The Five-Minute Trick

Cross-posted to the Deadline Dames. Where there are games, prizes, and sometimes pie!

This is not a magic trick, but it is responsible for a great deal of my productivity, writing or otherwise. It’s also responsible for a great deal of my success with exercise (such as it is). Your mileage may vary, of course, and before we get into it I’m going to talk a little bit about my aims and goals when it comes to writing.

I write because I have to; I’ve been doing it all my life to make sense of the world around me and I can’t see stopping. But I also, nowadays, write to pay my rent, feed my kids, and buy myself fresh books. I must consistently produce words that are either publishable-quality, or words that can become publishable-quality with a little help from an editor. It’s important to me to know how to treat myself so I can produce consistently.

This is not easy. Sometimes it requires outright trickery.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I’ve been running. I can consistently run three miles at a time now. There is, however, a problem. Running isn’t easy, even if my body is adapting beautifully. It’s sweaty effort. They call it exercise for a reason.

So I trick myself while running. I break up a three-mile run, which takes me about 45 minutes (I’m slow, okay? I’m going for endurance because the zombies will eventually overheat and fall apart) which works out to 15 minutes a mile. But 15 minutes is far too long; if I thought in terms of 15-minute chunks I’d stop after the first one and call it good. Ten minutes is no good either–again, I’d quit after the first chunk. Probably swearing some variant of “F!CK THIS!”

No, it’s got to be five. Five measly minutes.

While I run, I don’t think much about the total run. That’s what the treadmill’s for. I set speed, incline, and distance, then I push the start button and set to. I do not allow myself to think more than five minutes ahead. I break up the entire run into those five-minute chunks, and I think exclusively in terms of getting through the next five minutes. It helps that the time changes every second, so I’m always looking at a new number. (I am easily amused.)

I don’t think “this is a 45-minute run.” I think, “I bet I can get through the next five minutes.” When those five minutes are up, I think exclusively in terms of the next five minutes. Each time I’ve worked through another 15 minutes that way, I give myself a little mental pat on the back for running yet another mile. On and on, and before I know it I’m at the very last five minutes, and I’ve already done the rest so I might as well, even though my breath is coming pretty hard and I’m sweating like a rock star.

This actually represents a step forward, because I used to think in one-minute chunks while running. Five, however, seems to be a comfortable limit for long-distance (read: anything over a half-hour) running.

Goals, you see, are eminently do-able once you break them into small enough pieces. The trick is in the breaking.

This also applies to writing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve just been Too Tired or Too Stressed or Too Something to keep my ass in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. That’s when the kitchen timer comes out. For writing, ten to 15 minute chunks are pretty OK. Sometimes, when the situation is really dire, I’ll do it by 200-chunk wordcount. Just 200 more words, I tell myself. Or, Just get to the end of this scene. Or, finish this chapter and then you can rest.

The funny thing about that is once I reach 800-1K, something inside my head clicks over and I usually fall into the story. Sometimes it’s as little as 600 words or ten minutes that gets me there. The timer rings, but I’m into it, so I set it for another ten and just go. Or I leave the timer where it is because I’m too busy writing my heart out.

Most days, I wouldn’t get anything done if I thought, “I have to get 3K out today.” I would take one look at that goal and start running in circles, yowling like my tail was on fire. But if I break it up with a timer, or into 200 word chunks, all of a sudden it’s manageable, and I consistently reach my goal.

Aha, I hear someone in the back crowing. But is it publishable wordcount?

For some reason, when I break it up like that, it usually seems to be. The raw act of creating the words uses a different set of mental muscles than the less-raw act of editing and tweaking those words to turn in a publishable draft to my editor. Those 200 words do not have to be publishable–that’s a small enough chunk that I could delete the whole thing if I felt like it and not miss it much. The whole idea of breaking things up like this is to get consistent production; that consistent production is key, in that you have to have enough raw material and practice to have a chance of becoming publishable.

Little tiny nibbles will get you through the whole whale you have to eat. If you have to trick yourself to do it, fine. Whatever gets you to the top of that mountain is fine. Sometimes, when you’re focusing on one foot at a time up the mountainside, you even get some amusement before you reach the top, look back at what you did, and feel like Supergirl.

Or, um, maybe that’s just me.

Over and out.

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