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The 20 minute rule - Taking action that leads to the Build

David Nunez
David Nunez
4 min read

Earlier today I sent out what amounted to a call to arms to friends and mailing lists. I was urging people to drive towards the objective all creative people should have: to build things.

I urged people to spend 20 minutes today working on whatever creative endeavor they have brewing in the back burner. Move that project into the center of the radar for just 20 minutes.

20 minutes is a very small chunk of time. In any given project, however, there are any number of minor pieces which can be built in that time. The encouragement today was to spend 20 minutes just building. This needs to be focused working time without deviation from activity. This is inspired by Merlin Mann’s dash concept – a good way to beat procrastination is to just begin on a small chunk… Just commit to cranking activity out for a small amount of time. When the dash is over, you’ve easily beaten the first and only hurdle of procrastination: starting.

Running constantly on my OSX desktop is a small timer program called Minuteur. This has worked wonders for me.


I just set it at 20 minutes and hit go. I focus on a single piece of a project until the timer runs out. Minuteur pops up a “TIME’S UP!” window and I can choose to add 5, 10 or 15 more minutes. I often do that simply because I’m on a roll. I’ll also sometimes drop in 10 minutes between working periods for guilt-free play time. That’s usually when I do my RSS reading or grab coffee.

Admittedly, my responsibilities are fewer than, say, a single mom with 2 toddlers who is trying to finish college, but I often find myself devoting 100% of my useful and usable time into other peoples’ projects. Day job work spills into after hours and suddenly I’m barely left with enough energy to get myself home, much less exercise or make a good meal, and much MUCH less build a stunningly cool and beautiful machine puppet.

Since when did I put “making somebody else lots of money sweating blood over their vision” at a higher priority than “following what my soul and mind’s eye are screaming at me?”

That needs to end.

It’s not to say that we all don’t need day jobs. We have mortgages to pay, for crying out loud. However, I think the mistake I often make is letting the day job crowd out the dreams.

In The Now Habit and there’s this concept of the “Unschedule”. Briefly, it recommends starting your calendar by planning in all of your “me” time: Block out sleeping, eating, commuting, and exercising time. More importantly, block out your play time – time in which you are simply NOT working. This is time for guilt free play; guilt free play, incidentally is where I think the best creativity is born.

I also recommend scheduling 20 minutes a day as an unbreakable appointment with yourself every day for every project which you genuinely care about completing with all your heart.

Only then do you block out work appointments: meetings, etc.

Whatever’s left is your day job working time.

If you are anything like me, you’ll be very surprised at how little time you have left over. It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed at work sometimes – we operate as if we actually had 40+ hours a week to do the jobs we’re assigned. And as Parkinson’s law suggests, we stretch tasks to fill those phantom 40+ hours. Whoops. It’s like buying working hours on credit… we don’t have that much time to complete the tasks on that schedule and so we tend to go home over budget. Of COURSE our energy is low and all we want to do is crash.

So let’s start operating with a more realistic understanding of what time we have and how fast we should work and to what standards we should aspire. That is to say, we start learning when to stop tinkering to get to perfection and just start building… putting projects in the “done” bucket faster and with less energy.

I would never suggest that you go about your day job without the highest integrity and quality of work that you can provide. During work hours, you work, and you work hard; you deliver more value to your employers and clients than they are paying for: 110%, team-player, all that – Work with the mantra “I am here to do nothing but add value.”

I believe that a self-fulfilling prophecy / psychological trick starts to happen. When you realize your time is limited at the day job and also at the passion job, you start to move with grace and efficiency. You don’t feel the need to slack off, mostly because you are aware of how little time you have to accomplish your jobs.

However, you must remember that you have unbreakable appointments with your personal passion projects. When it comes time to work on those, you will find a way to work on them and summon all your energy to build them with the same amount of integrity.

I suggest 20 minutes a day at first. I would guess this will increase over time.

caveat: I think it’s a bit presumptuous for somebody like me, who often struggles with Getting Things Done, to write an article about how better to get things done. Take it with a grain of salt. I’m only regurgitating advice I’ve culled from many other sources.

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David Nunez Twitter

Dir of Technology at the MIT Museum • Writing about emerging tech's impact on your life • Speculative insights on the intersection of humanity and technology 🤖


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