| Life Lab |

Five-Minute Magic

Can a 5-minute hack change your life? What about 8 of them?



Don’t know about you, but for me the expression induces eye rolls. Yes, I love the idea of improving my life in different ways, but the self-help concept has gotten so smug and fluffy that the cynic in me roars anytime I hear a chipper voice telling me how something is going to change my life.

Common in the self-help world are five-minute hacks. That is, if I do something for five minutes a day consistently, areas of my life will be transformed. Not one to back away from something ridiculous, especially for the noble benefit of the klal, I took upon myself to do eight things, for five minutes a day, for two weeks, and see if they made any difference whatsoever.

I tried to vary the tasks and to improve multiple aspects of my life, and and to prevent getting bored (or boring you), I took upon myself the following eight things:

1) Tidy or clean for five focused minutes

2) Exercise

3) Keep a gratitude journal

4) Prepare my kids’ clothing for the next day

5) Call someone

6) Learn a new language

7) Read a self-help book

8) Meditate

The Results

1) Tidying up

The pride of a Jewish mother’s home is not her children, but her gleaming countertops. I know you disagree with me, but I also know you’d faster gripe at your kids for getting your floor dirty than at the floor for being so hard and oftentimes hurting them.

My father had a sign in the darkroom of his printing press: “Cleaning the house while the kids are growing is like shoveling while it’s still snowing.” That’s true enough, and I’ve often had conversations with my friends as to whether it’s worth mopping the floor at all, especially in the summer.

I’m usually on the side of moderation — do it, just don’t drive yourself crazy. And, as I’ve confessed, I’m a surface cleaner; deep cleans are just not worth it with kids around, so why cause myself more stress and anxiety than I already have?

The down-to-the-bones washing dishes, sweeping crumbs, Windexing counter tops, folding laundry, sorting through the inevitable paper pileup all happen after the kids are in la-la land. So my home is gloriously neat for about ten hours, which sounds like a lot, but I’m sleeping for about seven of them.

I started strong, at least that much. I marched to my back room and sorted through papers, realizing I could throw out most of them. The next night I reorganized all my plastic containers, sorting out the ones that were getting warped. Huzzah.

Next night I sifted through my kids’ books, throwing out the ones that were missing covers and pages, and the ones I refused to read again. I vacuumed the dining room and living room the next night (yes, I have carpet in my dining room, yes, it’s awful), all the while keeping to my usual dish-washing, counter-wiping, sweeping, put-everything-back-in-its-place routine.

The next night I had a lot of pots and dishes, and I didn’t feel like doing any extras, so I counted my usual routine as my five-minute cleanup… and did the same for the rest of the two-week period, rationalizing that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing in the allotted time.

The five-minute time frame did help, though. I’d usually look at the nighttime cleanup and think, like many a woman “not again.” But it really doesn’t take that long. Washing dishes takes about five minutes, wiping down countertops another two, putting stuff where it belongs, another five… the whole routine was actually ten minutes. I could survive.

So no, I’m not getting more done, and yes, my baseboards could use a little scrubbing, but I’m not as grumbly about keeping house as I used to be.

Verdict: Weak, though it did change my perspective. Cleaning up is over-viciously maligned.

2) Exercise

I used to be known as the walking girl in camp. As a staff member I’d rise with the campers (staff Shacharis was later) and go walking with my Discman around the campgrounds — come rain or shine. I was the girl that did 100 crunches before she went to sleep.

Then I got married, life happened — and things were busy. Walking went out the door, so did most of the crunches — I was down to 50 a night. I’d go through phases like most women where I’d go walking for three days in a row, or do some Pilates workout with a DVD, and there was a time I danced like a madwoman in my kitchen for ten minutes every night working up a sweat.

But the problem with working out is manifold. Who has time to go to the gym? Or, if you work out at home, who has time to change clothes, then shower, then change back? It’s never a good time, so it never gets done.

I figured that a mix of stretches, squats, crunches, and the like for five minutes a day would do me a lot of good.

But I’d forgotten that exercise is boring. Especially just using weights. (I had three-pound weights from my old days.) I set a timer on my phone for five minutes, put on a podcast, and started stretching, counting reps in my head. It was boring. I checked my phone multiple times to see how much time was left. I stopped the moment the alarm rang. But it was just five minutes, I could do five minutes.

Yes, I know I should have chosen a better exercise — more engaging, stimulating, and there are great apps for five-minute workouts, yada-yada — but I didn’t want to change clothes, put on sneakers, or have to shower after, I just wanted some more movement, and I got that. I could suffer through boredom, I’m mature enough.

It worked for the most part. There were two nights that I went to bed and realized I hadn’t done my exercise, so as I lay in bed, I bent and raised my arms, then did faux leg raises under the blanket. That counts, right?

However, as soon as the two weeks were up, there went my exercise regimen. I hope to reclaim my inner workout fanatic one day, but for now, schlepping laundry baskets will have to suffice.

Verdict: Fail

3) Keep a gratitude journal

My guru Brené Brown glows about the magic of gratitude. How it’s an antidote to “foreboding joy” (which I am way too guilty of).

Brown describes foreboding joy as the experience of peeking in at your sleeping baby, being totally overcome with love for your child, and your next thought is, something horrific is going to happen. We can’t lean into the pure joy and purity of the moment, we “dress rehearse” tragedy to make ourselves feel less vulnerable.

The antidote to this is gratitude. Instead of ruminating about car crashes and diseases, take a step back and be grateful to Hashem and acknowledge all He has given you. It sounds cheesy, but science says it works, so for five minutes a day, I was going to write in a gratitude journal, acknowledging the big and little things I was grateful for in my life.

This was an easy one. I quickly found myself looking around for things to jot down and made a lot of mental notes to “write this later.”

It was a nice way to look at the world. I’m so cynical, and jaded, and busy with life that noticing the things I love about my life was challenging. I flipped through the stuff I wrote in my gratitude journal. Turns out I love my kids a lot. And they’re really cute and say funny things, and hug me randomly and purr “I love you Mommy” into my waist (the highest place my little one can reach). My husband is awesome too.

A shout-out to my Doda Leah, who was mentioned three times in one week for the leftovers she sent us home with after we spent Shabbos at her home. I didn’t have to make supper for three nights. Bless her. I’m grateful for the creativity Hashem has given me, and grateful for the times things aren’t as annoying as I expect them to be, or simply grateful that some things are over.

Oh, and apparently I’m very grateful for food — whether it’s the new bakery that opened, the chocolate left over from last week, a succulent batch of grapefruits I bought and relished, or even the fact that the kids didn’t eat all the bananas and I had one for my yogurt. I like my food. Thank you, Hashem, for making it taste so good.

Verdict: I should continue keeping this journal, it makes me more wholesome and less jaded — which makes for boring writing, but a happier person

4) Preparing my kids’ clothing the night before

At the time I was doing these five-minute experiments, I was also experiencing an uptick in grading and other writing obligations, and other “stuff”: this meant that something had to give — that something was folding laundry. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened. You know how it is (and if you don’t, then I don’t associate with people like you).

Taking the five minutes to prep my kids’ clothing for the next day, instead of having them fish though the laundry basket, and then have me do it, because inevitably they couldn’t find something (usually a particular sock), this was a stitch in time saved nine, and my mornings were blessedly smooth in that respect. (Having one particular son actually get dressed in time is another story).

Verdict: While I’m currently back to folding laundry (I’m a fan of the file fold) the times that it doesn’t happen, I’ll be sure to prep their clothes the night before. Score one for functional dysfunction!

5) Call someone

I don’t do phones. I’ve had an aversion to them as long as I can remember, I’m just not comfortable. Face to face is best, I’ll text you… but calling? Nah. I’m also the worst multitasker, so if I’m talking on the phone, I’m not doing anything else.

But even an introvert like me recognizes the need for human connection, and I rarely see my friends, texts are surface-deep and lack nuance — so I needed to brave the phone and make the connection.

I told my friend Hindy and my mother about it. Both were excited at the prospect of getting a daily phone call from me (though it would only be one of them a day, because there was no way I was making two calls). In the end I called Hindy once, and my mother all the other nights. (Sorry, Hindy, mothers trump friends.)

Sometimes, if it was late and I hadn’t called yet, my mother would text me, kindly reminding me of the five minutes she was expecting from me. Our conversations were prosaic, but the building blocks of a relationship — traffic, shopping lists, kids’ antics, upcoming appointments.

I know, I know, many of you are mentally yelling at me, What kind of daughter are you that you need a project to call your mother? Blame group chats and texting, which make me feel connected to my mother even if I don’t hear her voice. Blame it on my introversion, blame it on too many papers to grade, or maybe I am as awful as you think.

Verdict: I still don’t call my mother every day, but I definitely call more frequently than before. Yes, I know she’d be happier if I called every day. I should be a better daughter. I’m not — yet.

6) Learn a new language

I got an 88 on my Hebrew Regent exam in high school. That doesn’t sound so bad to a non–New Yorker. But for anyone who’s taken the Hebrew Regent, you know most people score in the high 90s without studying.

Languages are not my thing, but I want them to be. I think there’s so much value in being able to converse in another language. There are different concepts that get lost in translation, and having more ways to express oneself is appealing to a writer.

There’s also the vanity of sounding smart, as well as a need for a new secret language to converse in with my husband — my oldest is picking up on my smattering of Yiddish. I chose to study Spanish, it seemed the most practical language; I might actually use a word or two of in my life.

I wasn’t sure how I’d go about it, but a quick Google search of “Learn Spanish” brought me to DuoLingo.com. It’s a free website that teaches many languages in simple categories — basic, food, travel, phrases, family, shopping etc. It was engaging and easy enough, and I often spent more than the allotted five minutes on it daily. It felt great to complete a level without error.

My kids enjoyed it too, and loved practicing with me. Their favorite sentence for some reason is “Yo necesito agua, por favor [I need water, please].”

Verdict: Hopeful. I’m not going to be bilingual any day soon, but I’m not as scared of climbing the mountain. On Chol Hamoed Pesach, I took my kids to Sunset Park on Fifth Avenue. Most people there spoke Spanish or Chinese, English was the odd language out. My six-year-old son went over to a man in a tank top, shorts, and sunglasses, told him something, and the two of them slapped high fives.

“What did you tell him?” I asked my son.

“I told him I know Spanish.”

I laughed — as if. But he’s curious, and my kids still love the exercises, though I participate less frequently. But if they can communicate better with the world around them while having fun — kol hakavod to them. In the meantime, “Yo necesito agua.” Be right back.

7) Read a self-help book

I’m picky about my self-help. Most books and speakers have me sniggering. I like something more intellectual and logic-based — keep your emotions for cooing at my kids. I was gifted a Jewish self-help book years ago, but never read it, though it had an intriguing title.

I figured reading five minutes a night would be beneficial. I read it for the first week, and by the end of it was reading sections out loud in a squeaky voice to my husband… so, good idea, bad book? Don’t know. Try it and let me know how it works out for you.

Verdict: Maybe I need to try a different book. This one was a snigger trigger for me. I’m willing to try it again, got any recommendations?

8) Meditate

I’ve always been curious about mediation. Clearing the mind to access the mind, being in a state of mindfulness, blah-blah-blah, but like most things in life… who has time to literally sit and do nothing? I know few if any people with that luxury.

But now that person would be me, for five minutes a day. I found an app — 10% happier — that has different meditation practices, different levels, and best of all, a free trial.

I had to meditate before my kids came home — there was no way they were going to give me five minutes of uninterrupted silence. I also couldn’t do it after they were in bed — I’d just fall asleep. So I snatched time after I picked up my youngest and set him up with his older brother’s Lego (sshhh, don’t tell). I was off to meditate.

The app had short explanations before each session explaining different aspects of meditation, what to do when your mind is distracted and you can’t get a stray thought — an upcoming appointment, or a comment someone made — out of your head. I found those quite helpful, both in the practical meditation as well as in applying the concepts to my life at large.

The person leading the meditation has an incredibly soothing and comforting voice, with just the right amount of pauses and inflections. I opened my eyes after the first session and wished I had more time. It was so relaxing and restorative, like a good massage and nap combined — and it was just five minutes.

For the next two weeks I was very strict about meditating; it always got done first. Unfortunately, I dropped it as soon as the two weeks were up — my trial expired, and when I didn’t have to find the time, I couldn’t find the time. Sad, I know.

Verdict: I need to do this again, but make it a priority.

So what’s the takeaway? What’s worth it, what’s not? Gratitude journal, prepping my kids’ clothing, and meditation make the list; tidying up helped my perspective; I’ve got to give languages and exercise another chance. And self-help — I hope the concept still has self-esteem after I’ve finished laughing at it.

My best takeaway was the knowledge that I have time for five-minute routines — I have more time than I think I do. And there’s nothing as satisfying as crossing something off a list.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 653)

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Tagged: Life Lab