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10 Ways to Make the Most of 10 Minutes

10 Ways to Make the Most of 10 MinutesIt’s a rare but beautiful thing: An unexpected gap opens in your otherwise overbooked day. You realize — with disbelief — that you’re actually “free” for a short window. No one’s hair is on fire and there isn’t anything urgent to take care of right now. Maybe the baby who never sleeps finally closes her eyes or your spouse takes the kids out on an errand or you’re between conference calls. Whatever it is, you realize that the next little bit of time is not yet spoken for. The window is too short to dig into a project, but you do have time for something. What do you do?

For many of us, one thing rises reflexively to the top of the list of possibilities: Facebook. (Or whatever social media you happen to prefer.) We fritter away our 10, 20, or 30 minutes scrolling through the minutia and photographic exploits of people we may or may not a) know, b) like, or c) find interesting. Or maybe we hit our regular news sites or entertainment blogs. So long as we’re online, we’re engaged.

Then our window closes — the baby wakes up, the client calls, it’s time to head out — and those minutes are gone. Are we the better for how we spent them?

Don’t get me wrong: Downtime is important. Ten minutes of doing nothing has its value;  social media and other internet temptations can, at times, serve as recreation. But more often than not, the interwebs become a crutch that we depend on because we’re in a short period of transition. We don’t know what else to do — or we do know what to do, but we’re procrastinating because we’re over- or under-whelmed by whatever we’re supposed to be working on. And just when we might benefit most from a screen-free breather, we’re particularly addicted to the glow.

Whether you’re using up minutes that aren’t otherwise spoken for or you’re avoiding a task you’d rather not do, use those 10 minutes to your advantage. Here are 10 “unplugged” ways to do just that.

  1. Meditate. Whether or not you already meditate regularly, a 10-minute break is a great opportunity to sit. Research demonstrates the substantial health benefits of meditation: it reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, increases focus, and reduces sensitivity to pain. Not sure how to meditate? Here’s an accessible introduction from Zen Habits.
  2. Write a poem. Short-form poetry is a lot of fun, and it only takes a few minutes to pen a haiku, tanka, or cinquain. Even if you’re unfamiliar with writing poetry, it’s deeply satisfying to solve the poetic puzzle of fitting your ideas into a time-honored structure.
  3. “Treat” read. You know that stack of magazines and journals that you never get to? Perhaps the New York Times Book Review that you set aside for “later,” or that tempting collection of One Story issues? Maybe an alumni magazine you want to peruse? That’s what I call “treat” reading — something that meets these three criteria: it’s short, unplugged, and somewhat indulgent.
  4. Exercise. Do 10 minutes of yoga, jump rope, or — if you have them — run up and down a flight of stairs (assuming you’re healthy enough to do so). A 10-minute burst of exercise boosts your concentration, mood, and physical well-being.
  5. Journal. Grab your journal — even if you’re a regular practitioner of Morning Pages — and gift yourself with a brief clearing session. Write out what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, what’s working, what’s not working. Keep your hand moving. Speaking from experience, 10 minutes of intense journaling can be an amazing stress reliever.
  6. Share the love. Dig out one of those blank cards or bits of stationary that are lurking in a drawer somewhere and write a brief note to someone you care about. It might be a thank-you note, a thinking-of-you note, or just a few lines that amount to “I’m so glad to know you.” Address your envelope, put a stamp on it, and mail the card next time you’re out. This act of gratitude has benefits for you as well as your recipient.
  7. Plot creatively. Grab a few index cards. Using one card per idea, outline a handful of important scenes that need to happen in your novel; the concept, colors, or basis for the painting that’s been kicking around in your head; a few possibilities for future blog posts. If you prefer visuals to words, use the blank side of your index cards to sketch or doodle.
  8. Prepare. Use a short interval to do some groundwork for a project: Gesso a canvas, sharpen your colored pencils, clean off your worktable or desk. If you don’t have any tasks in this category, spend your window filing bills or dealing with that “not sure what to do with this” stack of papers. It’s not sexy, but it sure feels good when it’s finished.
  9. Clip. Gather up a few old magazines (I keep a collection in my art room for this purpose) and flip through those glossy pages in search of collage materials. You don’t need to look for anything specific, just pull or clip the words and images that appeal to you. Save these clippings in a box for later collage work — and file anything else that sparks a story or project idea.
  10. Step outside. Use your brief break to get some fresh air. Go stand outside and marvel at whatever you see, feel, and hear. Raining? Enjoy the sound of rain hitting your umbrella. Snowing? Stand outside and be with it. Can’t go out because the kids are sleeping/watching TV/leaving you alone for a few seconds? Go stand by a window and breathe deeply. We all need to connect with nature, even if it’s just a few long-distance minutes with one straggly tree on the other side of a busy street.

What are your favorite ways to make the most of 10 minutes?


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The Early Morning Creative Practice: Start Your Day With What Matters Most

Back in April, I wrote about my morning centering practice. This practice has evolved in several key ways in the past six months. Now, for the first time ever, I feel that I am truly and consistently walking the talk when it comes to my personal creativity.

It’s no secret that successful people make the very most of early morning hours. Whether you have a day job, a family, and/or wear 14 other hats, the first hours of the day are often your only shot at having time to yourself without interruption and distraction. As soon as your kids are sleeping through the night, you can start leveraging this opportunity.

For me, getting up early means 4:00 am.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Getting up early requires going to bed on time (9:00 – 9:15 pm over here). It also requires a fairly consistent schedule, as it’s difficult to get up at 4:00 on Monday morning after getting up at 7:00 on Saturday and Sunday. So I get up for writing practice at 5:00 on weekends. That means I’m not up late or out on the town on weekends. Is that a sacrifice? Maybe. But it doesn’t feel like one at the moment.

For me, getting up early is built on the foundation of exercise and eating right. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years, and as you may have read here before, I’ve long felt that wheat products are not my friend. I don’t have celiac disease, but I find that eating wheat (even whole grain) stimulates strong cravings and makes me feel hungry — and tired. (This book was quite affirming.) Today I am nearly vegan and totally wheat free. I eat a very low-carb diet and eat lightly at dinner. I don’t eat after 7:00 pm, ever. By eating lightly and going to bed a little bit hungry, I wake up full of energy and ready to launch into my writing practice. Bonus: I just took off a stubborn 10 pounds.

As you might imagine, the fact that I need to be in bed by 9:00 in order to get 7 hours of sleep has an impact on my marriage. My husband likes screen time in the evening, and I prefer to read, so this isn’t a huge issue. I try to make sure that we connect over dinner and on the weekends. Sometimes he comes to bed at the same time I do. We also share our daily morning meditation practice, which to my mind is more valuable than sitting next to each other in front of the TV half comatose for a couple of hours in the evening.

It won’t always be this way. Writing is important to me, and right now, this is what it takes to be a serious player. Play-ah! No more excuses. (As I’m sure you know, there are always 18,489 “good” excuses.)

Yeah, great, but what does that really LOOK like?

My morning practice starts at 4:00 am and ends at 8:15 am when I leave the house with my two youngest children. I started the 4:00 wake-up over the summer and have now incorporated the school routine. Here’s what my morning practice looks like, woven into the regular flow of home life:

  • 4:00: out of bed, make tea, settle into office
  • Read the day’s page in The Daily Writer
  • Writing practice: 500-word minimum (this helps me focus on output rather than falling into editing)
  • 5:20: join my husband upstairs for 20 minutes of meditation
  • Do three vinyasas (sun salutations)
  • 5:45: back in office, read the day’s entry in Mark Nepo’s Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening
  • Draw an Osho Zen Tarot or Faerie Tarot card
  • Record last night’s dream(s) in my dream journal, if I remember anything
  • 6:15: stop to ensure that daughter is awake, make breakfast for her, eat a few spoonfuls of peanut butter if I haven’t already, husband leaves
  • Make lunch for daughter and two younger sons (daughter catches school bus at 6:48)
  • At some point here, the two little ones wake up; feed them breakfast
  • Unload dishwasher and tidy kitchen
  • At kitchen table, finish morning pages/intention journaling if not already complete
  • Review my list of personal goals and intentions for the year
  • Plan the day (in planner, assigning a time and a duration for each task, or adding them to the “batch task” block)
  • Dress self and youngest son, brush teeth, make bed, put in a load of laundry if time, make sure we’re all ready to leave the house
  • 8:15 heard little boys out of the house for bus/school run

Note that the writing practice comes FIRST. That way, if a wee one wakes up exceptionally early, it’s still already done. If I have to scrap the centering part of my practice (mediation, journaling, etc.) then so be it. But the writing practice isn’t threatened. Usually, it all falls into place, with a little juggling between the aforementioned time slots. Everyone gets off to school and work in good stead, and the house is (gasp!) clean and tidy.

I understand that a routine like this might seem baffling — or totally unappealing. But for me, it’s a completely sustainable loop. Those four hours and fifteen minutes are routine now. It’s a routine that is grounded in my macro level intentions and priorities. I can’t overstate what it means to me to have a daily writing practice that absolutely happens every day. Seven days a week. I’m in touch with my creative work every day, all day, because it’s always fresh, always percolating. Without this morning anchor, the demands of my editorial business, my coaching practice, my studio storefront, and my family/domestic life eat up every available moment.

Interested in what an early morning creative practice could do for you? My last post on this topic included some ideas for developing your own morning centering practice. Add the creative session, mix well, and enjoy.

And hey: If you’re up at 4:00 am eastern time, know that you and I are creative buds.

What think?


The Morning Centering Practice

Recently, I’ve been thinking about why some days are focused and productive, and others are just “busy” and unsatisfying. It’s the difference between driving the cart and having the cart push you along from behind. One feels way better than the other.

In working with clients and in examining my own life, I’m gaining new clarity on the importance of a morning centering practice. When I do my morning centering practice, I’m in touch with what’s important, what I want to accomplish that day, and the frame of mind I’d like to maintain. I plan the day, allot durations to each activity, and then work from my list. When I don’t do the morning practice, I jump right into “doing” — and am thereafter shadowed by a nagging feeling of being “off,” regardless of how much I get done. On those days, I tend to work in a state of reactivity, rather than proactivity.

What does a morning centering practice involve?

Here’s what my morning centering practice looks like, in an ideal world. In total, it takes about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.

  • 5:00: out of bed
  • meditate for 20 minutes
  • make tea
  • record last nights dream(s) in my dream journal, if I remember anything
  • choose an Osho Zen Card for the day
  • read the day’s entry in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening
  • review my list of personal goals and intentions for the year
  • creative visualization (Shakti Gawain exercises)
  • intention journaling
  • plan the day (in planner, assigning a time and a duration for each task, or adding them to the “batch task” block)

This might seem like a cumbersome list, but it flows naturally — each step building on the last, ensuring that the things I put in the day’s to-do list (the last step) are grounded in my larger intentions and values.

To create your own morning centering practice, brainstorm the materials and resources that help restore you to who you are. Whether or not you consider yourself a Buddhist, I strongly recommend a daily meditation practice. Meditation helps you remember that all of those thoughts in your head — the thoughts that stress you out, make you feel bad, or tell you what to do — are just the monkey mind. You can let them come and go without falling for the little snares they leave in their wake. The best (and cheapest) therapy going.

Making it happen

How does a mama get an hour or more to herself in the morning? At my house, she gets up at 5:00. There’s no other way to slice it. Sometimes (usually) at least one of my younger boys is up well before 6:00. But so long as I’ve completed the meditation portion of the morning routine, I can do the other parts with company. It’s not ideal, but better to do the practice than not. Much, much better to do the practice than not.

There are two important things that fuel the morning centering practice. The first is habit. If you get up every day at the same time and do your practice, it becomes routine within weeks. It’s just what you do. The second is going to bed on time. I’m naturally an early riser, but if I go to bed at 11:00 or later, it’s painful to get up at 5:00 — and too easy turn my phone alarm off and go back to sleep. I need to be vigilant about bedtime.

When I look back on the periods in recent years when I’ve been “in the zone” — when doing what I want to do has been less of a struggle — it’s been when I’ve maintained my morning centering practice. I can feel its value, like an inner compass, throughout the day.

Springboard to creativity

Following your morning centering practice with a window of creative work is an excellent strategy. You’ll have clarity and inspiration. If you have to take a break in there to get kids ready and off to school, that’s OK. But get a block of creative work done as soon as possible. If you can get your creative work done before any “day job” tasks on your plate, so much the better. All day long, you’ll feel great about having done your creative work first thing.

How about you? Do you have a morning centering practice of one kind or another? What works best?


Miranda: Psst…”creativity” does not contain the letters S, H, O, U, L, or D

So I have this other blog about my newbie Buddhist practice. In a recent post I wrote about motherhood and creativity, so I wanted to share that post here as well. Please share your thoughts.

Last month I attended “Mothers’ Plunge” in Boston, a one-day retreat for mothers led by Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold (two invaluable books about showing up for motherhood in your entirety — relevant for any mother, no Buddhist label required).

As the retreat was drawing to a close, Karen made time for a short Q&A session. My arm shot up. Yes, I did have a burning question. I explained that I understand the concept of paying attention to that which requires attention, of focusing on the matter at hand rather than fretting about stuff that isn’t within arm’s reach. I get that. But with so many people in my life and responsibilities to tend to, I could easily just turn from one urgent matter to the other and fill nearly every waking moment of every day without ever finding/making time for my own stuff, like finishing one of my manuscripts. Do I need to just make peace with that? Do I need to stop clinging to this idea (ideal?) of “being” a writer — for now?

Karen suggested that — despite my protests — it really does get easier, and that at some point the opportunity to write would present itself. Have faith. Write in bits and pieces. Make hay when the sun shines, even if it doesn’t seem like it shines very often. (My cheesy phrasing, not hers.) Let go. Trust. Everything in its own time.

I wanted Karen to have the answer, and I suspected that she did, if I could surrender to it. But I felt enormous resistance bubble up inside me. No. I will never be able to do what I really want to do without making a painful sacrifice somewhere else. My oldest child is nearly 20, my youngest child is only 2, and while the demands of motherhood change over time, the totality of five children and a freelance career is often overwhelming. I don’t want to wait until I’m 60 before I can count on a little “me” time — time to breathe, time to be creative, just time.

During the drive home, I started mulling all of this over — and over. I’ve devoted much of my life to the topic of motherhood and creativity, trying to figure out how to be a mother and an artist without completely messing up one or the other or both. I’m writing a book on the subject, for which have interviewed dozens of creative mothers, extracting commonly successful strategies. I have a blog — this blog — devoted to the community of creative mothers. I know firsthand how the need to be creative coupled with the seemingly inescapable roadblocks of motherhood can lead a woman to tears in the frozen food aisle. I get it. Is the answer really just letting it all go and accepting that the time for creativity will come when it’s time for creativity?

Under the tension of my growing resistance, somewhere along Route 3 a long-held knot popped open, untangling itself into clarity. I realized that when I decided to practice meditation on a regular basis, I started getting up every morning at 5:30 instead of 5:50 to sit for 20 minutes. It wasn’t a big deal. It was important to me, and I wanted to do it, so I made it happen. Sure, there are some mornings when I’m just too tired to get up or my youngest child wakes up exceptionally early and my sitting time is abandoned. But in general, it works. Why then, during all my years of complaining about not having time to write, didn’t I get up 20 minutes earlier to eke out a paragraph or two? There may have been a few early morning or late night attempts over the years, but the strategy never seemed sustainable. Admittedly, a “set” schedule isn’t feasible when you have a newborn or during some other major transition, but my littlest guy has been sleeping fairly predictably for at least a year now.

I realized that I’d fallen into the trap of my own “story.” I write for a living, but writing and editing for hire isn’t enough. I want very much to complete my own personal writing projects. But. (To borrow a Karen-ism.) Do I really want that? Was writing something that I wanted to do so desperately during all those years, or something that I thought I should want to do? Perhaps spending time on my personal writing projects was something I rarely made a regular commitment to because it’s hard, and not always gratifying, and maybe there were a lot of other things — like cleaning the kitchen grout with a Q-Tip — that seemed more important at the time.

It’s hard to make time for shoulds. The shoulds weigh us down and transform everyday life into a bone-wearying Sisyphus impersonation. Meanwhile, the things that we really want to do? We usually do them. A bit of compromise might be required, but if you are totally keyed up to write a haiku today, chances are, you will find 10 minutes to scribble down the draft floating around in your head. Conversely, if you think you should write a haiku today, you might discover that item #37 on your to-do list is so important that there’s simply no way that you can get to the notepad to pen a few lines. Just 10 minutes? Not a chance.

Maybe I wrapped myself up in a coat of creative deprivation just so that I would have something to hide behind. Maybe it really was as uncomplicated as my husband’s response to my martyring complaints, which he offered with a shrug of the shoulders: “If you want to write, write.” This used to infuriate me, but now I see the truth there — as annoying as that is to admit. No, I am not able to run off for six hours of solitary writing time. But. Even 20 minutes of writing time yields 20 minutes’ worth of words that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I know this from personal experience; I have 200 viable pages in my nonfiction manuscript and nearly as many in my most recent novel. These words were amassed in fits and starts rather in predictable, extended writing stints. (Note to self: Try to avoid forgetting all the things that you worked so hard to figure out.)

On my drive home from the retreat, I couldn’t sort out how this construct of beleaguered, suffering writer-mother had sustained me, or why I had bought into it so hard, but I did know that many things I had accepted as inescapable truths were suddenly swathed in question marks. Time to start all over again, with beginner’s mind.

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