The 15-Minute Miracle:
How I Conquered Procrastination and
Got My Freaking Mystery Finished
By Kate White
Around the time I hatched my dream to become a suspense novelist, I caught a really lucky break. Because I’d already written a bestselling book of non-fiction, the publisher decided to offer me a contract for my first mystery based solely on seeing an outline and the four chapters I’d already written.
That’s the kind of deal you fantasize about as a first-time novelist, right? I would be working on a plot that had already been greenlighted, so there would be no possibility of the basic concept being brutally rejected when I finally submitted the book. Plus, having a contract in hand seemed comparable to having wind in my sails.
But there was a problem. A potentially big one. When I’d tried to write fiction back in my 20s, I’d been cursed with a terrible and seemingly hopeless tendency to procrastinate. Each weekend I’d promise myself to devote both mornings to writing, but I’d rarely manage to get the ball rolling. I’d wake up, putter, make tea, clean out my wallet, gossip with a friend on the phone, make more tea, de-pill a couple of sweaters, attack the shower grout with those miracle scrubbing bubbles, and the next thing I knew, the morning was shot.
I was terrified this problem was going to rear its ugly head once again. True, I’d managed to produce those first four chapters, but I worried that would be it, and I’d never end up with an entire book. The idea of 350 pages nearly paralyzed me.
If you’ve chosen to read this piece, I assume you’ve been in the grips of procrastination, too. Plenty of aspiring authors have confided in me that they often have trouble making the time to write or that when they do set time aside, they can’t get started. So I’m going to share a little trick that worked brilliantly for me and could work for you as well. It not only allowed me to finish my first mystery on schedule, but it’s also enabled me to produce 13 more suspense novels at a pace of about one a year. The most recent, SUCH A PERFECT WIFE, came out last month.
I like to call the trick the “15-minute miracle,” though the guy who first taught it to me, Edwin Bliss, referred to it as “slicing the salami.”
Bliss was a time-management expert I interviewed early on in my career as a magazine journalist. He told me that there’s a key reason we often fail to tackle certain projects, even those that are important to us: They seem too freaking overwhelming. And because of that, we come up with endless excuses and ways to avoid them. Bliss likened a difficult task to a butt-ugly (my words, not his) hunk of salami that no one finds appetizing.
But there was a way, he promised, to tackle a daunting task, similar to what you do with salami when you serve it. You slice it down. How thin you make the slices depends on what seems most appealing to you.
After I received my book contract, I went back and re-read Bliss’s concept and, out of desperation, decided to try it. I would “thin slice” how much time I spent writing each day. Would I find writing less daunting, I asked myself, if I only had to do it for an hour a day? Gosh, even that seemed like something I’d find ways to avoid. Thirty minutes? Oy, I still had my doubts. I decided to go for a slice so thin I couldn’t possibly avoid it. I told myself I would write for only 15 minutes a day.
Thus, every weekend morning, before my kids woke up, and every weekday before my staff showed up (I was running Cosmopolitan then), I sat down at a designated time to produce my 15 minutes of work. Because it seemed easy and doable, I never avoided it. More often than not, I’d find myself going longer, caught up in the rhythm of writing and the excitement of having my story unfold. But I never forced myself to do more than 15 minutes.
Before long I was able to increase my writing sessions to 30 minutes, then an hour, then, god forbid, two hours. By the time I was onto book three, I could write the entire morning without the urge to de-pill a single sweater.
Just to be clear, this strategy isn’t the same as breaking a big task down into manageable steps, which is often advised by time-management experts. According to Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide for Strategies for Change and an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa who has researched procrastination extensively, breaking projects down doesn’t address the root of the problem.
Conquering procrastination, he says, isn’t a time management issue but a mood regulating one. We procrastinate to avoid tasks that are boring or challenging or stressful. Writing, for instance, might be stressful for you because you’re plagued by self-doubt (been there!). You need to fool yourself into perceiving the situation differently.
“The reason ‘slice the salami’ worked for you,” Pychyl told me, “isn’t because you broke a big task into smaller manageable ones but because you made the task so small, you realized you could do it. You weren’t writing a book. You were writing for 15 minutes. There was no emotional barrier.”
Pychyl stresses that instead of thinking in terms of breaking the process down into steps, you focus simply on getting started, on what your very first step should be. And after that you can worry about the one that follows.
“It’s all about the next step,” he says, “and only the next step. Focus on that. It has to be very small and have a very low threshold for action.”
And ideally from there, just like what happened for me, you will find yourself in the flow—and wish to keep going. “As our research has shown, once you begin a task,” Pychyl says, “your perception of the task changes and you realize it’s not as challenging or stressful as you thought when you were avoiding it.”
I asked Pychyl is he had any final words of wisdom to offer on the subject and he said that reducing uncertainty is critical. “When we’re uncertain about how to do something, it becomes aversive and we procrastinate on aversive tasks.”
So if you’re still stuck, maybe you need to be more of a plotter than a panster and know exactly where you’re headed with your story. Hey, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an outline!
Good luck! I conquered the problem and you can, too.