Plugging Up the Holes
August 2, 2011 9:03 AM   Subscribe

What are some tips and techniques to take advantage of 15-30 minutes of free time here and there to get things done?

While I'm getting better with time management and productivity thanks to medication and therapy (you can see my posting history to find it all out), I'm occasionally stuck with perception of time and taking advantage of little bits of free time.

During the day, I'll often have 15 minutes to an hour here and there that nothing's scheduled, usually between classes or lessons that I teach. I can't seem to get anything done in these time periods, though - if I don't have at least an hour, it just seems like not enough time to do anything.

I usually keep a working list of things I need to take care of, but in my mind, 30 minutes just seems too short to do anything else. I then usually end up surfing the net, reading blogs, or goofing off instead of taking advantage of those few minutes to knock one extra thing off of my list. For example, in 30 minutes, I would be able to read and analyze one research article; instead, I just go off and do other things, because that short time period doesn't seem like enough to get anything done.

I understand the need for free time during the day to clear my head and taking breaks so that I don't completely burn out, and I understand that it's not realistic to work every minute of every day. I'm just trying to take greater advantage of my time (and enjoy more free time in the evenings).

How do you remind yourself to get things done in these time periods? It's not so much about forcing myself to do things - when I'm focused (and my ADD meds are on), I don't have a ton of problems doing things in longer periods of time. It's the short ones that are driving me nuts.

Thanks in advance for the help and advice.
posted by SNWidget to Human Relations (11 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One of my favorite tricks, a classic, is to set a timer for less than the time you have available and see how much you can get done before it goes off. For example, if you have 30 minutes, set a timer for 10 minutes and go at it like a frenzied bear (they say time slows in battle.) If you do this enough you will not be able to remember what it felt like to have a WHOLE HALF HOUR without something to show for it.
posted by michaelh at 9:06 AM on August 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

Have you ever been so engrossed in a book that you picked it up every chance you got? Try to channel that.

For example, in 30 minutes, don't expect to successfully read and analyze one research article; expect to do part of it.
posted by aniola at 9:14 AM on August 2, 2011

Best answer: Another trick: don't turn the Internet on during those interim periods. The Internet is a time sink.
posted by aniola at 9:15 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make sure you are breaking up your tasks into small enough steps. You can't read an article, but can you do one of the following: update your to-read list, download/print/photocopy some of the articles from your to-read list, quickly reread a section from Paper A that was referenced in Paper B, pay your utilities bill online, make your grocery list, return that email from your mom, etc.

If you have a lot of these 15 min - 1 hour blocks in your day, consider keeping a separate to-do list of small tasks you can do during these times. I called it my "gnat" list: little things that just never seem to get done, so they're always buzzing around subconsciously. Like michaelh says, see how many gnats you can swat in, say 15 minutes.

Then, with your gnats taken care of, you can sit down with your article during the larger time period, without gnats buzzing in your ears distracting you.

I really recommend having a physical list that your refer to. 1) Knowing your tasks are going into a "trusted system" means you don't worry about them; they're written down, you won't forget them, and you'll deal with them during your next short work periods. 2) Crossing things off a list is soooooo satisfying.
posted by BrashTech at 9:35 AM on August 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

If these bits of time are predictable you could set yourself a reminder in Outlook or Gmail that will pop up at the appropriate time to remind you that you wanted to vaccum or whatever.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:54 AM on August 2, 2011

Best answer: Keep a set of index cards with short tasks listed one per card that need doing on a regular basis and turn to them when you have some down time: clean out your bag, clean up your desk, eyed one record in your database that needs updating, throw away old pens, make a list of things you need to do at home tonight, etc.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:47 AM on August 2, 2011

Best answer: One of the many things I like from Getting Things Done is sorting tasks into locations.

If I've got 30 minutes in front of the computer, I can scan my computer task list: emails, research, etc. If I'm in my car, I scan my errands list.

The other thing is I keep a ton of professional, academic and some fun reading on my phone. These are saved to the phone so I don't need to waste time finding and downloading. I can always use 30 minutes absorbing some of my endless reading list.
posted by 26.2 at 11:01 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is possibly the great idea behind the Getting Things Done cult: if you have a sorted To Do list, then you should be able to yank it out whenever you have a few minutes and Accomplish Something. Whether you are working the list or reviewing it, it's still useful.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:35 AM on August 2, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far!

As far as those suggesting GTD, I've had about 5 aborted attempts at it, but I think it may be time to take another swing at it, now that I'm progressing on a lot of other life issues. My biggest problem with GTD is that even though I always feel like I'm doing something, it's not necessarily the things that are moving me towards larger goals. I end up doing a lot of things that are secondary.

And yes - rar to the Internet. The biggest time suck of them all is something I really have trouble getting away from. Unfortunately, when it comes to research and a bunch of other things, I do a lot of my work on the Internet. It might be time to break out LeechBlock again to keep my fingers from typing "" without my permission.
posted by SNWidget at 11:49 AM on August 2, 2011

Best answer: I got to part two in GTD then left the book on a bus(It was a 14 hour journey I just wanted off in the end), when I came home I read this coding horror article and it made everything better. Since this combination of events i have given up on productivity reading, I am just doing my best to do shit.

With your little breaks you might want to try carry a small notebook and in every break writing out ideas and plans to get through your todo list. From the back of this ted talk I started doing this and it really has helped me actually do things.
posted by adventureloop at 11:54 AM on August 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do nothing. At the beginning of those fifteen minute or half hour long blocks of unscheduled time make yourself sit still with your eyes closed, not listening to anything. Set a timer for five minutes and commit to not doing anything for five minutes.

This works in two ways. One way is that it ensures you transition from doing one thing, to being open to doing another. For example if you have been working on your computer and get your project completed with fifteen minutes to spare, it is easy to end up staying on the computer for another fifteen minutes doing nothing in particular such as random net surfing or re-reading old e-mails.

By stopping completely it helps you change your direction so that you might use that ten minutes to make a couple of phone calls, or small chores that otherwise would get neglected. The five minutes of silent sitting also helps your brain put things in priority order, so that you have a better chance of using those ten remaining minutes to do a couple of small things that are really important to you, instead of whatever is merely close at hand. Let's say eating healthily is important to you. That five minute sit-and-do nothing break is where it might occur to you that you could get a carton of milk from the vending machine downstairs as opposed to a soda pop from the machine beside it.

The other thing that taking five minutes to sit motionless will do is change your perception of time. When you are stampeding through the day it passes very quickly. When you have to sit and wait time tends to pass slowly. So by waiting five minutes, if your brain works like mine, the ten minutes that follow end up seeming like a much longer stretch of time than they did without changing state. In this way you get the experience of "I have a whole ten minutes to check if my missing keys are in the top drawer," rather than "I only have ten minutes to find my keys!!"

Also, those short chunks of time are often useful for sorting and organizing. No, you can't reply to all your e-mails in just ten minutes, but you can go through your e-mail box and throw out all the spam, so that when you have a bigger block of time you don't have to actually hunt for the three e-mails you need to follow up on.

If you have ADD tendencies, using frequent small blocks of time to tidy up clutter will help keep you from getting buried alive in distractions. It is much easier to be productive when there is nothing in front of you except what you want to work on. Five minutes is all it takes to clean off your desk when you do that every day.

Another thing that is good is to use those small bits of time to check in with yourself. Are you stiff? Cranky? Lonely? Hungry? Too warm? Thirsty? You can make a big difference to your productivity if you take a few bits of time to do self maintenance, rather than waiting until the end of the day when you might be starved, dehydrated, crippled from sitting still all day and so cranky that you want to punch out the first person who walks into your line of sight.

If all that kind of organization stuff is looked after, it can be very good for your morale to do small things to make your environment more pleasant. Think in terms of music, scents, colours, social interactions, growing things... Go to the trouble of throwing out that cup of fermented coffee, or put up a new wallpaper picture on your computer desk top or move the position of your best beloved's photograph so you will notice it again, or handling that autographed baseball that means so much to you, or changing the mp3s on your play list, or take a second to say, "Hey, thanks for looking after the filing," to the guy in the next cubicle.

The last bit is not so much good for organization and productivity, but it is good for quality of life. If you think of your office cubbie as the place where you keep things you value, and a place where you can relax and feel good, it will be a heck of a lot easier to motivate yourself to go there and actually start working.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:13 PM on August 2, 2011 [25 favorites]

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