Magical Minutes

When people learn that I’m writing a book about everything I’ve ever done that worked , they’re puzzled and polite.  I try to explain that it’s not about how to unblock the sink, but more about how to unblock themselves.  If you were really stuck in a place you didn’t like – a bad relationship, an unfulfilling job, a work crisis, a creative impasse – and something in this book got you unstuck and flowing, I’d call that a success.

When people hear this, they get a bit quiet.  Then they might ask, “Do you have anything about being blocked?” or “Do you have any advice on how to awaken creativity?” or ” My biggest problem is focus,” or “I’m so overloaded that I could cry at any minute.”

To all of them I’d say, “Yes, I know a trick or two that can help.  Try writing a letter to God, try the Emotional Freedom Technique, try expressing gratitude even when you’re feeling overwhelmed by fear.  Try writing it down.  Above all, try pulling back from the situation.  Get very, very small.  Get as small as 20 minutes.”

When I feel stuck, unfocused, or miserable, everything feels huge and insurmountable.  The problem I’m blocked about seems way too big to tackle.  And this makes me feel that I can’t or don’t want to do it at all.  My resistance is huge, so I’ll put it off till tomorrow, or sometime when I feel like it.  That’s what procrastination means, by the way.  Pro cras.  For tomorrow.  And we all know when tomorrow comes – never. Which is why the problem doesn’t get solved, the focus doesn’t get pulled back, and the creative breakthroughs don’t happen – ever.

What works is to do the smallest possible thing you can contemplate doing.  Can you sit down and write a symphony? No. Can you write a movement?  No.  Could you write a few bars, maybe 20 minutes’ worth?  Could you sit at your piano or your notebook for 20 minutes, undistracted by fear, self-criticism, or other tasks?  It’s only 20 minutes…yes, you could do that.  And having done that, you might find that you could manage 5 minutes more.  And so on.

Never underestimate the power of inertia.  It takes far more energy and fuel for a plane to take off than it does to cruise.  Crusing is the easy part.  That’s why the kind of people who finish projects have many ways to get themselves onto the runway and taxiing off.  Some writers finish work in the middle of a sentence so that they can start again the next morning.  Some begin by writing their own name over and over until their hand and brain start to write something more interesting.

Above all, you have to stay where you are.  Artists go into their studios and stay there, puttering, going through the motions, until something clicks in and ideas begin to work.  It might take all day for an original idea to happen, but the action of turning up in the studio or at the desk and staying there lets your unconscious know that you’re serious.  It’s like unblocking a sink, after all.  Nothing happens and nothing happens, but you keep trying and then, with a glug and a burp, things start moving.  And it’s the small things, the increments of 20 minutes, that can bring about the shift.

Journalism taught me that the breakthrough often comes with the one extra phone call you don’t feel like making.  You’re getting nowhere and you want to give up, and then the last question in the interview gives you the additional insight, the one great quote you’ve been waiting for. Art training taught me that the creative solution or original idea comes when you’re tired and working, not when you’re planning a project from the outside.  Somehow, if you stick with the task, you reach a point where your controlling mind lets go and a fresh connection sparks.  It often happens when I tell myself, “I’ll just do another 20 minutes.”


Whatever it is, you have to focus your attention.  Even, let’s say, if you’re in the biggest emotional mess and you don’t know where to turn or how to think, allow yourself to really feel, express, sob, howl, and rage for 20 minutes.  If you do, you may find that 20 minutes will take you through to a temporary period of calmness, a small clearing where you can begin to think straight.  And after that, another 5, another 20….

It’s about leverage.  Archimedes said that if he had a place to stand, he could move the world.  In a tumultuous, frustrating, intransigent world, 20 minutes is our place to stand.

Lesley Garner

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