The five-minute rule


Dear Artist,

Artist Damien Hirst, describing his spot paintings made by offsite assistants at undisclosed locations, said, “They’re all a mechanical way to avoid the actual guy in a room, myself, with a blank canvas.” For Hirst, it was a way of avoiding the possibility of his own mediocrity.


“Madawaska Valley”
oil painting by
A.J. Casson (1898-1992)

Weekly, an email comes in describing similar avoidance. They usually have an elaborate end-goal in mind, but struggle, for years sometimes, to get into the activity that the goal requires. What’s the matter? The matter is fear, and fear breeds avoidance. At its very best, the commitment of squeezing out a palette of fresh, expensive colours drags along with it a natural anticipation of the inevitable dip in the middle where things are not very beautiful. As an expert in this dip, I’ve approached my own procrastination from all angles in an effort to understand the exact problem and to develop a few workarounds.


“Old Store at Salem” 1980
oil painting by A.J. Casson

The most popular modern antidote to procrastination is what cognitive behavioural therapists call “The Five-Minute Rule.” Based on Newton’s First Law of Motion, it works on the premise that things in motion stay in motion and things at rest stay at rest. You really only need to get moving to start coasting in your new activity. Make it count in the direction of creativity by making your five-minute burst art-related. Let it morph into an indulgent chunk of in-the-zone soul-polishing productivity.

Now that you’re on the dance floor, understand that the path to proficiency is long — it rambles over dunes of ugliness, stumbles among boulder-sized re-dos, and falls into perfectionist back-eddies. The pain of doing it poorly is part of the activity of learning. The elation of doing it well is the hard-won result of beginning this activity in the first place. Begin now. “If you wait,” said Mario Andretti, “all that happens is that you get older.”


“Rain, Mist and Sun”
oil painting by A.J. Casson



PS: “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.” (W. H. Auden)

Esoterica: Procrastination, like every other habit, can be cultivated or broken. Notice when it’s happening and change the channel. Get up and make a mark on the page. “The shortest answer,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “is doing the thing.” If the thing feels too big, break it into micro-things. The time is now for you to go after your greatness — a greatness that will take your life to achieve. “We don’t just put off our lives today,” wrote Steven Pressfield, “we put them off till our deathbed.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Promises are like crying babies in a theater, they should be carried out at once.” (Norman Vincent Peale)



  1. These letters constitute the most valuable email that I ever retrieve from my inbox and save for future perusal. Each day is fascinating in its own right; today you spoke directly to me…Not for the first time.
    I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as a painter, I could see no other path. ..And I followed it happily. These days I secretly identify as an artist – and only to myself, because for whatever reason, I stopped painting. I didn’t stop loving it, or learning. And thoughts of composing, colors and mood occupy my mind.

    Whether I put down my tools because of; depression, distraction, no space and/ or anxiety – days turned into years! I am the ‘poster child’ for Mario Andretti’s wisdom; “If you wait, all that happens is that you get older.”

    It is past time to put what makes me happy above the daily grind. I hope everyone reading this has place to work, and already knows – time to work is priority #1 Thank you so much for all that you do!

    • Louanne Headrick on

      Dear Newscat, Recently I ended a 10 year hiatus by painting a full sheet watercolor. I could not have been more amazed to see the paints flow and the technique to achieve the desired result right there at my finger tips. It was as if no time interval had passed. Such joy, such gladness of heart. Go for it asap!

    • I made my life-choice 7 years ago – I let go of everything I “had to do”, which had kept me busy for decades, and decided that henceforth I would only do what I deeply desired – a simple life filled with painting. Life is too short … In the interim I cannot tell you how many times, over innumerable moments of self-doubt, I wished I’d given myself more years to practice. Yet … those earlier years were not wasted – like a steam engine, they allowed the pressure of passion to build, and I learned a lot about what I didn’t want. For too long the last voice I would listen to was my own.

  2. A wonderful letter and like newscat it spoke to me directly. I echo everything she said and am so grateful for your sharing and your reader’s insights.

  3. Lynneweso

    Oh boy, Sara, you hit me on the nose. For whole life, not just my art. Thanks for a kick in the pants. ‘….we shall not pass this way again’.

    Always come away with significance from you.


  4. This terrific letter could stand as a memorial to my high school art teacher of the late 1940s. Miss Flora Wright of Southwest High School in Kansas City, Missouri would often say to those just sitting trying to be inspired, “GET MOVING”. Bless her memory. Nearly seven decades later it still works.

  5. At lunch with friends from High school days, one of the women talked about her biggest dilemma was what to do with all the paintings her mother had left when she died. No one wanted any of them.

    That incident has left with a very different perspective of painting. What happens to them? It has made it MUCH easier for me to NOT work and feel GOOD about it!

    • Karen Mader on

      But the act or process is what is the most enjoyable and does it matter what happens to anything after you die. Do what feels good.

  6. Earlier this week I started a painting with enthusiasm…an interesting motif…an inspired vision of the hoped for outcome. And yes, it dipped into ugliness. It’s watercolor…, only so much “fixin'” could be done. I finally brought it to completion, less than satisfying. For a day and a half I’ve been procrastinating, fearing making a mark, avoiding the hope necessary to start anew… There’s some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one that faces such challenges. Unfortunately it seems a recurring theme with creatives.

    At first its the challenge of gaining the knowledge and skills to make the mark and now its the challenge to make the marks mean something or accomplish a vision. Fortunately, most of the time I rush forward with wondrous, reckless abandon…

  7. Darrell Tomkins on

    Your best letter yet, Sara. And I had no idea of the range of A. J. Casson’s work. I will print this letter out for inspiration when I find myself in the dip again. Thank you.

    • I agree, “your best letter yet, Sara”. Much akin to the motivational letters your dad wrote and which continue to inspire me. Never have I missed a person I didn’t know personally so much as your dad.

  8. Procrastination is a deadly habit, if you don’t eradicate it from your mental routine it outgrows like weeds in the fields where nothing useful can grow… i have undergone the same, it was really difficult to come off it, partly successful, sometimes even today i fall prey to it…
    i often question myself is it a negligence of right perception of time? is it a habit cultivated during childhood and not corrected on time? is it not understanding priorities in true perspective? is it mental laziness?
    I have lost opportunities, i have suffered the depression of not utilizing my potential at its best, i have suffered the dissatisfaction of not having control on my lazy mindset … so i feel “get started ” is the only mantra , the sole strategy to come off this deadly habit..

    • Interesting to discover this — Years ago, about 10, I decided to visit the studio every day “to push materials around for 5 minutes” Being a sculptor, it was my way of playing. Five minutes becomes 10 and 10 sometimes an hour or more. — I always felt better for the activity. When the week end rolled around I was in motion with 2.5 to 5 hours of work under my belt. I never started cold when I had a longer expanse of time. — Stopping and starting is an amateur idea of art making.

  9. As it happens, Sara, I was procrastinating by reading your newsletter, with my back to the painting I just can’t seem to finish. Mind you I was facing my desk piled with notes for the novel that’s been in progress for awhile. Your message was the friendly hand on my shoulder, a whispered message to just do it or end up as Elizabeth Gilbert’s greatest fear, the person saying, ‘I always wanted to be a writer (or artist) but never got around to it.'”

    Thank you for making me see it IS fear that stops the hand from typing that novel or picking up the brush.

    Your newsletters are always rich in thought and inspiration. I’m so glad I found you.

    Thank you!!!!!


  10. Marguerita Bailey on

    Hi , I was so pleased to read the Five minute rule as I have just embarked on a ten minute rule to galvanise myself into action. I have restricted my work to paintings of birds and am really pleased with the results. My work is much looser and more natural. Regards,Marguerita Bailey

  11. May not be completely fair to poke at Damien Hirst since we can’t be sure if fear was a problem for him. He’s more of a designer/manufacturer anyway…more of an Andy Warhol type, only without actually touching anything. Apples and oranges. But you are right on, of course, for those of us who have to push and pull, staple, paint, and clean our own brushes. It can be difficult to understand the interest in a painting done by some poor, suffering, artist struggling in isolation and anonymity working away day after day on some idea that belongs to another person…wait…that could be me? I hope not!

    Thanks for your beautiful thoughts, Sara!

  12. Thank you Sara! I have missed your dad’s emails, so much wisdom!!! In the late 70’s or very early 80’s I had the wonderful privilege to meet your dad in Kamloops, B.C. where he spoke about his work.
    Have not pursued the 5 minute rule yet, but will should the need arise. Before entering my studio I put on boots or closed shoes. This simple thing keeps me motivated and painting. Slippers or shoeless I’m finished in no time with nothing to show. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts Sara!

  13. AJ had a great group of Canadian painters to work with and for a goal- to paint Canada. All new stuff. He figured out how he could add to the goal the group sought out. That Group did the best work of any from this hemisphere. All seemed to have different approaches, not all hiked the mountains with big backpacks. I am new to their work having seen a exhibit during a visit to Canada a decade or so ago. How we spend our time is only ours to know. Looking is a very important skill not to be slighted. Thanks, Sara

  14. Sara, I loved your father’s letters and made his book last a long time to avoid finishing it. I even got to talk to him on the phone once. But I have to say, I love hearing from you even more. Thank you!

  15. Thanks for this post, procrastination is my nemesis. I have so many demands on my time, but don’t we all? Finding time between aging husband, aging house, toddler watch, and everything that keeps a household running, I sometimes feel that time in the studio is secondary, maybe tertiary. As if I need to be doing something else.
    I am lucky that my gallerist wants more and is patient. But the clock is ticking and I need to “get on with it”!

  16. Thank you Sara:
    I have always valued your father’s words, and now I look forward to yours.
    My time to pant is limited as I am helping my daughter and her family as she goes through cancer treatment. My home is in Austin but I am living in California. My studio is a small desk in my bedroom. I am space challenged as I like to paint big but have stacks of small paintings that bring me a small dose of peace at the end of the day. I post every day on instagram as I want to stay connected with my fellow artists. Your inspiring words surely help me. Thank you.

  17. Dan Clement on

    Thank you, Sara. I was thinking of this tendency in my life just today. It was just what I needed to hear.

  18. Gwen Meyer Ethelbah on

    Wonderful letter, Sara. I, too, had a real bout with procrastination…assisted by taking off for three years to go to seminary, then finding when I returned I was building two professions. And painting sat waiting for me to get back to it.
    We have to realize we are ALL talented, and our main job is to unload all the things that are in the way.

  19. Penny Fedorchak on

    Thank you Sara for your 5 minute rule. I excel at procrastination, and you hit the nail on the head. There are so many reasons not to find time to paint, but my guilt was eating at me. Yes, the years rush by and suddenly I have realized that I had better get to it if I am to have any hope of achieving success. The house is dusty, weeds abound, the paint called me, and the paint won. It feels good to just play with washes, push paint around without worrying about having a finished painting. This is my warm-up time, it feels good and I am done with procrastinating when it comes to painting. This old granny thanks you for giving me a shove in the right direction.

  20. My rule is not to let a day go by that I don’t paint or sketch. There’s another rule that’s more difficult. No empty easel.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

Brushes of Barriere with Marilyn Timms — Barriere BC, Canada
July 7, 2018 to July 8, 2018


Brushes of Barriere recently announced they will be hosting an acrylic painting workshop with well-known B.C. artist Marilyn Timms on July 7 and 8, 2018, at the North Thompson Agriplex.

Timms is a highly respected artist and has been facilitating popular painting workshops for many years.

Brushes of Barriere has room for 14 participants with “any level of painting experience.”
Accommodation available at the Fair Grounds for a number of RV’s.


Cost is $180 for the two-day event. Deadline to book a spot is June 15, 2018. For more information or to reserve a spot contact Bob Bambrick at: 250-672-9541 or email: Moment
oil on canvas
54 x 40 cm

Featured Artist

I am a painter. I am delighted to be a painter.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.