The Fifteen Minute Test

A single man in silhouette running in early evening. A river in background, and purple and pink clouds streaming overhead.

What To Do When Motivation Flags or Fails

Thanksgiving morning. I’m alone. The house is quiet. No plans. Perfect day to write.  

“But,” I hear my inner sloth whine, “I don’t feel like writing. I’m tired. It’s a holiday. I shouldn’t have to work. ”

I just finished writing a chapter for my book. I want to write another. But I can’t get started. Just put words on paper, I tell myself. But Slothy refuses. I make a pot of tea, flip on the TV.

A show about aliens reminds me of Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer. In Zen and the Art of Writing, he advised, “If you want be a writer, first write a million words.” 

I switch off the TV. Putting words on paper, even crappy words, will, I know, bring me closer to my first million. Quality will emerge from quantity.

I go back to my desk and start writing. Halfway through the first paragraph, I quit. 

“It’s crap,” sneers Slothy’s buddy, VOJ (Voice of Judgment).

“You should write better than this.” 

Pacing the hall, I make up excuses not to write.

I’m tired. My head is fuzzy. Maybe I should read a book for inspiration. Or take a walk in the woods. Reflect on nature and my life. There might be a piece in that.

“No way!” says VOJ. “I feel like going to the pub for a beer.”

It’s only 9 am. So I pace my hallway, muttering to myself.

A frustrated man sits with his elbows on is knees, has hand on the sides of his head. He's wearing a green and blue checkered shirt, blue jeans an a fancy black watch. Background is partly clouded sky
Mutter, mutter, mutter…

This Matter of Mood

Before I learned to do the 15-Minute Test, I would have justified not writing.

But, now, I force myself to write for 15 minutes, often about not wanting to write. This simple experiment makes a huge difference. Starting with it, I took less than an hour to write the first draft of this piece.

Then, I switched to the bigger project that had stumped me. Energized by the momentum from creating the draft of this piece, I put in a full, and satisfying day of writing. And moved several thousand words closer to my first million.

Activity Changes Everything

I came by The 15-Minute Test via two routes: my experience as a runner; and a quote from Joyce Carol Oates. In an interview in The Paris Review, she said: 

One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense the writing will create the mood.  …  Generally I have found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes … and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

The 15-Minute Test Works For Roadrunning Too

As a runner facing daily training runs, I often struggled with the I don’t feel like it dilemma. I’d come home from work frustrated and fatigued. “I’m too tired to run,” I’d tell my wife. I’m gonna put my feet up and have a Scotch.”

A frown would work its way across Patti’s face. She’d rub her hands together and say, “Go for your run, honey. It always makes you feel better.” 

She was right. But the prospect of pounding pavement for 10 miles on a damp, chilly evening seemed overwhelming. There’s no way! I’d say, working myself into an all-or-nothing trap.

I couldn’t run two miles tonight, let alone 10. So what’s the point? Do the planned distance, or don’t run. Stay home, drink Scotch.

That option was easy, convenient, and quickly pleasurable. It often won out. One night, though, as I opened the Glennfiddich, a gentle inner voice asked, “Why not check it out?”

“Check out what? How?”

“Maybe your blood sugar’s low.  Why not jog for 15 minutes. See what happens.”

“Fifteen minutes?” 

“Yeah. That should raise your blood sugar.You’ll feel better. If not, quit, come home, and enjoy a guilt-free Scotch.”

I fingered the bottle, mulling over this strange thought. 

What could it hurt? It’s only 15minutes. 

I left the Scotch on the counter, then slipped into my running gear and rain jacket.

My Reluctant 15-Minute Test

Runner with wet, messy hair, silhouetted agains a stormy cloud. Evening coming on.
Just 15 minutes, then I’ll quit.

Outside I lumbered along our street in a slow, hesitant jog. The autumn air was cool and damp. Clouds hung heavily in treetops. My muscles ached. Each step jarred my head. This, I thought, turning into the park, is a mistake. I laboured around the cinder path, scanning for signs of fatigue, and an excuse to quit.

Instead, I relaxed. When I hit the trail along the bluff, I felt a surge of energy. Momentum built with each step. Tension melted like butter in a hot sun. I stretched out my stride and picked up my pace.

I didn’t check my watch again for over an hour. I floated past the 5-mile marker, all the way to the footbridge. I crossed the river, then scampered up through an old Douglas Fir forest. Then I dropped down to the river path and ran hard to the island.

I giggled as I walked home. I’d just run 12 miles! And felt great.

Now, whenever I don’t feel like doing what I want to do, I try “The 15-Minute Test.”

It works for writing, running, hiking in the rain, even yard work and tax returns. I experiment for 15 minutes to see if my mood shifts. If it doesn’t, I try another 15, or give up and come back to it later.

Nine times out of ten, I keep going. Somehow, the activity changes everything.

Often I surprise myself with results like the 12-mile run.

Moreover, on those rare occasions when I stop, I feel zero guilt or remorse. A little Scotch tastes so much better than if I’d gone straight to it, rather than t he run. 

My Reward

A back-lit, half glass of Scotch Whisky sits on a patterned table top. The back ground is grey toned shading.
Bruce Elkin

Life Design Coach. Personal Life Coach. 25 years experience. Clients on 6 continents. Author of 5 books and ebooks. Cares about the Earth and living in harmony with its natural systems.