Last year, my knees started to hurt when I went for runs. I’ve been a distance runner for a very long time now, and I know to pay attention when something starts acting up during or after a run, especially if it happens more than once or twice. Most often, it means that I need new shoes (it’s recommended that you replace your shoes about once a year, or every four hundred miles, but I can usually tell when my shoes need replacing, and go based on that instead of those guidelines), but once or twice it’s been indicative that I needed to change up my training to strengthen muscles that weren’t being sufficiently exercised just by running. This didn’t feel like a problem with my shoes, so I set out to experiment on myself.
My first thought, because I’d experienced something similar before, was that the small, stabilizing muscles that surround my knees needed to be strengthened. I tacked five minutes onto the end of each of my runs, and five minutes after my shower each morning, to do a variety of exercises targeting those muscles. After a month, I found that the pain had lessened but had not entirely gone away, so I needed to try another experiment. I added another five minutes of stretching, before and after each run, and after my shower each morning, and I haven’t had a problem with my knees since.
When I was younger, I set out to improve my push-ups and pull-ups. Instead of pursuing a complicated exercise plan, I took five minutes when I woke up in the morning, and five minutes before I went to bed each night, to do a set of those exercises. It was enough to increase my pull-ups from three to over a dozen, and my push-ups to over a hundred. When I first started doing distance running, I added five minutes to my long run each week, going from a maximum of twenty minutes to four hours.
If I wrote for a mere five minutes a day, I could write a mid-length novella in a year (assuming a writing pace of about seventeen words per minute, which is what I achieved writing this blog post, I would write about thirty thousand words in a year at five minutes per day). If I read for just five minutes a day, I would still be reading over three thousand pages a year (assuming a constant rate of one hundred pages per hour). Of course these are all estimates, and are predicated on assumptions that would in reality vary significantly depending on what I was writing or reading, but the point is this: five minutes makes a difference.
This post, in a way, is addressed to all of the people who tell me that they can’t find time to read, or write, or pursue whatever other change to their lives they want to achieve. Most people, I suspect, can find an extra five minutes each day (although I know from personal experience what it’s like to be so busy that digging five minutes out of the schedule is all but impossible – if you’re that busy, you don’t have time to complain about being too busy to add something to your life). This is the mistake the people tend to make, encapsulated by fruitless New Year’s resolutions: they attempt to make drastic changes that are unsustainable. Or maybe you set out to do national novel writing month in November, and write for hours each day to hit your word count goals. That’s all well and good, but that’s not sustainable in the long run. You don’t continue that in December and January. But if you set aside half an hour each day, or even just five minutes, that’s something you can sustain over the long run, and you can actually affect the change you’re trying to see in yourself.
Five minutes a day is not some kind of magic number or formula, but merely a stand-in for the idea of incremental, rather than drastic, changes to create new habits and routines. I’ve known a lot of people who will decide that they need to work on their cardio, run five times a week for a month, and then not run again until the next year, when they decide the same thing. And the number of people who tell me “hm, I should really read more. I don’t know how you find all the time to read that you do,” but then proceed to tell me that they play video games for five hours every night and then don’t sleep well. Even at my busiest, I set aside twenty minutes to read before I went to sleep, because it helped my mental state, and actually helped me unwind and sleep better. I struggled to get through Xenophon that way, but I read plenty of other books in that fashion. I even wrote the first draft of my first, full-length novel in much the same way, carving out five minutes here and there to plug out a few more words, and within a year I’d written almost two hundred thousand words.
I don’t say any of this to show off, or brag; if anything, I’m trying to do the opposite. If I can accomplish these things in mere slivers of time scattered throughout the day, there’s no reason that you can’t, too. Whether your goal is to run a marathon, write a novel, read a book a month, or learn a new skill, the way to success isn’t to go at an all-out sprint for a month, and then fade and give up on the goal as impossible. Instead, do a little bit at a time. Set aside twenty minutes in your day to do kinesthetic exercises. Set aside half an hour to read before you go to bed. Set aside fifteen minutes to study that new skill. Set aside five minutes a day, and you might surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.