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A Brilliant Use of 10 Minutes: How to Learn When You’re (Too) Busy

It’s the holiday season and many of you, like me, have no spare time.

I have a two year old and a newborn. Suddenly in the final weeks before the baby was born (not to mention after she was born) I noticed all of my free time was completely swallowed up. Gone. I was feeling very upset.

The thing is, there are ebbs and flows in life and in the amount of time one can spend studying non-essentials, or even essential things (such as parenting strategies or how to fix your toilet). Normally I’m okay with the ebbs because they coincide with natural periods of low energy and rest taking. This time though, I had been riding a wave of high motivation, if not high energy, but after a time I found myself in an impossible situation in which the time to work on my current projects simply wasn’t there anymore.

In our Autodidact Starter Kit, we recommend that you break down your learning goals into chunks that can be scheduled into each day according to the time you have available for learning. But what if, like me, your free time has been completely swallowed up? There one day and gone the next.

Enter Make It Happen in 10 Minutes a Day, a small idea with a big impact, by the author and speaker, Lorne Holden.


We’ve all heard Thomas Jefferson’s maxim: Never put off to tomorrow what you can do to-day. I’ve contemplated this idea many, many times in my life, coupling it with ”life is not a race,” and “better late than never at all.”

Still, I never get started.

Holden takes this idea about getting started today, and quantifies it. She realized one day, as a busy, single mom, that she could squeeze out a mere 10 minutes of her day for creating a garden in her yard. She went to the store and bought a six-pack of flowers then proceeded to plant one plant a day, 10 minutes a day,  for one week, and then until the garden was finished.

“By about day 13 of doing this I realized that it was happening. I was doing it. I was in the mode of doing it.” ~ Lorne Holden*

Her book expands on this productivity tip, exploring every possible way you can use a 10 minute slot each day to push forward in your goals, either when it is the ONLY time you have to spare, or when it is all you can bear to put into a dreaded project that you have been putting off.

Ask yourself, where do you want to be in a month’s time? If you started studying French today, in a month you would have 30 days of learning under your belt.

If you never start at all, you will have zero.

Why does 10 Minutes a Day work?

  • Even when you have no time at all, you can squeeze an extra 10 minutes out of your day.
  • Ten minutes is both small enough not to intimidate, and large enough to make an incremental step in whatever project you’re working on.
  • After practicing this for at least a week, you will be able to find greater clarity of focus and intention, and more confidence, achieving more than you thought you could in a short amount of time.
  • Sometimes you will be rewarded with what Lorne calls Time-Bloom:

“If you devote yourself to the idea of only spending 10 minutes often that will engage your initiative. It becomes the portal through which you can find your sense of initiative. That often happened. I call it Time Blooming. I’d say, okay I only have 10  minutes, I’ll give it 10 minutes. And then in the context of the time, I would find more time. Somehow time expanded. I think it mostly had to do with clarity of focus and intention.”

What can you learn in 10 minutes a day?

  • Learn a Language:  Incorporate flashcards, podcasts, and reading a fun novel into your 10 minutes a day plan. Rotate these techniques each week or each day. In a couple of weeks, you will no longer be the person who wants to learn Italian, you will be the person who is learning Italian. This change in how you view yourself has a tremendous effect on your motivation. In four months, you may even be at the intermediate level, which is a lot more fun than just starting out.
  • Learn a Skill: Skills include things like playing guitar or tennis, and writing calligraphy or computer code. If you are using this technique to learn something that requires motor skill, such as learning to play an instrument, try it right before bed. According to Josh Kaufman, of The First 20 Hours, when you practice a skill before bed, your mind is able to work on the kinesthetic movements of the task while you are sleeping; in the morning you will be even better at it.
  • Practice Writing: Use your ten minutes to do a daily free write in the style (though abbreviated) of Julie Cameron’s “morning pages.” Or cut right to the heart of what you want to address in your writing session by using a writing template.
  • Conquer the Classics! (Both Long and Short):  Break a massive book up into small chunks and give yourself permission to stop after 10 minutes; you will chip away at it over time. (I was pleased to learn about this online, annotated version of Moby Dick on Lorne Holden’s blog. I’ve been trying to read Moby Dick for about seven years now. I’ve read the beginning countless times and I LOVE it. But I feel like I never have time to devote to such a difficult book and I give up.)  Don’t forget about audiobooks either. This website adds a bit of fun by having a different voice actor read each chapter of Moby Dick. And then, of course, there are classic short stories. There are many short stories that can be read in under ten minutes. And if they are of the longer variety, give yourself permission to stop and finish it tomorrow. (Though most short stories are intended to be read in one sitting, you can break the rule if it means reading it this way or never at all.)

Get the most out of your 10 minutes:

  • Gather all of your materials in one place and have them ready to go. Have index cards and markers in a drawer or a box by your desk. Keep your guitar in the living room right next to the couch, don’t even put it in the guitar case. If you are working on an art project that involves paint, keep your paints and brushes wrapped in Saran wrap so they are ready to go, but won’t dry out.
  • Set a timer. If it’s a task that you’ve been putting off, give yourself permission stop when the timer goes off. And if you get into the flow, by all means, keep going.
  • Never check your email before you start your 10 minutes. I got this tip from Susan Wise Bauer, in her book, The Well-Educated Mind. You want to give your all to this 10 minutes; email has a way of fragmenting your mind and attention onto many different tasks that you need to get done, or on the emotional responses you need to make. You will enter the 10 minutes with a much less efficient mind if you don’t follow this advice.
  • Try the technique for at least seven days. Give yourself a chance to feel what it is like to get into a groove and gain greater focus and efficiency.

“[W]e’re all so stuck in this idea that we’re so busy, we’re waiting for this mythical big period of time to come when we can go after those big things. And what I’m saying is don’t wait. Go after them piece by piece every day.”

Now go try it! You haven’t got time to waste!

*All quotes are of Lorne Holden in an interview by Byron White on the Life Tips podcast.

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