The 20 Minute Win

The late great Ray Bradbury, one of my writing heroes, often said that a writer should begin writing before he lets the world in.  Before television, before conversations, before anything else happens.

In my world—maybe yours, too– this has not often been a realistic possibility.  Although I have written about one practice I use, getting up before the world to write for a couple of hours, it’s hard to sustain that schedule, and on an ordinary day it’s not realistic to jump out of bed and run to the computer or the notebook.  After breakfast, I like to tidy things up and the dog then wants a walk, by which time my head is filled with a lot of non-writing things, like bills and juggling my ever-shrinking hours, which do seem to have gone from 60 minutes to about 40, and when I might be able to get out to get some new jeans, because winter is coming.

All those busy, monkey-mind thoughts are not helpful for creating the ease that is best for writing.  All that chatter makes it hard to sort through the billion sentences in my head, the news from the television this morning, the email from a friend….

However, I do believe in Ray Bradbury’s injunction, and I’ve created a practice of the 20-minute window, a time of focusing on the work as early as I can possibly get to it. I do not clean up the kitchen. I do not fold the afghans left out on the couch from the night before, or collect the books I’ve flung hither and yon (I seem to always be in the midst of three or four).  I ignore the pleading eyes of The Saddest Dog in the world and take my freshly topped coffee cup upstairs.   I set the timer for twenty minutes, and write whatever comes up. Sometimes, it’s a blog.  Sometimes it’s a scene that comes later in the book, and I write fast, without a lot of correction, to get the flavor of the thing down on the page.

I sometimes even just write a journal, akin to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, only not quite that negative.  Sometimes, a juicy way to get things moving is to write what the Law of Attraction folks call a Rampage of Appreciation, which is to write down all the things you are grateful for in your life, like your child’s amazing eyes and warm socks and the little goddess statue on the desk.

It almost doesn’t matter what it is.  Twenty minutes of writing, whatever I want.

There are two major things this exercise accomplishes. First, I warm up the writing muscles.  It shuts the door to the monkey mind and all the noisy voices wanting attention and walks me down the corridor to the Writing Work Room, which is where all my writing stuff is.  Once the door is open for the day, I find it much easier to move in and out, take breaks, head back down the corridor to go back to work, as often as I like.   Once I’m actually in the Writing Work Room, with its lovely views and rows and rows of books and articles and novellas and hundreds of other things I’ve written, I remember that this really is one of my favorite places.  All my favorite things are here, all the most authentic things about my life and work.

The second thing it does is remind me how little time it actually takes to put words on the page if I am actually showing up to do it.  I’ve been writing this blog for 14 minutes and I have 626 words on the page.  In an hour, that’s 2500 words, which is a great writing day by most anyone’s standards.

Now, I know that I won’t produce 2500 words in an hour, hour after hour.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Over the course of an hour, I pause, and backtrack to rewrite and fiddle with things, and scowl over word choices, all the things we all do.  I try an action paired with a line of dialogue, realize it isn’t right, and try something else.

But I do know, because I show up to do it so often, I can write 600 words pretty reliably in twenty minutes.   How many twenty minute segments are there in a day? How many times have you sat in a waiting room for twenty minutes? In the carpool line? After lunch in the work cafeteria?

Even that single twenty minute segment, as early in the day as it can be managed, can be a big win for a busy person seeking time to write.  Yes, it’s lovely to have oceans of time and submerge in them and the book, but what if you don’t have them?  Try 20 minutes.

The final delight of the 20-minute win is the fact that it often ends up being much more than 20.  If I just open that door, sometimes I don’t come out again for hours. That’s a really big win.

I’m off to walk my dog. Afterwards, I’ll tidy up the kitchen and fold the afghans and see how much is left alive in my garden after the freeze last night.  Then I’ll come back to the computer with a big glass of ice water and lemons, and some mint if any of it survived, and write.  Because the door to the Work Room is open, and I like it here.

Have you ever tried the 20 minute win? Can you spy a window early in your day when you might be able to try this?  Are there other windows in your day that you might never have noticed? 

(There: 22 minutes, 968 words.  Win!)




About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    When I sit down to write I have to have a couple hours or more. I love the 20 minute window; but when I get in the writing mode, I forget everything else and just keep going. Not good on real life if I have to go to work or do other stuff.

    But I love the concept. I know I can do it, but my windows are on weekends or other days off. Still, writing time is writing time, and I’m excited when I write for any length of time.


  2. says

    I like the idea of the 20-minute rule. It would work best for me as a time to clear my head and get my mind into my story. Then I would need to start writing for an hour or more. It is fascinating to learn the strategies writers use to engage their minds. Thanks for sharing this one.

  3. says

    Writing should be at the forefront of life. Without it, one cannot breathe or dream. This is all that I do, the only direction one has. This is my passion, my reason, my hope, my breath. I hope you will support my efforts as I have. Make sure you stop by my home Respect it and laugh along with it, for that is how it was designed. I featured an Ode to Mr. Bradbury some time ago. He is also a hero of mine, and I thank you for this post.

  4. says

    So often I don’t write because I think I don’t have a long enough window. Or I fiddle around with the internet so much that I lose most of my writing time. I think it is important to focus on what we want and be reminded of how important it is to get words on paper, and how much we can do if we focus.

    • says

      I find it really easy to waste time on the Internet, too, or procrastinate any number of ways and then realize I only have six minutes left. Very disappointing.

      For the Internet cruising, I’m in love with Freedom, a program that will lock you out for whatever amount of time you want to set.

      • says

        I love this post! A really timely reminder of how easily time (Writing time!) can trickle through our fingers if we let it – and how not to do that. Thanks for this, Barbara!

  5. says

    Doable! And a great strategy as I contemplate NaNoWriMo…almost 1700 words per day is very intimidating, but 3 or 4 20 minute segments would take the pressure off.

    As CG said, I love to hear of other writers’ strategies – thanks for sharing, Barbara. Now about that Saddest Dog in the world – mine is bumping my hand as I type this…she’ll have to get on board with this 20 minute thing, too ;)

  6. says

    ANY mind game that gets the juices flowing is a good one. I, also, like to hear of others’ tricks and self deceptions. Yours is a good one. Thanks for sharing.

  7. says

    Wanna know what gets my writing juices flowing while I drink my coffee? Reading a Barbara O’Neal post on WU, that’s what! And it didn’t even take me 20 minutes. Off to work!

  8. says

    Brilliant. And clearly, based on your number of published books, you walk the walk.

    This is such a great reminder that we do have the power to find even 20 minutes a day. Just takes a bit of discipline. You have The Saddest Dog? I have The Impatientest Children. But no more excuses!

    Thanks, Barbara. Have a great day! ;)

  9. says

    I like the idea of a 20 minute window. I’d be more likely to use those early 20 minutes meditating and doing yoga on the deck. I’ve found I switch up the time based on the temperature – say 7 a.m. when it was hot and now it might be more like 10 a.m. Nonetheless, it clears my head to get into my story after.

    For NaNoWriMo, where I hope to finish the last 50K of the mystery I already have 30k clocked in, I am going to try to go to bed 30 minutes earlier and get up an hour earlier before my kids and husband to try to get 1K each morning. We’ll see!

    Thanks for sharing your process with us.

  10. says

    I often have my 20 minute window at night–which, strangely enough, is when my imagination tends to come alive. I keep a notebook by my bed for these moments. Usually, what I write has nothing to do with a current manuscript, but I fill up several pages with whatever characters, scenes, and dialogue flit into my head. I love this practice. It feel so cleansing and special to me. I don’ t do it every night, but it happens more often than not. :-)

    • says

      That’s a beautiful practice. And morning or evening, middle of the night or middle of the afternoon, no matter.

      I think it can be almost better if it has nothing to do with the MIP. Part of the pleasure of being a writer is the play of thinking up stories, opening auditions to the characters who want to be chosen next.

  11. says

    I definitely take time – an hour a day, 5-6 a.m., to write. Since I began doing this (learned the benefit of this from Claudia Mills, children’s writer extraordinaire) I have been unimaginably more productive – in my writing life, and in the other times of the day, because I no longer think, “I should be writing.”

  12. says

    I have, in the past, stopped at coffee shops on the way to work and written for twenty or thirty minutes. I did not have the luxury of writing for long periods of time then. The short ones worked well.

    Right now, I’m with Bradbury. I get up early (3 a.m.) so that I can write before I let the world in. No Twitter, or Google Reader or email until I have met my quota… three hours or 1700 words, whichever comes first.

    Long, short, intermittent… whatever time you’ve got, just give’er!

    Enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Carmel says

    I have definitely found that my best writing comes first thing in the morning before I let my to-do list take over my head. As in, hop out of bed, go get the laptop, and hop back in bed. And I like your idea that the writing is easier to get back to if you open that door early. The best part is, if I don’t make it back, I have moved forward with my writing that day.

  14. says

    Great idea. I have my usual morning routine: prepare breakfast for me and my wife, eat, take the dog out for a walk, check e-mail, then write if I am not distracted by something. But I will try doing a 20-minute segment after taking the dog out (We don’t have a yard so he needs to go to the trail to do his poopy thing) Thanks for the tip!

    • says

      In the summertime, I have to reverse the order, so I get it.

      That’s the trick, to avoid distraction. It’s so easy to fall into something else. Like…oh, cleaning the cupboards.

  15. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I have heard that in the military they take 20 minute catnaps. This is because it takes 20 minutes to reach a deeper sleep. If you come out at the 20 minute mark, you feel refreshed, without the deep-sleep need of a longer session.

    Perhaps a 20 minute writing session can work successfully, used in this manner. A quick, comprehensive excercise to refresh a writing project, get from point A to point B, without going too deep. It may help by smoothing and thereby accelerating the path to going deeper, when one has the time for a lengthier session. I’m going to try it.

    And thank you, I always enjoy your posts because they lead me to new ways to think outside the box.

  16. says

    I am actually a big fan of getting in the 20 (or more) minute win almost as soon as I tumble out of bed. I get up early–at least an hour before my kids wake up–allow myself a few minutes to drink coffee and check e-mail, etc., and then I start to write. It is hard sometimes, because even first thing and without anyone else in my family up, there are a dozen other ‘productive’ things I could be doing: planning the day’s homeschool lessons, exercising, etc. etc. But I also know that in 20-30 minutes I can write 600-700 words, which will get my head firmly into the story for the rest of the day (into that ‘writing room’ you’re talking about), allowing me to seize any other 20-30 minute windows that crop up. Great post, Barbara, thanks for sharing–I always love hearing your strategies!

  17. Ray Pace says

    The Saddest Dog probably isn’t that sad. Dogs are wonderful at “getting it.” Dog knows that as the coffee smell disappears and those barely audible (to us humans) clicks go on, the first walk of the day is coming!

  18. says

    I appreciate how realistic this goal is. I’ve seen so many advice posts that recommend 1-2 hours a day–wouldn’t that be the life! And hopefully it will be someday; but for now I think I can manage 20 minutes. I guess I just assume that if I don’t have more than half an hour I can’t get much done, but you just proved me wrong. Thanks for the motivation, I’m excited to give it a try!

  19. says

    I like to decide what I am going to start writing while making breakfast and organizing family out the door, all the time anticipating the sweet silence that lies ahead. Then I turn to morning pages, or a writing prompt, or a spot of list making, or mostly these days, simply continuing on from where I left off the previous day.

  20. says

    This post is very encouraging to me. I’m trying to get myself back into the habit of waking up early for pre-work writing time. (I have a non-writing full time job, wherein I do bring my laptop and work on my grand endeavors, but it is not the same as being alone in the writing space.)

    It was a routine I got into when I was finishing my novel in the summer, and realized that, provided I go to bed at about 10:00, I can get up at 5:00 a.m. and miraculously function at my best. But staying up too late strikes this down easily, and I spend the day angry with myself that I didn’t get that extra hour of writing time in. An extra hour? Thank you for telling me to aim for 20 minutes instead. That seems a lot more attainable and with a lot less pressure on myself.


  21. says

    I love the 20 min idea. I think we all have times that are more productive than others. I usually start between 5-6 AM. This is my time to write. I write for 2-4 hours hours. But I take 20-30 min in the evening to plan what I will do the next day and often the day after. Putting all the facts and docs that I will need on a clip board for the morning allows me to get right to work. Coffee is an absolute necessity!

  22. says

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been fretting for weeks about protecting my writing time which so many things and loved ones try to overtake. Twenty minutes seems reasonable. A lot can happen in twenty minutes with writing. #loveit

    Thanks for sharing this practice!

  23. says

    The first “how-to” book I ever read on writing suggested to write 10 min everyday, and so I have tried to do that. I haven’t been so good of late, because I’ve been editing, but just last night decided to get back to 10 min. of creative writing everyday before I get into editing. Your post today is perfect timing for reinforcing the reasons why it is important.

  24. says

    It helps for me to focus on returning some comments on what I read. However, I like this idea of just writing, and see that it has merits. Thanks from another Bradbury fan!

  25. Marilyn Slagel says

    This is a great idea for the NaNoWriMo challenge. Barbara, your description of the writing room and walking through your house sounds so peaceful to me. I, too, have three or four books at a time, an almost one-year-old puppy who is the Queen around here and almost always have a afghan waiting to be folded. Thanks for a lovely word picture.

  26. says

    In past years of NaNo I’ve done 15 minute writing sessions (with the help of Write or Die) and loved those for making the word count goal seem less intimidating.

    I’m bowing out of NaNo this year due to wanting to focus on revisions, but honestly I’ve been a bit lost as I try to balance between “letting it steep” for some time so I come back to it fresh and still keeping the writing habit going. 20 minutes on anything and for anything sounds like just the thing.

  27. says

    My first 20 minutes are about the only time I do let myself read the news, check emails, etc. The rest of the day is writing, but I love the concept of writing before you let anything else hit your senses. I may have to try it. Thanks for the idea.

  28. Leslie R. says

    I love this idea so much. It feels like a meditation. I feel like it would be helpful in clearing those blocks I sometimes have when I approach the page, since there’s no expectation of what to write when sitting down – just to write. I always think I need giant blocks of time to get anything done, and giant blocks of time just don’t happen that often (and when they do, I tend to whittle them away because hey, I have 3 hours, it won’t hurt if I check Facebook first). But 20 minutes? That’s totally doable.

  29. Bonita Jones Knott says

    Your mornings sound like mine…just add taking my daughter to her bus and home schooling my son in with the kitchen and the dog. I really like this concept and will start this practice right away. Thank you.

  30. says

    what a wonderful suggestion! What I love most is that writing get priority and that it will often be longer than 20 minutes. Also 600 words per day is a great goal. thanks

  31. says

    The twenty minute window is brilliant, and I have done something similar over the years. Lately, I’ve found that my workouts are an ideal time to hash out ideas An exercise addict, I have to get my workout in before I write or I have a hard time focusing. I used to distract myself with music or televison, but now I often spend this time working on plot ideas. When I sit down to write post-workout, it makes things much easier!

  32. T.R. Edwards says

    I use to grab 20 minutes here and there to work problems out of my old algebra and calculus books to keep my skills up (it’s a nerd thing), a simple, brain dead exercise in which no one ever bothered me. I tried carrying about a notebook for the same quick writing secessions, but thinking Make Believe sometimes takes real thoughts, hard thoughts, and now everyone wants to ask, “What you writing? Ooh can I read it?”

    So, I set up a desk at home just for some quiet time, but heck, it takes me more than 20 minutes a day just to clear the junk off of it.

    Let’s see: laptop, cube-o-postit-notes, dusting rag, cat (go play with the dog), (two?) dictionaries, junk mail, and more junk mail, Walmart adds, little bottle of water to prime my regularly unused fountain pen, half-eaten bag of Oreo’s (oops), electric bill (definitely not junk mail), screwdriver, clipboard, (screwdriver?), checkbook (I’ve been looking for that, now I can pay the electric bill), stack of books, cat again, appointment book, eye drops, book light, staple puller (where’s the stapler?), empty coffee mug (thank God!), no idea what this is, calculus book (old habits), TV control, not a single pencil, dog with the cat again.

    Where is my writing notebook? HAS ANYONE SEEN MY NOTEBOOK? Pandy, was that my notebook you had in the backyard yesterday? Got to run!

    P.S. Found the notebook with the dried out fountain pen (now where did I put the little bottle of water?).

    P.P.S. Man, this thing is literally full of dribble about hard it is to find quality time to write.

    P.P.P.S. Butt in chair, notebook open and wouldn’t you know it, nothing in my head to write about!! Heck, where did I put that calculus book?

    P.P.P.P.S. Maybe 3 in the morning is just a little too early to get up just to write.

  33. says

    I used to do this when I worked full time. I’d roll out of bed and right to the desk. Now I dilly dally. Good reminder about getting to writing before the other stuff (I swear I just folded an afghan on the couch!). A writer friend gave me a timer, which I’ve used before, but I like the idea of using it before I do anything else. Thanks for the tip!

  34. says

    I have tried the half-hour win, and find that I can be more productive if I write for several shorter periods per day than one longer one. It’s easier to tune out distractions if you know it is for a shorter period; making everything else wait doesn’t seem like such a dire thing. And usually I end up with a higher word count for the day, because it’s easier to write 500-600 words in one shorter session (repeated 2-3 times) than 1000 words in one longer session. Still, the 1000 word, longer session is usually my default, because that seems to be a good natural chunk for me. Nevertheless, I may try the shorter sessions as I embark on my newest round of rewriting. I suspect I will get through more pages a day that way.

  35. says

    I love this. I particularly love putting the 20-minute window into play when you have multiple writing projects competing for attention. Many of us write for day jobs, edit for friends, volunteer in writing groups, blog and then, oh yeah, the whole reason we’re here: that short story half written, or novel awaiting revision, or submissions that need to get out if the work will ever be read.

    We’re lucky when a wide window of free time comes available, but even then can feel paralyzed, not knowing which to work on first. It is freeing to promise 20 (or 30) minutes to each piece. Prioritize which to start first (maybe your own work, maybe the thing most easily brought to a finish line), then set a timer and give each project its turn. Bites of progress can help ease the tension of overhanging deadlines or goals, and keep those monkeymind distractions at bay.

    Thanks for sharing your post!