Culture

Brother, Can You Spare Five Minutes?

Hoping to take advantage of what remained of my lunch hour on an unusually warm mid-October day, I made my way to the local park, where I planned to do a little reading. I located an empty bench in a very nice spot, sat down, and opened my book. Almost immediately, a well-dressed businessman sitting directly across from me (whom I’d mistakenly assumed was napping) began to engage me in conversation.

“Nice day,” he exclaimed.

“Yes,” I replied, “wonderful.”

“Doing a little reading?” he queried. Before I could reply, he continued: “I wish I could read more, but I just don’t have the time.”

By now, I instinctively knew that further attempts at reading would be pointless, and I was right. For the next 20 minutes this well dressed stranger, who was unable to find any time to read for himself, had somehow managed to find plenty of time to keep me from reading.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone told me that they did not have time to do something that they really wanted to do. How is it possible that people find it impossible to find the time to engage in enjoyable, rewarding activities? This notion that people have, that they somehow “don’t have enough time” to do the things that are important to them, has always struck me as being somewhat disingenuous.

Let’s take a moment to further explore this concept.

Using reading as our example, let’s see how much you can accomplish even if you really are insanely busy. In fact, let’s set up an absurd scenario, one where every moment of a 24-hour day is completely occupied. Except for five minutes. That’s right — between work, sleep, and family obligations, you are only left with five minutes per day all to yourself. What can you possibly accomplish in five minutes?

The average American can read non-technical prose at the rate of about 300 words per minute. The average novel contains about 30,000 words. If, then, our hypothetical “average American” were to spend his allotted five minutes reading from that novel, when the clock ticked off the last second of the first day he would have read 1500 words. Continuing at that rate — at five minutes per day — our subject could complete the entire novel in just 20 days. If he continued reading at that rate, he would complete nine novels in six months — 18 novels per year. All this from reading for just five minutes.


Now, it’s a well-known fact that the more you do something the better you get at it. After six months our average American may have actually increased his reading speed to 400 words per minute. In addition, he may have gotten bored with reading novels exclusively and thrown in a classic or two (the works of Plato and Aristotle, for example). He has now increased his output by reading more than 18 books per year because he can read faster, and he has also added books containing a more sophisticated subject matter to his reading list! Quite an accomplishment for just five minutes per day.

This five-minute concept can be applied to just about any endeavor.

Let’s suppose you wanted to teach yourself a foreign language. How much progress do you think you could make if you were able to go through the same beginner’s language coursebook nine times from cover to cover in six months? Do you think you would be at an intermediate level in that language after doing that? Of course you would. Not only would you thoroughly know the material, but you would have done it all in just five minutes per day.

My wife has been knitting for many years, and has become quite proficient at it. If she were to knit for just five minutes per day, according to my calculations she could complete four full-length men’s scarves in six months. In fact, she has gotten so good at knitting that she can also talk on the phone while she’s doing it. She can call and check in with a sick friend and knock off part of a scarf at the same time. That’s multitasking at its best.

Let’s get even more physical than knitting.

For those of you who are out of shape:

Pick a compound exercise (an exercise that works more than one muscle group at a time) such as the squat, and do as many repetitions as you can in five minutes. It could be that on your first day of squatting you can only do one or two feeble repetitions. As time goes on, however, you will get better and better. One day, you may find that things have gotten a bit too easy for you and, like our reader (who added a bit of Plato and Aristotle to his reading list), you may decide to put some additional weight on your shoulders (a barbell, or perhaps the complete works of Plato and Aristotle). After a year, who knows — you may be squatting with twice your bodyweight for an entire set of 20 repetitions. All this from just five minutes’ worth of training per day.

I’m sure you’ve realized by now that you are limited as to what you can do in five minutes only by your imagination. Five minutes is a good block of time — plenty of time in fact — to do just about anything you want or need to accomplish: clean the house, go through your files, network, write your goals, work on a budget, brainstorm, meditate, or start working on that ship in a bottle that you’ve always wanted to build. These are all attainable goals if you work at them consistently for just five minutes per day.

The only disadvantage to this technique, though, is that it makes you wonder what could be accomplished if you could somehow come up with 10 minutes per day.