accomplish as you focus. And set a timer, so you are not tempted to keep checking how many minutes you have left.

You may find you become so absorbed that your momentum takes you beyond the 20-minute mark without realising it. Time has a concertina-like quality when we are fully attentive. It expands to hold much more than we expected, yet afterwards contracts, leaving us wondering how it has been able to give us the slip and pass us by.

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  • About Julia


    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

    Read more about Julia
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