Using small windows of time

Back when I was in high school, I had an important realization about time management and getting things done. I would often have only a small window of time, like 30 minutes or less, to work on some particular homework assignment, or some project, etc., before I had to go do something else. The problem was that these assignments always seemed like they would take far longer than the time I had available, and I would think to myself, “If I start now, I’m not going to be able to get it all done today, and I’m going to have to expend so much more energy starting and stopping than it would take if I just went straight through!” As a result of this thought pattern though, it would often be quite a while after the assignment was given before I would start large projects, as I never seemed to have a large enough block of time to get it done.

Then one day I thought to myself: “All I ever have are these small windows of time, and it takes me so long to get to my assignments! You know what? I am going to try to start getting big things done in small windows, and let’s see what happens.”

So I started trying to do this, and I was amazed by the results. I usually ended up getting far more done in those small time blocks than I expected (perhaps also because I knew I only had a small amount of time – this concept is known as time-blocking), and it was almost always far easier to pick it back up the next time I could work on it than I thought it would be. In other words, I didn’t lose as much mental momentum as I feared I would.

One great example is this blog post. I knew it was going to take me more time to write the entire article than I had yesterday morning, but I started it anyway. I ended up writing about half of it, and this morning I wrote the remaining amount. One full article broken up over two days is worth a lot more than mindlessly checking my email over two days because that was the only thing I thought I had time for.

There have also been many instances in my life when I actually FINISHED some project in that small window of time. Whenever this happens, I feel phenomenally efficient. While most people’s standard expectation for tasks is that they will take longer than expected, there are many times in life that it takes less time than expected to get stuff done. So you have the opportunity to really take advantage of those small time windows when you run across tasks like that.

It may take more energy to get a large task done over several sessions than a single session, but you’re far more likely to get it done if you can use your small windows! And you may actually find that you spend LESS energy getting it done than you otherwise would have, because during the breaks between your small windows you realize something or come across new information that makes the task a lot easier. Additionally, the quality of the work you do can significantly improve by having that time gap, as you can find a lot of mistakes and other ways to improve your work after stepping away for a time.

You may be thinking, “Corwin, why don’t I just work on small tasks during those small amounts of time?” I agree that short windows of time can also be great for getting small stuff done, but typically those completed smaller tasks are worth significantly less value than completed larger tasks. So I would encourage you to be unafraid to start working on those big tasks as well! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how effective you can be even with only a little bit of time here and there.

  • Torley

    I totally heart that you shared this. I came across your post when reading productivity articles at Reddit, and resonate with your experiences. I, too, have had moments where I went forth instead of pushing something off into the next day (or later), and felt a lot better. I recorded videos to myself reminding me how good it feels to be in the midst of creative activities like making music, for example.

    Many small pebbles weigh as much as a boulder. :)

  • corwinolson

    Thanks Torley! That is a great phrase, I totally forgot about it until you reminded me.

  • Nicolas Prieur

    Great article, although I fail to do the very thing you were explaining in your article. I always have some reading to be doing but never get it done. Sigh. Great post though!

  • corwinolson

    Thanks Nicolas. Sorry, for some reason wordpress didn’t notify me that you left these comments, so I didn’t see them and approve them until this morning. Thanks for the feedback!

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