The 15-Minute Workday

This is one “From the Vault”. First Published  November 5, 2003 in the Coach’s Notes Newsletter

This week’s article takes on special significance as we view recent events in both our own and our clients’ businesses and lives. A common theme I hear time and again is “overwhelm” – job, family, life – you name it and it’s getting harder to keep up with it all. I reached for my old copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness (link coming soon) to remind me to stay in the moment, follow my breath and just do what needs to be done for its own sake. This prompted more conversations about the stresses of life and reminiscences of my early days “carrying the bag” as a salesman. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

“How do you eat an elephant?”
“One bite at a time.”

It comes as no surprise to anyone living outside of say, Nepal, that everyone has a lot more to do these days and a lot less time to do it. Hey, I’ll bet they’re pretty busy in Nepal, too.

A few weeks ago, a client came to our session with a get-done list that needed 6 pitch type on legal paper. The whole of what truly needed to happen in her life and business loomed not just over her day but also over her weeks and months. As I listened to her, I was reminded of a strategy devised by a mentor from my early sales career.

Bern was a veteran of the brutal enterprise of door-to-door selling. If you’ve never had to actually knock doors for your daily bread, you might want to see the 2002 movie “Door to Door” starring William H. Macy to get a feel for what this kind of life is like. When it’s hot, you’re hot. When it’s cold, you’re cold. And every day you have to be on those doorsteps, one right after another, whether anyone likes you or not, if you intend to eat.

If you sell, you may have done the exercise of determining what it takes to support your life in terms of daily sales activity: in other words what it takes to “earn your daily nut.” (You can use this spreadsheet for figuring out this number.) If you’ve never done this exercise, I recommend it. Click here to read an earlier article on the subject. (LINK COMING SOON)

So, now you know your number for the year (yikes!), for the month (ouch), for the week (groan), and even for the day (sigh).

Well, compared to the number for the year, the number for the day isn’t quite not so bad. But be honest: it’s still not manageable, is it?

Bern knew that even one day’s number was way too big.

The human brain, in the face of overwhelming odds, switches off, checks out, and stops all activity in the process.

This happens whether the source of the overwhelm is sales calls or any other chunk of work. Enough overwhelm, and you really aren’t there anymore. What he taught me was a way to see the numbers as smaller, to “eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

The method he used is the 15-minute work day. Instead of looking at your day as a monolith of 8 hours, you narrow the focus down to 15-minute segments of activity and function completely within those “right-now’s” of time. The rest of the day doesn’t go away, of course, but it remains bracketed outside your current consideration. It will all get done, just various 15-minutes at a time.

During the 15-minutes at hand, you remain completely focused on what you are doing. Your activity is intentional, intense, and utterly committed. You are present to your task and within your actions. Seeing your time in this way gives you the focus of short jog instead of the burden of a marathon. At the end of each 15 minutes, you start another. And the new right here, right now is all that matters.

The extraordinary result of this reconsideration of time and activity is that, in each of those 15-minute segments, your actions are so intense that their effectiveness tends to escalate, like trying to get a whole urgent message into the fewest words on a telegram! (Update… TWEET)

When you’re all there, you’ll be surprised how little of the elephant turns into leftovers.

Michael Stammer is a Sales | Life | Performance coach available for individual and group coaching and speaking to organizations. For more visit

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