small chunks of time Writing for a few minutes at Kaldi’s Coffee in Clayton, Mo

I’ve written about time management a lot recently, and I see two complementary approaches.

  1. Maximizing the amount of time under our control
  2. Using that time wisely and deliberately

We’ve covered #2 a lot recently, but today, let’s discuss a strategy related to #1: using small chunks of time between commitments.

Maybe you’ve got 9 minutes before it’s time to leave for your haircut, or 16 minutes before your flight boards, or 4 minutes before the meeting starts. These amounts of time seem insignificant, but like spare change thrown into a dresser drawer, they add up quickly. If you harness this time, you can get your work done faster, lower your stress levels, and improve your ability to focus.

Here are three ways to start using small chunks of time effectively.

Stop saying “X minutes isn’t enough time to get anything done.”

I’ve noticed something about myself. Maybe you’ve noticed it in yourself, too.

When I’m in a productivity rut, I tend to have thoughts like “Hmm, only 42 minutes until my next meeting. That’s not really enough time to get anything done. Better check Google News in case something bad happened somewhere and I don’t know about it yet.”

When I’m on a productivity hot streak, I tend to have thoughts like “All right, 7 minutes until my next meeting! That’s enough time to get some real work done. Sweet!”

If left unchecked, our “not-enough-time-to-get-anything-done” number grows and grows. In myself, I’ve seen it get as large as 90 minutes. I have literally thought “It’s 3:30. The workday’s basically over.”

To fix this, start by noticing what amount of time you’ve labeled as “not enough to get anything done.” Reframe this as “plenty of time to get something done.” Repeat regularly, gradually reducing the number.

Next, let’s talk about what kind of work you can get done when you only have a few minutes.

Always have minor work with you

Some tasks are minor but still essential.

Last week, I was in a large meeting that was slow to get started. The first 5 minutes were proving to be pretty superfluous (mostly small talk), so I answered a quick email and updated my Next Actions list. That was 5 minutes of work knocked off the end of the workday.

Right now, I’m waiting for my wife and sister to meet me at a coffee shop. Because I have my word processing app (iA Writer) on my iPhone, I’m able to work on this blog post while I sip my second cup of coffee and wait for them. When I got here, I was tempted to listen to the people sitting next to me (a twenty-something woman and a fifty-something guy) discuss the finer points of Audi ownership, but I forced myself to work. To my surprise, I’ve already drafted the hardest two parts of this post: the outline and the intro. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them yammer on about heated seats.

Try making a list of tasks you can chip away at in just a few minutes. Here are some of mine:

  • answering email
  • updating my Next Actions lists
  • reading a page or two of a Kindle book
  • writing/editing a blog post
  • doing a few minutes of focused thinking on a hard problem I’m facing

Enjoy your increased ability to focus

Increased productivity is nice, and so is having more time to do as you please. But learning to use small chunks of time has another handy perk:

It improves your ability to focus quickly.

Let’s say you decide to try this tactic. The next time you have a few minutes between commitments, you resist the urge to open Facebook and instead start drafting a difficult email you’ve been putting off. You’ve got 8 minutes.

It takes you 6 minutes to quiet your mind. You get 2 minutes of real work done. You’re not thrilled.

Here’s the thing: like anything else, the more you use this habit, the more effective it becomes. You’ll eventually become adept at focusing almost instantly, and that’s a skill you can use in every area of life.

If you’re currently writing off small chunks of time, try putting them to use and see if you like the results! I’m betting you will.