Thursday 22 March 2018

Yes you can ... in 10 minutes a day

Tom James, the unicycling juggler
When challenged to learn a skill, complete a large task or get fit have you thought ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I don’t have time’, or ‘I’m a klutz’ … ‘Yes. You can!’, if you have 10 minutes a day.

This occurred to me last summer. Not for the first time I thought, that it would be cool if I could juggle. I got some juggling balls, looked at some how-to videos on YouTube and started. After spending much time recovering lost balls from the inside of boxes and behind furniture I realised that learning to juggle was going to take me considerably longer that the hour promised in one of the videos!

But I realised that I did not have to spend all the time I needed to learn in one go. I had no immediate deadline for learning to juggle. So I started to practice for 10 minutes a day every day. If I forgot a day I would practice for 20 minutes next day. When I had a business trip I packed the balls and practiced in my hotel room.

Each day I started a timer on my phone. First, I threw one ball back and forth between both hands while looking ahead. When comfortable, I added a second ball throwing from the other hand when the first ball reached the top of its arc. Then, a third ball and gradually juggling for longer. The daily improvement was imperceptible but over time I mastered juggling 3 balls.

So why is the technique so effective? The brain learns by developing faster neuron pathways. Thinking guru Edward de Bono described an analogy in ‘The Mechanism of Mind’. Pour a spoon of warm water onto a bowl of jelly. Tilt the bowl and the water will flow slowly on the surface and melt tiny pathways. Each subsequent spoon of water will follow the same pathways and will melt them a little deeper. Eventually the channels are deep and the water flows with little tilting. We learn by developing faster neuron pathways in the brain the same way, little by little.

Noel Burch of Gordon Training International described the "Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill". First, we are unconsciously incompetent, not knowing that we don’t know how, like the unknown unknowns in Iraq made famous by former US secretary of state, Donal Rumsfeld. The next stage is conscious incompetence – we know we suck! This is when the 10 minutes a day technique helps the most. We become frustrated that we can’t but we know we just have to practice for until the timer sounds, so it is easier to persevere.  

Soon we reach the stage of conscious competence and can do the skill with concentration. We may enter a state of flow. In this mindset, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi we may become so absorbed in what we are doing that we lose track of time and want to continue practicing beyond 10 minutes.

With more practice we overlearn the skill. In the fourth stage – unconscious competence we don’t even need to pay full attention, like driving a car or riding a bike or juggling and speaking at the same time. Ten minutes a day will get you there eventually.

I realised that I had been applying this 10-minute technique to other areas of my life. For several years almost every day I have read a classic book for 5-10 minutes a day on the Kindle reader on my phone. For the last 3 years I have read the bible one chapter a day from Genesis to Apocalypse. Today I am at 79% reading the second letter of St Paul to the Corinthians and expect to finish the entire text this year. Then I will read another large classic text best consumed in small bites– maybe the works of William Shakespeare.

And every morning for the 10 minutes it takes to bake parbaked rolls for my son’s school lunch I do floor exercises that are good for blood pressure. And for 10 minutes a day at lunch time I go to my car and meditate looking out the windows at the scenery allowing my mind to become peaceful.

For the last 10 minutes or so of my journey to work I switch my audio book to a Spanish language learner and practice. This allows me to acknowledge whoever made the coffee. “Quien ha preparado el café para mi? Gracias.”

Like most good powerful ideas, I was not the first to realise it. I googled 10 minutes a day and the first result was a language learning company! And in a Chicago Tribune article, journalist Eric Zorn challenged his readers to learn a skill or complete a task in 10 minutes a day in 2015. 81 accepted the challenge and 49 completed it. Eric himself picked up a fiddle he had not played since school and improved enough to be hired to provide music at four square dances. He also spoke to Lorne Holden author of a 2012 book called “Make it Happen in 10 Minutes a Day: The Simple, Lifesaving Method for Getting Things Done”. She learned the 10 minutes technique by planting a flower garden and also wrote the book in 10 minutes a day.

The method is proven and effective. Teresa challenged me to learn to juggle on a unicycle. So before combining the two I am learning to unicycle in 10 minutes a day. I have set the intermediate goal to peddle from Dungarvan to Waterford on the greenway and raise money for charity in the summer.

What 10 minutes challenge are you going to take? You can learn a skill, complete a large task or get fit in just 10 minutes a day.