With phones ringing, emails pinging, bosses pressing us to meet an urgent deadline and our hungry children asking what time dinner is, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by life. And that’s just day-to-day stuff. Factor in some big dreams, such as learning to play the guitar, doing the Dubai Marathon or retraining as a lawyer, and we start to feel completely out of our depth.
The bigger picture looks enormous, and we don’t know where to start – so we don’t! We stay stuck in chaos, muddling through each day. Yet at the back of our minds is that dream we once had, and a part of us longs to sort our lives out so we’re organised, in control, and free to chase goals.
But psychology experts have come to the conclusion that we’re looking too far ahead and feeling daunted by what we want to achieve. They say we can literally change our lives in just 20 minutes… at a time. And by building 20 minutes of focused activity into our lives, we’re taking small but sure steps on our path to much bigger things, whether they’re useful new habits, such as getting fit, or sought-after achievements, like finishing a triathlon or learning to build a website.
Dr Asad Sadiq, a consultant psychiatrist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, says it’s natural to feel overwhelmed when we’re faced with a goal we haven’t achieved before.
‘The mind doesn’t have a neural pathway because it has never been there before,’ says Dr Sadiq. ‘For example, if we decide to run a marathon, then the mind sees only the outcome and not the process. It sees the difficulty of the final 42km run and not the work required to get there. This is because we have seen marathons on television, but we haven’t seen the weeks and months of training required to get there.
‘Similarly, in terms of writing a book, we have all read books and seen the final outcome; however, we haven’t seen the work required of an author. We’re overwhelmed, so even though we think of writing a book and cognitively prepare, the feeling that it’s beyond us doesn’t allow us to make a start.’
But instead of staying stuck, experts urge us to work with our concentration span to get more done. If we’re engrossed in something, such as a DVD we love, or a sport we enjoy, we can concentrate for hours. But for things we’re not naturally drawn to, whether it’s domestic chores, studying for an exam or writing a report for work, they urge us to use 20-minute chunks.
‘In adults, the average attention span is around 20 minutes,’ confirms Dr Sadiq. ‘The TED talks are 18 minutes for this reason – to enable the speaker to hold the audience’s attention. Attention span varies with age and can range from a few minutes in children to 20 minutes in adults.’
UK productivity consultant Joanna Pieters (www.joannapieters.com) agrees, and she has a useful analogy.
‘I think of our brain as being like a tractor,’ she says. ‘It keeps going to get us through the things we have to do within our comfort zone, but if we want to do something more demanding, we need a jet engine. This is very powerful but it runs out of energy very quickly.
‘The jet engine in our brain does our rational thinking and problem-solving, and it can give you the willpower to do that run when you don’t feel like it, but it’s a finite amount of energy. That’s why we should use it for short, focused bursts on our challenges.
‘Twenty minutes can be very powerful,’ she adds. ‘If you worked on something for 20 minutes every day, you will have done 10 hours by the end of the month. That’s more than a day’s work. That’s the true value of repetition.’
To get organised, Joanna suggests we draw up a list of what jobs need doing, then work through them, 20 minutes at a time.
‘You might want to tidy your daughter’s bedroom, but it could be a job you’ve put off because you think it will take you hours,’ she says. ‘If you agree with yourself that you’re going to spend just 20 minutes working on one area of the room – maybe the T-shirt drawer, and that at the end of that time, you can give up, you’re more likely to get started. That period of time isn’t exhausting and once you’ve started, you might want to keep going.
‘To declutter your kitchen, clean out one cupboard or shelf at a time, or in the living room sort through your books and magazines. You could spend 20 minutes working out menus for the week and writing out a shopping list for groceries. You can get quite a few garments ironed in 20 minutes.
‘Setting up systems in the home can be of real value. Spend 20 minutes organising standing orders to pay bills, or create a really good filing system, either on your computer or in a filing cabinet, so all your home paperwork is in one place and easy to find.’
If you have children, 20 minutes of your undivided attention after school would be a real gift.
‘Have a list on your fridge of the things your children love doing,’ suggests Joanna. ‘Then, when you’re tired after a day at work, you don’t have to think too much. Just pick one and give it 20 minutes. Do some Lego, play a simple card game, read a book, or get a sheet of paper and ask your children to draw what they did that day.’
Batching jobs together is always a good idea, she says – so get your diary and phone numbers out, and blitz those calls to the optician, the dentist, the beauty salon, the hairdresser and the plumber in one go.
The 20-minute system works just as well at work and in our leisure time.
‘In the office, when you need inspiration, read a blog you’ve never read before,’ continues Joanna. ‘Or spend 20 minutes on a Thursday afternoon getting your accounts up to date. That’s a habit that will pay off at the end of the financial year.
‘You could brainstorm for 20 minutes on how you could get more clients, or you could examine your web traffic to see where you should put your attention.
‘If there’s a problem, ask a colleague if they have 20 minutes to have a chat with you, or sit down for a coffee with a member of your staff and ask how they’re getting on. You can find out what the problem is in 20 minutes. You might even solve it in that time!
‘If you have a presentation to do and you’re dreading it, use that period of time to think through who you’re speaking to and what impact you want to have. Getting your fundamentals and the key messages in place is a good starting point.
‘For health and fitness, you might do 20 minutes of yoga or Pilates, some basic weights or a session on an exercise bike. You’ll get more benefit by spreading the exercise out.
‘Or you might meditate, read a novel, or practise your piano playing for 20 minutes. And how lovely if you and your partner can commit to spending 20 minutes at the end of the day having a proper talk without interruptions from iPhones, the TV or kids?’
But what about the goals that are bigger than simply getting organised? It works for those too!
Dr Sadiq quotes the example of a person whose goal is to become a better public speaker. His first option is to attend a two-day course. But his attention starts to wander after a few hours, and while he takes away useful information, he loses motivation after a few days.
His second option is to attend a course lasting 10 weeks, with an hour each week. In between the sessions, he has to do 30 minutes of practice.
‘Timewise, it’s exactly the same, but in the second scenario, the person’s attention is always at higher levels and he is likely to achieve his goal of public speaking to a much greater degree,’ says Dr Sadiq. ‘Heightened attention results in greater motivation; therefore, short bursts of intense focus result in a greater likelihood of achieving goals.’
So can we really pass an exam or plan a trip to Brazil in just 20 minutes a day?
Dubai-based life coach Adam Zargar (www.uaecoaching.com) urges us to break our big goals and dreams down into achievable chunks.
‘Breaking down the task is important so you have clarity and you can see direction of purpose,’ says Adam. ‘The smaller the chunk, the more quickly you’ll achieve it and gain confidence.
‘If you want to pass an exam, break down the subject into topics and decide how much time you want to spend on each topic. Then design a study timetable and prepare a quiet, focused, suitable room. Set the goal of learning one topic well. Break it down, read your notes, create a mind map and cut the map into memory cards that you read regularly. Then repeat the process for other topics.
‘If your dream is to go to Brazil, start by googling your flights, then book them. Get a travel book and research and plan two or three areas to travel to in Brazil. Do timetables for your trip and book accommodation. Look up the best restaurants and things to do in the first area, then repeat the process for the other places you’ll stay at. Once you’ve formulated your itinerary, collate it in one list.
‘Then write down all the medications you’ll need, and book your doctor’s appointments. Research and organise your visa and finally, pack your suitcase!
‘Short periods of focused work done consistently over a long period of time can change lives. It creates positive habits and momentum, which increase confidence. That makes you work even harder and gets you to make the change needed!’