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Most of my free time, except when I’m doing it on purpose, tends to come in short blocks. I rarely have 2 hours free, but might, over the course of a work day, have those same two hours in twelve ten-minute bursts.

I realized recently that, for the most part, I waste all of this free time. Since it’s such a short period of time, it seems to not strike me as worth using productively. I spend those ten minute periods doing things like staring aimlessly at the computer screen, picking my nose, or trying to remember what on Earth I have to do in ten minutes. I’m a big fan of periodically doing this (zoning out for a while’s my favorite way to launch back into productive work), but I started to notice that, over the course of a day or week, that time really does add up.

So I developed a list of ten things to do with ten minutes. Now, when I’ve got a few minutes to spare or kill, I run down this list, and do one or two of them – it makes my time more productive, and tends to give me longer blocks of free time later, because I’ve already finished all the quick tasks that tend to pile up at the end of my task list.

Make a Phone Call

Since most of us seem to be near a phone just about 24 hours a day, and always seem to have someone we should or have to call, free moments are the natural time to make a few phone calls. Only having ten minutes is a nice bonus – it makes sure you’re not going to get into some long, drawn-out conversation you’d rather not have. Whether you need to follow up on something, make a plan, or just catch up with a friend, phone calls can be done quickly, and anywhere.

Cook

If you’ve got a few minutes, make yourself some food, either for now or for later. Sometimes I’ll make lunch for the next day, or just throw together a snack for when I inevitably get hungry (usually a point when I don’t have ten seconds to spare, much less ten minutes). Having something around to munch on, or having the cooking process started, makes it all go faster when I need it to.

Nap

I’m a huge proponent of cat-naps, and anyone who says they don’t work is a dirty liar. Put your head down, close your eyes, and go to sleep. Sure, you’ve only got ten minutes, but who cares? The simple act of closing your eyes, clearing your head and relaxing (more akin to meditation) is hugely beneficial, as is even a few minutes of sleep. You’ll come back rejuvenated, in a better place to do more later.

Read Something

Keep a reading list somewhere accessible. I used to have a bookmarks file on my computer called “Read Later”; now I use Instapaper. Wherever you keep it, keep a list of things you want to read of watch, and plow through a few of them in spare moments. Applications like Instapaper are great because they have mobile versions, but any list you can come up with works.

Write Emails

This is much the same as phone calls – we’ve all got emails we could write, even if they’re not absolutely essential this very second. For me, at least, I hate writing emails longer than about six sentences, so I tend to leave them off as long as possible. I realize, though, that in ten minutes I can write a number of emails, and get through a good chunk of my “Reply To” list. Makes other people happy, and makes me feel more productive. Win-win.

Strike Up a Conversation

If you’ve got nothing to do, why not go build up a relationship? Maybe it’s the person in your neighbor cubicle, or maybe it’s the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop – whoever it is, strike up a conversation. Time flies, and who knows? You might just meet someone fascinating.

Clean Up

The single most productive thing I do in these in-between times is organize. In ten minutes, it’s ridiculous how much filing I can get done, or how much email purging and sorting I can get through. Pick one area or one task, and plow through it. I try to clear my desk in ten minutes, and almost always find I can. Usually I just throw everything away, but that’s beside the point. Ten minutes is more than enough time to make a huge dent in even the biggest piles of junk.

Brainstorm

Brainstorming and mind mapping are great ways to spend a few spare minutes, and are great because you can do either with almost anything: a computer, paper, a napkin, or whatever you might find at hand. Just start writing stuff – what do you have to do? What cool ideas do you have? You’ll be amazed how much comes out, and how quickly, when you just sit there and start writing. Or, try making a list of 100, a list centered around a particular topic (say, Ideas for Making Millions) that’s exactly 100: no more, no less. Only having ten minutes makes the ideas fly out, and you’ll be amazed how good they are.

Stumble

StumbleUpon, a website/toolbar that takes you to random webpage after random webpage, is frequently single-handedly credited with the downfall of Western Civilization. You know what? I’m cool with that. Stumbling is a great way to learn new things, expose yourself to interesting Web tidbits you’d never find otherwise, and broaden your horizons of all things Web. Spend a few minutes with StumbleUpon, and I guarantee you’ll learn something.

Journal

I kept a journal for a long time, and then stopped once I discovered I’m not interesting in the least. Now I wish I hadn’t stopped – who knows who might one day find it interesting, or when I’ll want to look back? Instead of a long-form journal (though I highly recommend keeping one if it works for you), just take a few minutes and write down a few high- and low-lights of the day. Usually, just jot down the first few things that come to mind about your life since you wrote last. In a year, ten years, or a hundred, you’ll be glad you did.

What do you do to fill in the blanks, and make use of these short bursts of free time?

Photo: Vahid Rahmanian

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