We tend to think about “productive time” in long, uninterrupted stretches, which is why we never seem to have much of it. But the key to good time management isn’t finding more time to work on the things that matter — rather, it’s about effectively using the chunks of time that already exist in your days.
The trick is to make yourself see time differently. For instance, the five minutes it takes to stand in line at the grocery store might not seem like a lot of time to you, so you might as well scroll through social media (or if you’re like me, go down a Wikipedia wormhole). But try this: Set a timer for five minutes and just stare at it, watching the seconds tick away. You’ll quickly see that it’s a substantial amount of time that you can fill with meaningful action.
The important thing is to make a plan for these chunks of time, so whenever you’re presented with them, you can get moving. Here are some great things you can do with two, five, 15, 30, or 60 minutes.
If you have two minutes, you can …
Read/answer/sort non-critical emails
In two minutes, you can sort or reply to a handful of emails or Slack messages that require only a quick response. (Perhaps this is the time to practice emailing like a CEO?)
Record ideas that have popped up throughout the day
For those familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, this would be like a mini mind-sweep. Get the stuff that’s been weighing on you out of your head and closer to being handled.
Send a funny or uplifting text
The strongest relationships are often built through tiny, consistent acts. Let a friend, colleague, or family member know you’re thinking about them by sending a hilarious meme or wishing them luck on their job interview.
Reach out to someone in the professional world who you’d like to get to know better
Adding someone on LinkedIn or sending someone a message on Facebook is a great way to start a professional relationship. I’ve seen simple, two-sentence emails evolve into business deals over time.
If you have five minutes, you can …
Reset your nervous system with a simple meditation
You’re probably aware of the benefits of a long meditation session. But it’s also incredibly grounding to just sit or stand where you are, and stop to breathe in a slow, deliberate manner. Doing this resets your nervous system and can help you feel more present. Here are some short breathing exercises to refresh, de-stress, or energize you.
Build momentum on a big project
By simply starting on a project, you create some excitement to keep at it later. Researchers call this the Zeigarnik Effect. When software users see a message like “You profile is 64% complete,” they are more likely to spend a few minutes on providing all missing details. Take five minutes to move your project past 0%.
Write a brief journal entry
Journaling has enormous benefits, but carving out time to do it — especially if it’s not already a habit — can be difficult. Luckily, just spending minutes recording what happened today, how you felt about it, and what you can do better tomorrow can go a long way.
Read an article that you “saved for later”
Why not chip at that backlog of stories on Medium, Pocket, or Facebook that you’re waiting to read when you have time?
If you have 15 minutes, you can …
Do an intense workout and shower
You don’t need equipment or special shoes. Simply do some exercises like push-ups, squats, jumping jacks, and planks. The Johnson & Johnson 7-minute workout app has some workouts that are really invigorating.
Do a “shitty first draft”
If you’ve been dying to write something — a short story, novel, article, or heartfelt note to a loved one — the trick is to just start. Do a shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott would call it. No overthinking, no deleting. Leave all the editing for later. The momentum you’ll get from 15 minutes of writing will be invigorating.
Call a loved one
We tend to forget the power of simply keeping up with people in our lives — be it colleagues, personal friends in our networks, or family members.
If you have 30 minutes …
Host a brainstorming session
Thirty minutes may just be the perfect brainstorming time block. It’s enough to create a train of thought sufficient for generating ideas, but not so long as to be daunting. Just don’t go in expecting good ideas right off the bat. In fact, give yourself a goal of coming up with five to 10 bad ideas before you even expect to think of some good ones. Record all the ideas as they come, good or bad, without judging their merit. At the end of the session, evaluate the ideas by giving them an A, B, C, or D grade based on how promising they look.
Make a plan for the following week
I’m a big believer in the practice of the weekly review. In 30 minutes, you can look back at your meetings and calls from the past week to capture any open loops and set goals for the following week. You can also review your big projects: What still needs to be done? Does anything need to be put on hold?
If you have an hour, you can …
Do an “errands batch”
Most errands and personal admin tasks can be batched together and knocked out within a 60-minute window, if you stay focused. Set a timer to do your expense report, go through your mail, pay your bills, make a dentist appointment, pull together your library books to return, and create an Instacart order.
Do some deep work
To really focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, you’ll need an hour. Spend the first 20 minutes or so repeating the fairly shallow thinking you’ve already done about the topic. Then use that momentum to push your thinking to a deeper level. It’s glorious to experience a “flow state,” but it takes time to get there.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting you use every single minute of your day to get things done. But if you re-examine those stray minutes and use them to take care of what needs taking care of, you’ll have more time left to relax, while not having to think about a thing.