10 Minutes a Day to Change Your Life

At this time of year, we read it a LOT. It’s the essential pitch in the preamble to most of the top 10 bestsellers you will see most Januarys.

“If you can’t find 10 minutes a day to change your life…”

In a world where body shaming and many other forms of shaming are thankfully being seen as increasingly unacceptable, time shaming remains a form of negging that is an essential part of a toxic self-help industry’s sales pitch.

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So here’s the thing. If you can’t find 10 minutes a day to change your life…then you’re human. The simple fact is that no, most of us can’t find the 10 minutes a day that would change our lives. And it’s not because we’re lazy.

Let’s start by clarifying that we’re not talking about any 10 minutes. “Do you have a spare 10 minutes tucked in the sofa?” is the basic thrust of so much self-help. “How about the 10 minutes while your potatoes boil?” or “That 10 minutes when you scrolled through Facebook when your partner is in the bath.” Sorry, that’s not how time works. To be life-changing those 10 minutes need to be 10 minutes of deep practice (good introductions are Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Ericsson and Pool’s Peak) — that is, the kind of hyper-focused, edge of your capability time that genuinely changes your brain structure.

And you don’t find that down the sofa. In fact, no one can manage more of that kind of time than around 4 hours a day. So that’s kicker 1 — now we’re looking for 10 minutes not from 24 hours but from 4.

And here’s kicker 2. The availability of those 4 hours depends upon a whole load of other variable ducks being lined up in a row. First of these is quality sleep. 7 hours a night thereof. And the second is meaningful relaxation. Lack either of those and that 4 hour reserve tank of turbo time drains faster than your data allowance on Netflix. And ensuring you have those things depends upon a whole lot more than finding 10 minutes, any kind of 10 minutes, down the sofa.

But even if you achieve good sleep, and meaningful relaxation, kicker number 3 is the other drain on turbo time that disproportionately affects those shamed for their inability to find “just 10 minutes.” Scarcity. Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan’s book Scarcity is the culmination of some of the most important behavioural economic research of recent decades. Its findings are simple — the psychological demands placed on people by poverty mean that the cognitive planning resources those without the attendant worries of having no money simply are not available to those who struggle to make ends meet. In lay terms, if you’re constantly unsure how to put food on the table tonight you can’t spend quality time planning for your retirement. And the reason for that is what matters here — your pool of quality time has been drained.

But let’s suppose you’ve survived this far. You have no family commitments that affect your sleep and your relaxation time, and you have financial freedom. Well, then our final kicker will probably mean you’re still poleaxed. Because most people aren’t actually lazy, and most people actually do believe that to be rewarded they should give their best, the chances are that you give most of your 4 available hours to your work. Whatever your work may be. Now, if you’re on the fast track to Dreamsville at work, then well done — you are, indeed, devoting 10 minutes a day to making your life better (NOT to changing it, note).

But if like many people you work because you need to put a roof over your head and food on your table then the chances are that you still give your best hours to your job. Let’s face it, you probably work 8 hours a day, so taking quality time away from what’s already only half of that probably feels like sacrilege to you, a breach of every social contract you believe in.

So let’s stop the glib time shaming. Let’s start our conversations about helping people change their lives by acknowledging that the reason most people cannot find 10 minutes a day is because they are NOT lazy. And instead of peddling seemingly quick fix solutions that are actually impossible (and so will increase the guilt already felt by those who work hardest); instead of asking people “why can’t you find just 10 minutes a day?” let’s start talking about why we think it’s OK to live in a society in which people cannot find “just 10 minutes a day” to make their lives better. It’s no coincidence that Shafir and Mullainathan’s research is so prominent in Rutger Bregman’s TED talk on universal basic income.

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.