Getting Jump Started


You want to make something, but you can’t seem to get to it. You imagine yourself getting to it. But every day you come home from work, make dinner, take care of kids (if you have them), maybe go to the gym (if you don’t), connect with your spouse/partner/kitty and the next thing you know, it’s bedtime. One minute it’s Monday and then next it’s the weekend which gets filled with all the usual mixture of chores and fun, (probably less fun than we’d hoped), and still our creating doesn’t happen.

How do we break this inertia? I have one simple technique that helps me all the time.

timerMy Trusty Steed

Sometimes there are big, heavy reasons why we’re not creating. But sometimes it’s just because we’ve stalled–maybe you got stuck on a step in your latest project and now weeks (or months) have slipped by, or maybe you went on vacation and then someone in the family got sick, or you’ve had a lot of late nights at work–and now you’re officially out of your groove.

If this is the case, then I’d like to suggest a technique my mother employed with me when I was a kid and didn’t want to clean my room, one I still use on myself to this day.

What is it? A timer.

What you need to do is break the inertia of the pattern that you’re in, and you can do that by creating super concrete parameters.

Set the timer for 20 minutes and agree that you’ll work on your thing, whatever it is, for at least these 20 minutes and then you’re allowed to go back to whatever else you were doing.

And you might feel a little silly about it, or that you’re some kind of big fake because it seems like, sheesh, someone who really wanted to make things wouldn’t need to resort to a timer, like they’re being so tortured that they need to know when it will stop.

That’s not it.

It’s a jump start technique, and it helps you crash through that yucky awkward out-a-wack transition feeling that happens when you’re out of a groove. Or when it hurts to do the next step on your project, because it’s hard or confusing which is why you’re not doing it. Or that thing that you honestly want to try out, but it takes some (or maybe loads of) courage to do it because it’s new.

For Instance

Maybe you’ve been sewing a pair of jeans and you were happily speeding along a while back, but then you got to the zipper part and you’re kind of hung up about inserting zippers, and you haven’t gotten back to it.  It’s hard to do something you’re not good at, and it’s hard to do something new. So we stall.

But I bet you can suffer through looking at it for 20 minutes.

Not necessarily successfully completing it. Not solving it. Just being with it without rules or expectations–you might find yourself doing stuff like this:

  • Taking out the pattern and re-reading it.
  • Putting in your zipper foot.
  • Experimenting on a piece of scrap fabric.
  • Maybe going back to that site with the cool zipper explanation that you bookmarked.
  • Smoothing out the almost-done-jeans that have disappeared under a bunch of other clothes piled on that chair by the bed.
  • Checking the timer.
  • Finding your box of zippers and pawing through them.
  • Thinking about what a cute zippered pouch you could make with that bright red zipper you forgot you owned.
  • Not answering the phone when it rings or telling someone you’ll call them back in just a bit.
  • Saying to your spouse/partner–does this make sense to you? And then start reading the pattern directions out loud.
  • Checking the timer.
  • Starting a cute zippered pouch instead.
  • Continuing to work on your jeans project.

And then the timer will go off. And you’ll have made progress–and  it will be progress because you’re attending to your thing even if you didn’t figure it out yet.

And you’ll either keep going because you are making visible progress and you’re kind of enjoying yourself, or you’ll stop, which is totally okay because the agreement was just to last at least as long as 20 minutes, and then you’re off the hook.  Because what you’re doing is breaking your inertia, changing your momentum, creating that groove again, which is what makes the making possible.

And then try that again tomorrow or maybe the next day. (No one has to do something everyday).

20 minutes.

Maybe tonight you keep going for another couple of hours, feel great and think wow, this 20 minute trick is neat because it’s really a sneaky way to be productive for 2 hours and it works.

No, no!! This 20 minute technique is about doing it for at least 20 minutes–sometimes it’ll turn into a blissful 2 hours and sometimes it’ll be an excruciating 19 minutes and 59 seconds, but both occasions are equally good because that’s the agreement and sometimes slogging through 20 minutes shows extraordinary commitment. To yourself. To the long haul. And that’s impressive.

And you’re breaking the inertia–so when it’s hard to make it to 20 minutes, remember that sometimes it’s just about showing up. Maybe you’re very tired or maybe the next step in your project takes all the courage you have. I’ve been there more times than I can say.

No Ideas (another “for instance”)

Maybe you’re not facing some next terrible hard, hard step in a particular project where you have to confront your fears/feel awkward/possibly fail. Maybe you’re just not in your groove.

You think about your photography (or your painting, or your felting, etc) and you seem to have no ideas. The longer this goes on, the fewer ideas you have.

This is because making things begets ideas. They don’t generally show up of their own accord.

So set the timer and just go through your box of photos, or maybe get your last bunch of pics out of your camera and into the computer. And then while you’re there, you think, you know, maybe I can upload a few to my Flickr account. And then maybe you’re tweaking them in Photoshop first so they look really good in your Flickr account. All good stuff.

Or you go back to your most recent painting and stare at it for 20 minutes, just thinking. Or you gesso over another painting that, well, it turns out you still hate.

Or you decide to create some backgrounds for your collages. Or you’ll card some wool. Or  cast on the stitches for that sweater–or actually sit down and figure out how much yarn you’ll need. All good. The timer dings, and you stop or you continue. Commitment met either way. Keep doing this and the ideas will begin to flow again.

20 minutes. It’s great. Try it.

Hate 20? Do 10 instead.

What do you think of this technique? Have you tried something similar? I’d love to hear about it, so please leave a comment!

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  1. Laura says:

    Oh, I am going to try applying this technique to tackling challenging things at work!

  2. Erica says:

    I have found myself having this problem…I start a project only to leave it unfinished. I like this idea and it takes out the overwhelming feeling

  3. Stephanie says:

    Great suggestion!! Much more practical then lots of the stuff from “The Artists Way”, though a good book none-the-less. This is very real and makes so much sense. A timer….huh.

  4. Kristen Howe says:

    Hi Sarah. Thanks for the follow. I’m not really a crafty person, unless you count making or writing a novel or short stories or poetry, etc. This sounds interesting for a rainy day.

  5. Karen says:

    This is a great idea. I do a lot of avoiding when things seem hard or if I am unclear I will succeed. And when something that seems hard is optional, the avoidance tends to continue and continue. I have used something similar to this when I don’t feel like exercising, so I can see how it would apply to being creative. And I think it may help my daughter to begin tackling her homework without me taking the bad guy role so much. Thanks!

  6. [...] Getting Jump Started Oct 08 [...]

  7. [...] could you spend 20 minutes on tonight that would feed your artistic self? Paint some backgrounds? Figure out your buttonholer [...]

  8. [...] yourself with strategies to get yourself through the hard parts makes it easier. Click here for one of my favorite [...]

  9. [...] you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know about my 20 minute timer technique which I love-love-love and use all the time. That technique might be a great place to start. But [...]

  10. [...] a great choice for the 20 minute timer technique, and a wonderful way to start or end your day. Ready to give it a [...]

  11. [...] sure how to get yourself started? One great way to start a new magic spell is to use my 20 minute technique. (The timer is your friend–keep it do-able and you’ll keep doing [...]

  12. [...] call it the 20 Minute Technique. It’s ridiculously simple, but it really works. And I thought, you know, I really believe in [...]

  13. [...] the end of each week, (Thursday or Friday), I’ll write about how I used the 20 Minute Technique–the ups, the downs–and invite you to share in the comments section how it went for you [...]

  14. Caroline says:

    This is Great…a few years ago I started a Challenge blog wih something like this in mind. It is called One Powerful Hour

    The concept is that you get the project done in an hour…although many times I don’t and neither do other participants, but it is designed to allow someone with minimal time that wants to create to play for at least an hour a week.

    A lot of the time I “loose” my mojo and visiting challenge sites helps me find it…

    I am now off to try a 20 minute clean up routine so that I can go to the studio for 20 minutes:)

  15. Linda says:

    Does this work in helping to get the dusting done? Seriously?
    I get so wrapped up in art & promoting that the dusting is well behind. It is done each week, but at a push.

    I think the days are shorter of the hours faster in my 5th decade…

  16. Sarah says:

    I actually use it for tasks like dusting all the time!! Especially when get dramatic and act like my entire life is spent cleaning–then I use the timer and I’m like, Oh. Well, I guess that was actually only 45 minutes. ;-)

  17. Cheryl says:

    I am with you on this Sarah. I have so many started projects that I say I dont know which one to pick so I dont do anything. So I am setting my timer now………….

  18. Rose Hughes says:

    thank you for sharing this idea…I have for ‘a number’ of years been delivering a lecture, to quilt guilds all over the place, called The Organized Quilter… the idea of scheduling your time in small bits and sticking to it has always brought laughter from the groups’ membership, but IT WORKS!

  19. Lille Diane says:

    Thank you. I am always ready for a jump start. I used to play a similar game with my son. I called it beat the clock. We’d set the timer and see how many chores we could plow through. As a child [still] in an adult body [did I say that out loud?] I found it helped me as much as it did him–in fact, I probably did it more for me than him. Thanks for the reminders on how to tame my busy head to find that happy place/blend of fun & productivity.

    Love your blog and the gift you are to the creative world.

  20. [...] I knew it would also help me tremendously to use the 20 Minute Technique to work on one of the new drawings in my weather series that I’m terribly stuck on. That I [...]

  21. Sandra Myer says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for the tips of breaking through. Very good idea. I will try it.

  22. [...] A Little Help from Your Friends By Sarah I can’t tell you how much I’m loving reading the comments (here, here, and here, if you want to take a look) that readers are leaving about the 20 Minute Technique. [...]

  23. Joni Owens says:

    I started reading this and stopped at the second paragraph to go throw my clothes in the dryer, start the dishwasher and get that seldom used timer out of the kitchen cabinet and bring it into my work space (lol). I think this idea may actually help me get my muse back working. I’ve been as such a roadblock. I lost my best friend and soulmate in Feb. We had been constant companions for 8 yrs and I miss him terribly and I haven’t been able to do anything creative since. I’ve gotten a couple of items ready for swaps but it’s like I’m having to force myself. So I’m going to try the 20 Minute Technique starting today – I love making collage and painted background papers for my art so that’s a good place for me to start.

  24. Sarah says:

    @Joni–Oh what a tough time! I do hope the 20 minute technique helps you get started creating again, and I hope the creating helps with the grieving process. I know if I lost my partner I would be devastated. Can you create a series of things in his honor or to express your feelings about your 8 years together? hugs, Sarah

  25. Joni Owens says:

    More productive week thanks to the 20 Minute Club routine (lol). I finished a necklace, bracelet, and 2 prs of earrings for a friend of mine. I started working on something that may sound kind of silly but……..anyway – I have a “thing” about cardboard containers and boxes I use as containers in my art space – they HAVE to be decorative and pleasing to the eye so this week I have started covering 2: an oatmeal and a smaller grits container – the larger has 3 prints of the same image – a large palm from my best friend’s house:1 black/white, 1 sepia, 1 color. The smaller container is being covered with my grandson’s (age 4) art.

  26. [...] had kind of a hard week and felt like I needed a treat, so I used a few 20 Minute Sessions to do several Automatic [...]

  27. colleen says:

    i so need to do this!!!! i find myself making so many excuses that i just have to finish something else before i can work on my art, before i know it a whole week has passed and nothing has been done.

  28. I think Nancy Zieman wrote a book “10 20 30 Minutes to Sew” a long time ago. So I’m familiar with this process.

    I think it boils down to giving yourself permission to do it badly. Or to be OK with the outcome. Maybe you could get your friend to put in the zipper!.

    There are lots of solutions if you are willing to persist. Even for short amounts of time.

  29. [...] it can feel weird or hard or anti-social to sequester yourself away from everyone else to do your 20 Minute Technique. So you [...]

  30. [...] Minute Club Minutes–Mod Podge All ‘Round By Sarah This week’s 20 Minute Sessions were all about [...]

  31. [...] little while in order to get started again–maybe even a couple of times a week…just for 20–30 minutes at first–could you watch the kids while I do [...]

  32. [...] Each bad thing you make brings you that much closer to your good stuff–20 Minutes at a time. [...]

  33. KnittingGuru says:

    This is a great idea. I just came across it while I was taking a break from trying to find some photos of parts of my studio. I lost these photos because I’m constantly doing too many things at once. Of course I found them, but what a waste of time. I’m going right into my studio with my timer to see how much I can organize in 20 minutes!

  34. I’ve used this technique for years, but set the timer for 10 minutes. It’s a great way to overcome the perfectionist part of my brain as I’ve explained in my blog:

    And I’ve sent people here to see all your great material. Thanks for sharing!

  35. [...] I often wax on about how great the 20 Minute Technique is for getting yourself jump-started, it’s also great for helping you truly finish [...]

  36. [...] Soooo, as you know, I write often about the difficulty in getting started. [...]

  37. [...] It’s a great way to use the 20 Minute Technique. [...]

  38. [...] creative momentum has once again been saved in an otherwise overwhelming week by long and short visits with my collages (in their various states of “almost-done”) from The Creative [...]

  39. [...] a great use of the 20 Minute Technique be to use it to work on making some holiday cards or [...]

  40. Eleanor Polini says:

    I have always been a procrastinator. Your idea of 20 minute timer sound just right for me. I have many projects but never get around to it but make excuses. I am going to try your idea. I’ll let you know how I make out.( successfully I hope). Thanks

  41. [...] if you set your timer for 20 minutes in those “not ready” times and promise yourself you can stop as soon as it dings, you [...]

  42. [...] working on because it makes you self-conscious, or you feel more willing to try using the 20 Minute Technique and set yourself a lower bar for what you might accomplish in one [...]

  43. Christine says:

    Is this Facebook group still active? Can’t find the tools you talked about (the “contract” or Facebook group…..

  44. Staci says:

    I feel like I’ve just found the Holy Grail. For years, I have been struggling to not only finish projects but to even find the time to start them. I keep making promises to myself that I will find the time… No, MAKE the time but time just eludes me. Typical days of work (in a creative field), kids, dinner, husband steal my energy so that I’m just not in the mood. Then the wonderful weekend visits and we plan to sneak off for a creative affair, only to be left alone with regrets on Monday. Here’s hoping that the timer can bring my first true love back to me!

  45. Sarah says:

    So glad to hear that! I use the timer almost every day and it helps me all the time. It’s an especially helpful tool for getting around “not being in the mood.” :-) Keep me posted!!

  46. Sarah says:

    Hi Christine! The FB group and contract are getting revamped and are in the works. I’ll let you know when it’s restarted. Thanks for asking! In the meantime, definitely use that timer, it really works. :-)

  47. Cindy rifkin says:

    When Im at a loss i just start clearing out my space and tell myself that all Im doing is setting up for my next project. Sometimes I will start it then or not, but it gets things moving.

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