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Gimme 20! How just 20 minutes a day to yourself could transform your life

Finding time to do what you want to do can seem impossible. But what if it was less than half an hour a day? Here’s how to microdose your ‘me time’

Oh, to be a bored youth again, with a carefree afternoon stretching ahead like a long, satisfying yawn. It’s not that I want to regress, it’s just … where did all the time go? If clawing a modicum of time for yourself – whether to read, noodle around on GarageBand or simply flop about like a teenager – feels impossible, it’s time to take action. When you’re overloaded with work/parenting/caring/domestic admin/stuff to faff around with on your phone, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that every second is accounted for. But recently, I have finally acknowledged the (slightly embarrassingly obvious) fact that life’s to-do list will never be complete; that spending time doing whatever you want will help you get everything else done; that it’s not selfish, but actually practical.

And it has been a gamechanger. This isn’t about aspiring to be a CEO type, who rises at 4am to restore their inbox to zero and get a bouffant blow-dry. It’s about taking 20 minutes to reclaim your humanity.

When should I take it? The key for me was not aiming too high. I started setting aside 20 minutes each morning. (Why? I’m better in the morning and it seemed like an achievable length of time.) We may not even need to get up earlier – it could be a case of negotiating with ourselves, partners, housemates or children (hey, there are always audiobooks and cartoons) that we retreat for 20 minutes at an agreed daily time. Brad Aeon, an assistant professor specialising in the science and philosophy of time at the University of Quebec, starts his days doing “pretty much nothing”. He might look out the window, walk around his apartment, drink some water. “I just take my time, and it is very, very rewarding,” he says. It would be less practical to do this once the day has begun in earnest, and the morning is a good time to insulate yourself against stress. “When you wake up, your cortisol levels are super high,” he says. “I don’t need any additional stress in my life, so I want to take it easy.”

Author Adrienne Herbert manages to set aside a full hour every morning for herself and loves it so much she wrote a book about it called Power Hour. She says there’s no one-size-fits-all rule – there may be occasions or seasons when later in the day might suit someone better. The morning was the only time she could find solitude before her toddler woke up. “It was the only time when nobody needed me. Nobody was calling or emailing me.” She had more energy in the mornings, too. “By the end of the day,” she says, “you’ve probably spent all your resources on your work, your kids, all the other things that you needed to do. And then it’s like, oh great, you’ve got like 3% left of yourself.”

Don’t feel guilty about it

Don’t feel bad about briefly stepping away from work, parenting or caring, says Thomas Moore, the octogenarian psychotherapist and author of 30 books, including the bestselling Care of the Soul. “People have to see that taking a break is part of their work. You can’t do your work unless you can get away from it, so that you have the energy and your brain is clear.”

We’re not machines, so do we really need to justify our existence with work, asks Moore. “Work is not the only thing that we do in life – taking a break gives us our humanity.” Ditto for taking time alone. “If you don’t do that, you lose touch with yourself.”

Don’t worry whether you’re wasting the time or using it well. If it’s something you enjoy, it is time well spent

Adrienne Herbert, author

None of this will happen unless you’re very deliberate about it. In the UK, by law, anyone working six hours or more has the right to down tools for 20 minutes. But as a break in a working day, that’s hardly self-indulgent; it’s possibly even a little mean. So carving 20 minutes for yourself outside working hours – and not just to wolf down a quick bite in order to dash back to the coalface – is hardly greedy.

Make a plan – and stick to it

If you don’t schedule those 20 minutes, says Herbert, “it will take effort and willpower to try to make it happen, and finding that time will become a hassle.”

To make it work, you’ll need to schedule your entire day. “Do not wait until the alarm goes off to decide what to do,” she continues. “Making a decision like that first thing in the morning is not good.” Prepare what you’ll need the night before (if Herbert is going for a run, she’ll make sure her outfut is laid out, headphones fully charged) to “reduce the friction”, she says.

“I’ll let you into a secret,” says Aeon. “From a cognitive perspective, we think about time in terms of space.” Call me outside business hours, or this meeting was short, or it’s been a long time. This is true, he says, in every language, so “our most intuitive way to manage our time is to visualise it. And a schedule is a visual representation of how much time you have every day of the week. Just looking at it forces you to be realistic, because you can’t fit a three-hour project into a one-hour block.”

Struggling? Work out what’s stopping you

Aeon advises taking five minutes to ask yourself why you struggle to make time for yourself. “Is it because I don’t set healthy boundaries?” he suggests, “and so I’m always trying to help my significant other, children, colleagues, friends? Is it because I have this fear of being alone with my thoughts?”

This is a common barrier. “Spending 20 minutes without necessarily doing anything is torture for a lot of people,” says Aeon, “because their mind goes into these dark places. So constant activity is a way for them to pacify the mind.” Our mental health affects the way we use our time, with research showing, he says, “that taking care of your mental health can improve your time management, and taking care of your time management can improve your mental health – it’s a two-way street”.

Frame it as ‘self-promotion’

Herbert started getting up an hour earlier six years ago, when she had a small child and no time to herself, and has turned coaching others to reap its myriad benefits into a career. “I think it’s quite radical,” she says, “for people to accept that you can choose to say, ‘it’s really important for me to start my day taking time for myself – I’m going to prioritise this.’ It’s not selfish. It’s necessary.” Herbert sees the well-worn wellness cliche of “me time” as genuinely empowering. Prioritise your needs, “whether it’s a run, white space or sitting down with a blank sheet of paper to write down your ideas and be creative”.

Treat time like cash, not credit

To fit in time for ourselves, Aeon recommends being stricter with how we guard our time. A sense of time poverty can be brought on by what he calls a fundamental bias in how we perceive time. “We always think there’s going to be more time in the future, but there isn’t,” he says. “When you have cash in your hand, you can count it, it’s quantifiable. But you can’t see or feel time, or put a real value on it. Because time is invisible, we have a hard time accounting for it.”

Time is more like a slippery credit card, in that when you can’t see how much money you have, it’s easy to overspend. “‘Yes, I’m going to help my neighbour with her move, and do some volunteering, and take on a new work project,’” says Aeon. This is what’s known in psychological circles as the “yes … damn” effect. Damn, because only when it’s too late do you clock how much time all these commitments will take up.

Work out what to do in your 20 minutes

“Don’t worry about whether you’re wasting the time or using it well. If it’s something that you enjoy, it is time well spent,” says Herbert. All the academic literature backs this up, says Ciara McCabe, professor of neuroscience, psychopharmacology and mental health at the University of Reading, who spends her mornings outdoors with the dog. “It could be fly fishing, running or reading. It doesn’t really matter what it is, if you can derive pleasure and joy for yourself, it’s good for your mental health. It doesn’t even have to be creative; it could be time alone.”

Solitude is a lovely word. It means being alone but not lonely

Ciara McCabe, professor of neuroscience Thomas Moore was a Catholic monk as a young man, and has maintained an interest in our need for spiritual activities, whether religion is involved or not. “Simple things like listening to music shouldn’t be overlooked,” he says. Looking at art, too, but if you can’t get out to see art first thing, and don’t want to look at screens, when did you last have time to leaf through art books – or even spend time catching up on your favourite magazine, for that matter? Back in his monastery days, Moore says the main way the monks meditated was by taking walks. “That can be very spiritual, being outdoors in nature,” he says. It can also provide a healthy change of venue. “It’s one thing to take time out; it’s another to get out of the place you’re working constantly. It helps lift your spirits and keep things in perspective.”

Herbert says her clients often complain that they have shelves full of books they don’t have time to read. “Well maybe just read every morning,” she says. “Think how many books you’d get through.” Sign up to our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind the scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest features, as well as a curated list of our weekly highlights.

But remember that doing nothing is also OK Sitting staring into space is equally valid and permitted, though. I have a working single mum friend who swears by setting her alarm half an hour before her kids wake so she can drink tea and listen to the radio in bed.

Just try to spend it alone Solitude is a lovely word, says McCabe. It means being alone but not lonely. “Some people find solitude very rewarding, while others are not looking for it. But there is research to suggest that for some people, solitude is very helpful, and they really enjoy it. A bit like a hobby, what they might get out of the solitude is time to reflect, make decisions, think clearly.”

During the home schooling hell of the first lockdown, my inner introvert was screaming for independence – and eventually I found some. Getting up early to do yoga uninterrupted returned my relative sanity in the nick of time, and I inadvertently stumbled upon a new hobby. I had borrowed a moth trap, which I continued setting most nights, long after the children’s interest had waned. Disappearing to check the trap after breakfast, admiring and identifying my moths while a robin watched hungrily, was glorious. Whatever it is you like to do, says McCabe, “you’re releasing neurotransmitters that are involved in making you feel good.” And who can’t make time for that?



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