If you’re new here, I’m a dude who has been working on some habits, with some pretty good results. If you’re old, well, me, too, and thanks for sticking around. If you read my previous post you’ll see I covered 3,002 miles in seven and a half months. I accomplished this by riding my bicycle every day this year. But I didn’t just start and get to that point this year; I’ve been doing it a while before that, and I built up to it. A major reason I was able to do this was that I was introduced by my brother to James Clear who writes about habits. His book Atomic Habits has sold 4 million copies. So he knows a few things.
He uses the word atomic to mean breaking tasks down into small parts. His article “The 15-Minute Routine Anthony Trollope Used to Write 40+ Books” explains it well:
Beginning with his first novel in 1847, Anthony Trollope wrote at an incredible pace. Over the next 38 years, he published 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction, 12 short stories, 2 plays, and an assortment of articles and letters. Trollope achieved his incredible productivity by writing in 15-minute intervals for three hours per day.James Clear
I don’t know about the quality, but that’s very impressive quantity of output. So how does his approach inform us in 2021? Another quote from the article:
However, instead of measuring his progress based on the completion of chapters or books, Trollope measured his progress in 15-minute increments. This approach allowed him to enjoy feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment very quickly while continuing to work on the large task of writing a book.Ibid.
It’s not necessarily rocket science, but many people struggle with starting and maintaining habits. For me, I tend to do things in 30 minute increments. If the clock is approaching the hour or half hour, it’s a handy motivator. But people are busy and for some habits, half an hour feels too long. While 15 minutes seems short enough that it’s hardly noticeable, it’s enough time to feel like you’ve accomplished something. String enough 15 minute segments together, and you’ve got a good chunk of time dedicated to a new habit.
Using myself as an example, I was trying to do resistance bands workouts for half an hour. But I found I quickly got to tired, and also bored. So I quite. But when I resolved just to do 15 minutes, I was much more successful at sticking with it. Although I have abandoned it for now due to usually leaving it til the end of the day when I’m too tired, the habit itself was manageable. If I can get around to doing it earlier in the day, maybe I’ll take it up again. The larger purpose was to get me ready to get back into the swimming pool, which I have done twice since access to the lanes is limited.
One quarter-hour habit I added earlier this year and have stuck with for almost five months is practicing playing the flute. It’s enough time to enjoy it and notice some improvement, but not so much time that I feel like it’s a chore. Since I’m not trying to become a professional flautist, I’m not too concerned about what others might think. Sure my tone still kinda stinks, which I attribute to several things: not having the best instrument, a weak embouchure which is a muscle tone issue as well as a lip issue (I can’t do anything about the latter but I should be doing exercises for the former); and also that would take some coaching and more time.
However, I have seen progress in my technique, and that’s good enough for me. If I want to be the next Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull or win a Grammy, I’ll have to be like Trollope and combine 12 quarter hours a day or more to make some serious practice time. But that’s not my main goal. We have to pick our battles. For me right now it’s just finding the energy to make it through each day and try to maintain and maybe improve my health and fitness if I can. When Will Ferrell in the 2004 movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy gets on stage to play jazz flute and then LIGHTS IT ON FIRE, I thought, that’s the job I want. I’m being totally 100% serious, although I haven’t made it happen because to get to this level would be a full-time job for many years. (Katisse Buckingham was the actual flutist — who says he improvised this performance — and even rapper flutist Lizzo did a spoof of this.) Click the picture for the hilarious and awesome video.
Maybe the ideal time if you want to start a new habit is 20 or 37 minutes. If you can find that sweet spot between too easy and too hard, too short and too long, too challenging and boring, you can reap the rewards of incremental habit-building, too. Nothing says you have to do it every single day, either. Regular is good and more reasonable than a daily streak — I should know; I have several going. The reason I try to keep up my streaks because if I stop it’s hard to restart. To wit, MyFitnessPal. It took some time but if I had three meals and two snacks that’s a lot of entries, and it wasn’t serving my overall goal enough, to reduce pounds. So be realistic and choose new habits wisely, but consider 15-minute increments if you haven’t.
What are some habits you’ve tried that didn’t work out because they took too long? Does 15 minutes sound doable for you?
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4 thoughts on “Building New Habits, 15 Minutes at a Time”
I found and am reading the Habits book, haven’t put that to its full use yet, but I did order the workbook. Sounds very promising.
As for consistency in strength training, for me there was a barrier of cynicism in self help books that had to be broken down. These two worked for me (by establishing a groundwork of “man, this is now non-negotiable”):
* “Younger next year” (Crowley and Lodge) series, a treatise on escaping the typical effects of a sedentary life, which included details about the neurological benefits of lifting that struck a chord
* “Core Performance Endurance” (Verstegen) which describes just *how* core strength benefits your cycling, running, etc. Highly recommended by many, e.g. http://www.trainingbible.com/joesblog/2010/03/core-strength.html
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Thanks, and good tips, Q!
The working out with dumbell weights, I keep trying to incorporate it in the warm up and stretch exercises but after a couple of days, I just skip it and LOL, I don’t think I was doing any more than 15 mins. of different exercises with reps for each! 😉
Something is better than nothing, but sometimes it’s hard to keep some habits going.