Productivity and the Power of 15 Minutes


What happens to productivity under the constant barrage of change that is nomadic life? How do you keep working when everyone around you is wearing a swimsuit, when your arms are tired from carrying children and suitcases, when you can never quite get all the sand out of your hair, when your flight is delayed and your baby is crying and you’re homesick and lonely and it would really be easier to take a day off?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my favorite teacher, who was also my cross-country and track coach. Robert Isitt is one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met, but that’s not what comes to mind first when you think about Bob Isitt. You think about how funny he is, how he bounces around on the balls of his feet and hums with energy, how he effortlessly coins proverbs that any of the hundreds of runners he’s coached over the years could recite without a second thought. As an AP History teacher Isitt was challenging and charismatic. As a community fixture, he’s a natural leader. You can find plenty of articles about his larger than life presence in Spokane.

Like all natural leaders, Isitt has an uncanny ability to get results out of his students and runners. When I try to explain this ability in terms of what Bob Isitt is doing when he’s coaching you, it becomes obvious that self-discipline is only a by-product of his philosophy, which is ultimately rooted in faith: faith in a person’s fundamental ability, faith in the power of sustained effort despite setbacks, indecision, and tumult. I’ve had to fall back on that faith often in recent weeks.

I haven’t been feeling well. Last week I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. It was the second week after we arrived on the island of Kho Phangan, a beautiful but insanely hot and humid place. The headache came on every night when the sun went down, and sent me to bed early with nausea and percussive pain with every beam of light or vibration of noise.

I was drinking as much water as I could. Since I quit drinking alcohol and smoking, headaches have become a worrisome aberrance rather than a daily companion. After a few days of torture, the headaches went away as suddenly as they started. Yesterday my stomach started in. It’s not the queasy stirring that comes with food sickness but a hard clenching knot that makes it hard to sit in a chair.

Add to all this a constant weakness and a dizzy, unbearable lightness of brain, and any self-discipline I’ve built up seems to be irrelevant. I’m not pregnant, Grandma. It’s just really HOT here. In this stifling heat and the difficulty of getting enough protein in Thailand, my brain is not functioning.

When it becomes useless to demand more of yourself than your body allows, I find that Robert Isitt’s version of faith sustains me not only mentally but practically. My productivity is suffering but limping along, keeping momentum alive fifteen minutes at a time.

Robert Isitt School of Running, Chapter 3, Sickness and Perseverance:  Run six days of seven, no matter what. Six days to ensure progress and momentum, one day to rest and rebuild muscle. “If you’re sick,” he said, “Run for 15 minutes. If you still feel sick, stop.” If you’re out of shape the rule is the same. Start with a 15-minute run. Any healthy person can run for at least 15 minutes without stopping. If you’re as out of shape as I was when my mom forced me to do a sport, it will be extremely painful and you may have to run very slowly. But it’s a FACT and not a question that you are always capable of 15 minutes.

I will never forget the absolute torture of those first 15 minutes of my first day as a runner. Afterwards I couldn’t stand up straight. My lungs burnt holes through my tee shirt and my teeth ached. The next day Isitt assigned me the same 15 minutes, another quarter hour of hell. At the end of five days of this, the pain became merely unbearable, no longer life-threatening. I discovered rather quickly that I had no talent as a runner, and also that this was irrelevant. As a product of the one-size-fits-all-public-schooling system, it was hard to escape the mindset that things should come easily. Straight A’s were a breeze, so I tend to procrastinate when real life turns out to be harder. Luckily, running was never easy for me. When nomadic life gets chaotic and hard, I fall back on that 15 minute minimum.

Applied daily, this strategy maintains momentum by preventing discouragement. I never have to start from scratch, and if I’m sick I never have to beat myself up.

Of course, I rarely end up stopping after 15 minutes even when I’m sick, which is what Bob Isitt intended.

On a cloudless day in the woods, our team of thirty odd boys and girls sat on the ground stretching while Isitt, known affectionately to some as the Ice Man, paced in the center of the ring. He moved from person to person, assigning running times. It was six weeks after my first day. I’d just managed to survive 30 minutes, and was afraid that Isitt would soon give me 40.  He would point at you, fingers quivering and head tilted in thought while your life hung in the balance. I never completely got over the fear of those double-jointed fingers. Because whatever time he gave you, you had to run it.  Ovid wrote about Isitt in Metamorphoses: “The gods were moved; but none can break Robert Isitt’s iron decrees.” Okay, Ovid was talking about the sister Fates, but in high school there was no difference. Isitt knew you would do it. Whether it was 70 minutes for the gifted Nelson siblings or 40 minutes for me, it was always a challenge and we always did it.

Robert Isitt School of Running, Chapter 5, Idiocy: Only idiots run in midday heat and risk heat stroke. It’s above 85 degrees at six in the morning on Kho Phangan and sadly, I am not running. I know Mr. Isitt would find a way to run. Running is a part of him the way writing is a part of me. I am still writing, despite the headaches and stomachaches and dizziness. Every day, no matter how sick I feel, I open the laptop and pledge 15 minutes. Writing muscles stretched, positive outlook bolstered, momentum maintained.

In Chiang Mai I had a routine. I took Spencer to a play place every day. I worked at the desk in our apartment when he went down for a nap, and again after he went to bed. That routine doesn’t work here. There is no play place on Kho Phangan. Instead, we had to spend two weeks looking for an alternative solution, which turned out to be a morning daycare. There’s also no desk at our house, and it’s too hot to work inside. Instead, we finally found a cafe where we can both get work done. We can still work at night too, so we kept that part of the routine.

Nomads have to create new routines at every destination.  When no routine is constant, the routine of searching for a routine sustains us, the faith in the search, is our 15 minute pledge. I wish I could tell you that as frequent travelers we’ve overcome the chaos, but the first two weeks in a new location are chaos no matter what we do. In terms of travel, our 15 minute rule is 3 weeks. We have never failed to find a routine after three weeks, and thus we keep the faith and stick it out for the initial push.

This focus on time rather than deliverables has been an important tool for thinking about a meaningful career as a constant work in progress rather than a series of discrete achievements. When you finish a project that took a lot of time and hard work, how long does the feeling of achievement last? I find that we get over our achievements fairly quickly and produce more if we focus instead on the time we put into the work every day. Promotions, rewards, and other big milestones are only proxies for the real achievement, which is the process of work, the search for meaning, the thrill of doing.

We are most fulfilled when we’re being challenged, not when we’ve “won” the quote unquote game.

Some projects are big and daunting while others can be knocked out in a few minutes. Starting from the concept of 15 minutes and steadily increasing the amount of time dedicated to work ensures both that I’m not overwhelmed by complex projects, and that I don’t give myself too much slack on simple ones. It helps me avoid the dangerous magical thinking of fantasizing about fame and fortune, because when the goal is the time you dedicate every day, you can’t let yourself off the hook even if you do hit it big time in your career. You have to keep going.

If you’re as lucky as I am, many people  have had faith in you over the years and you have internalized that faith. No matter how out of shape you are, no matter how sick or discouraged, you know you can do the work that’s most important to you for at least 15 minutes. Day after day, week after week, year after year.

Do your 15 minutes and watch for Bob Isitt’s magical fingers, poised and ready to give you the next challenge, to move you forward.


  • Tanya Libby says:

    What a beautiful piece, Sarah! Reading about the stretch circle, I could picture that finger and head tilt and feel the nerves in my stomach like it was yesterday! You perfectly captured my favorite teacher and reminded me of yet another way [I’ve been thinking about him lately too] Mr. Isitt had a positive impact on my life: self-discipline. I can remember your first 15 minutes! I am glad you stuck it out; Cross Country would not have been the same without your wit, positive attitude and friendship. Looking forward to reading more of your blog and maybe catching up in person sometime…I’d love to make it back to Thailand soon. 🙂

  • Andrew Scott says:

    Great post, Sarah! I completely agree that pushing yourself a little bit everyday (even when you don’t want to), is the only way to achieve your goals. Another technique I’ve used to help jumpstart my productivity is to make my bed first thing in the morning, no matter the location. This small act, which often takes less than 30 seconds, helps me to find some semblance of “the ordinary” if the most disjointed circumstances.

  • You remind me of a Tim Ferriss podcast, when he talked about using morning routines to minimize the number of decisions he had to make during the day. When you have a routine like that, one that’s always followed by your work day, I can imagine how much easier it is for the switch to flip in your head—well, the bed’s made, must mean it’s time to get down to business, without even doing much thinking about it. Thanks for sharing Andrew. 🙂

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