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One hour at a time



Mai Le


“I don’t have enough time”, said I to the Señor when he asked why I didn’t exercise daily.

“Everyday I work until really late, average out 12-14 hours a day. Subtracting sleep time, I only have about 3 hours for myself every day”. I continued. “There are many things I wish to do with those three hours. I want to write, read and also spare some time to take care of myself.”

“What you said just implied that it is possible”, said he. “Spare one hour each then. One hour to write, one hour to read and one hour to take care of yourself. And when you take care of yourself, exercise.”

The Señor is a health maniac, so is Miss Genius, while I have never much been a fan of the gym and exercising in general.  I pretty much believe that the health of mind is the health of life, and always prioritise other goals before physical fitness. Having been butchered by Miss Genius for years on this matter, I finally dragged myself to the gym more frequently lately.

Being a gym beginner, I find it hard to complete fitness goals. (And if you have any other tips for me re: gymming, please do kindly leave a comment!) Overwhelmed by many options at the gym and not sure where to start, coupled with my low level of resilience, I invented a system call the 5-minute-rule to motivate myself. Breaking the session into several 5-minute chunks, I do 5 minutes of each exercise then switch to a new one. Whether I am on the rowing machine or treadmills or weights, as my body was about to give up, the thought of “Only 1 minutes to go” or “Only 30 seconds to go” makes it easier for me to give it an extra push and complete it to the 5-minute mark. After all, 1 minute or 30 second goes by like a blink of an eye. The next thing I know, I was pushing for more and more of myself for every 5-minute session.

The 5-minute rule works for me on the basis that decomposition of bigger goals into smaller tasks made it easier for me to feel a stronger sense of progress. Breaking it down into defined timeframe creates a positive feedback loop that is easier for me to feel potential rewards and measure the progress. I start to apply similar principles to other goals in my life – but instead of using 5-minute time frame I make it to 1-hour mark, coupled with a 15-minute break in between. This application was inspired by the fact that The Señor mentioned earlier I should break it down to 1 hour each on each task.

Having a large number of books to read? One hour of reading every day.
Having a big writing project? One hour of writing every day.
Having a distanced fitness goal? One hour of exercising every day.

Before I know it, this consistency allows me to write for 20-30 hours, or to read and exercise for just as long. If I were to ask myself in the first place to write, read or exercise for 30 hours each, I’d surely be overwhelmed. However, as I ask myself to do 1 hour each every day, it is a much more reasonable ask.

I have read about task decomposition in project management theory before, but I have not understood its power until I apply these 5-minute systems or the one-hour rule to my life. Once I understood this principle, I start to see it everywhere. For example, decomposition is also a process in programming (aka factoring), where profoundly complex problems are broken down into well-defined steps. When such problem can be deconstructed, it makes it easier to understand, tackle and then maintain the code.

So next time when you face something that may overwhelm you, proceed it one hour at a time. Define the tasks and work on it for one hour every day, you’d soon find the magic of incremental progress. 

P.S. In case you haven’t noticed from this essay, The Monsieur and I have parted way on mutual grounds. Despite such separation, I hold much respects for him as he does for me and our partnership ideology remains true. In this chapter, I have welcomed a new character in my life, The Señor. 

Illustration by my friend Karl –

I am active on Quora – Please follow me on Quora at https://www.quora.com/profile/Le-Quynh-Mai  for more writing. 

Written by Mai Le

My name is Mai. I am originally from Vietnam. After my university years at LSE, I worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. After a wonderful time there, I started several of my own business as well as helping others on theirs. I've always been building communities and businesses for as long as I can remember, and absolutely thrilled to see others enjoy what I've built.



  1. Avid reader

    Thanks for the much needed advice. This surely resolves issue at micro level. How I had been sorting out projects and possibilties had been so far established at macro level. Btw for how long do you sleep on avg? Regards,
    An avid reader.

    • Mai Le

      I usually sleep for 5-7 hours on average, which is rather unhealthy (and it does affect brain performance a lot). One of my recent goals has been trying to get myself to sleep for consistently 8 hours everyday.

  2. ben

    One way to motivate yourself to exercise regularly would be to sign up for a 10k run or even a half marathon and tell people about it. Then you know that you have to prepare for the run and you will do your training even if you don’t feel like it, since you don’t want to embarrass yourself.
    Or keep track at every workout of what you have done and then challenge yourself to do a little bit more next time.
    But apart from using pressure and challenge you should also try to simply enjoy it. This will be hard in the first one or two months of training, but once you have some routine you will see it as a great way to get a clear head after all the work and other projects you do.

  3. suboo

    Decomposition is great!

    In a software team, we’re required to develop new software components which add capabilities to our system.

    We would start by defining the low level requirements of the component, and then we’ll draft, review and refine a design (sequence diagrams mostly) which we believe would satisfy those requirements.

    Taking the time to decompose the problem from a high level of abstraction, to the point where you can visualise the lower level components, makes the implementation stage a lot easier afterwards.


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