“Come back in 15 minutes.”

When we lived in Mexico, I hated this phrase.

The words weren’t meant to be taken literally. Nothing would change in 15 minutes and everyone knew it.

No, it was a semi-polite brush-off. It really means “Go away. Get out of my face.”

The most frustrating time I was ever on the receiving end of the phrase became a pivotal scene in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. Our heroine, Luz de Maria is standing in line to cash a check—payment for a painting she’s sold–when an obviously wealthy man cuts into line ahead of her. When she expresses her chagrin, the bank teller retaliates by invalidating her check. Luz de Maria is sent off with “Come back in 15 minutes” ringing in her ears.

This actually happened to me in a bank in Mexico City. Not the part about the painting, but all the rest.

15 minute mods

When I was in high school, the day was organized into 15 minute modules or “mods” as we all called it. Three mods for physics class, two for French, and so on. Those of us with a random mod between classes could hang out in the library and watch a certain senior with advanced ventriloquism skills trick Sister Rose into thinking she was being called to the principal’s office over the intercom.

The schedule sounds chaotic but it worked. Years later as a mechanical engineer, my cousin Celine told me that she still thought of time management as maximizing 15 minute increments.

Before there were mods

In THE PIONEERS, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough introduces us to Samuel Hildreth, who set up a medical practice in the frontier town of Marietta, Ohio in 1808. Over his long lifetime, Dr. Hildreth was an accomplished writer, naturalist, artist, historian, politician and anthropologist, all while practicing medicine in a rugged rural environment that he traversed on horseback.

As McCullough records, “Asked how it was that he could do so much and accomplish so much, [Hildreth] said, “I’ve learned to use every one of all the odds and ends of time.”

The mod challenge

I know that I have “odds and ends of time” every day and I bet you do, too. Most of them are at least 15 minutes—one mod—long. Right now that time literally slips through my fingers as I mindlessly scroll social media or check news headlines on my phone.

Sometimes I use a note-taking app to capture ideas, but not often enough. I should use the extra time to edit or even outline a scene.

The challenge to both you and me is to find hidden 15 minute mods during our day and do something that feels like progress during that time. Organize the junk drawer, scribble a snippet of dialogue, make a stress-relieving list, edit two pages, sketch a picture.

You can crush this challenge. Don’t aim to make a masterpiece, but to use an otherwise lost chunk of time to create accomplishment.

If anyone asks what you’re doing just say, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”

The Hidden Light of Mexico City thriller cover

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