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The 20(ish) minute rule

Alana Garcia

What can I do in 20 minutes? It’s too small of a window. I guess I’ll text friends, go on social media, keep my snapstreak alive, etc. right?

Actually…twenty minutes is a precious window that can provide valuable, quality time. As long as you commit to doing ONE thing during that block.

Take it from the late Stanford professor Clifford Nass who debunked the multitasking myth:

“… if you're going to engage in email, commit to doing 20 minutes of email. And when we propose this, people say email's not worth 20 minutes. My God, email's just such a useless activity. So then ask people to clock how many minutes a day they use email - 100, 200, but in little bits and bleeds. So it turns out you're much more efficient at the email, and more importantly, you're treating your brain better when you get off email if you do one focused email patch every interval for at least 20 minutes.”*

This concept can also be applied during larger blocks of time. Let’s say you have three hours ahead of you reserved for drafting your essay. Three hours feels like a long time, so you’ll treat yourself to “a couple minutes” of email and Facebook scrolling before you start. Those couple of minutes turn into a time avalanche and pretty soon you’re 90 minutes in before you’ve written a single word.

Instead, parse out those three hours into 20(ish) minute blocks with breaks. Set a timer for anywhere between 20-45 minutes (whatever doesn’t feel daunting). Focus on one task during that increment, and don’t worry about your pace or productivity. Silence and hide your phone and minimize unrelated tabs. When the alarm goes off, take a 5-10 minute break and come back for another segment. You’ll surprise yourself at how far you get!

This technique is also known as the “Pomodoro” and there are plenty of mobile/desktop apps that keep timers running for you, but a good old fashioned watch also does the trick :)

 * Clifford Nass, interviewed on NPR, May, 2013