43 Folders

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Harnessing your interstitial time

Sometimes, it's easy to feel like your work has degraded into a series of interruptions--that any block of time you've set aside to focus on a project is in constant danger of being minced to bits by phone calls, emails, and the weekend anecdotes of your co-workers. Worse still, we all suffer daily from innumerable waits, delays, and last-minute reschedulings, all of which can upend our plans and lead to a constant shifting of available time.

Rather than always seeing these changes as an intractable liability, try to look at them as opportunities to liberate unexpected pockets of time and focus. While literally non-stop interruptions are likely to make any of us nutty, a slight adjustment to your planning and outlook can lead to fast gains in productivity and a much-improved attitude about your working environment.

Watching for opportunities

Think about recent times you were interrupted, bumped, or otherwise found yourself with more or less time on your hands than you had planned:

  • you're stuck on hold with technical support
  • you're waiting for a disk utility to finish defragging your hard drive
  • you're in a line at the DMV that will take at least an hour
  • your flight's been delayed for an indeterminate amount of time
  • your boss's kid has entitilitis, so the morning meeting (that you'd spent all night preparing for) has been bumped back to 2:00 pm

Get in the habit of seeing change and temporal entropy as the rule rather than the exception. In addition to lowering your stress, this can help you stay creative and will help guide your thinking about constantly mining your day for lodes of unexpected time. Don't live by the expectation that all will go according to your plan and your schedule.

For example, if your 2:00 pm phone call gets pushed back for an hour, rally, and just quickly move to choosing a fast task that you can knock down in 5, 10, or even 15 minutes. Avoid the impulse to start something that demands an hour of uninterrupted attention, because, as you've doubtless learned, that phone call might be pushed up again to 2:30 before you know it.

The point is to get in the habit of challenging yourself to see what you can accomplish over very small, unscheduled periods of time. Like bird watching or shell collecting, these habits will improve with your ability to recognize this pattern quickly.

Planning small

The best way to capitalize regularly on your day's temporal crevices starts with adjusting the way you think about and plan your work. While it's natural to try and chunk activities into conceptual silos (“The Big Henderson Presentation”), try breaking your projects into pieces that will fit through the narrow windows that your particular job allows. In other words, if you truly do inhabit an “interrupt-driven” career, then why would you ever plan tasks that would take more than 1-2 minutes to complete? It's a recipe for low productivity, if not utter madness.

(This kind of planning also fits well with the GTD notion of the next action, wouldn't you say?)

Staying Organized to Stay Ready

Keep related task materials in the same physical or electronic folder. This makes it easy to change gears quickly just by swapping a couple of the files on your real or virtual desktop. Keep your folders pruned, organized, and up-to-date. The less time you spend on “catching up” after a modal change, the more time you can spend cranking out your work. Some people like to leave a sticky note on the top sheet of paper in their file to remind them where they left off and facilitate fast pickup. When change does come along, roll with the punches, and immediately reassess what you have on your plate: what's the easiest alternate path based on what you know now?

Rearranging Responsibly

When you are the one who's causing the disruption or change for others, be as clear as you can about why the delay or escalation has occurred, so that people can quickly adapt and plan their changes accordingly. In particular, clearly communicate whether and how the rescheduling affects your expectations for how each person should prepare for the re-scheduled call or meeting. Always provide as much notice as you can, and do respect the time and pre-existing work of everyone involved. Nothing's more dispiriting than feeling like your work is for nought.

One minute here, one minute there

Sometimes your most productive bursts of activity can come from the limitations of knowing that you have a very small window of time to work on something. I don't mean a deadline you've been blowing off, but rather those tiny pockets of time that are hiding between meetings, before your next phone call starts, or while you're waiting for your computer to reboot. I have to confess that these little slivers of time are consistently some of my own most productive periods; knowing that I have exactly 10 minutes before the streetcar arrives gives a focus to finishing an email or blog post that otherwise just wouldn't exist.

Based on the available time you can estimate, choose a task that suits the opportunities of the moment. For example:

  • 1-2 minutes - Review your inbox, answer an email, or take out the trash
  • 2-5 minutes - Return a fast phone call or draft a short email
  • 5-10 minutes - Proof a draft report, finish your time sheets, or call to follow-up on a request you've made
  • 10-30 minutes - Draft a new blog post or work report, research a client question on Google, or cull your Current Work file

This works great at home, too. Got twenty-five minutes before Deadwood starts? Don't squander the time surfing celebrity gossip shows. That's a perfect amount of time to call your Mom, do the dinner dishes, or read a chapter from your latest library book.

The point, in any case, is to think about your tasks like a game of Tetris--but with minutes and seconds instead of blocks. Use the precious bits of time you do have to do something and strive to always stay light on your feet, active, and aware. If you're open to the opportunities it offers, constraint can be a powerful creative force for getting you on-task.

More Examples

My Grandmother always carried a bag with her latest knitting project in it. Whenever she found a few spare moments--no matter where she was--she could work in a few rows on a scarf or a sweater. Think about the kinds of fuss-free stuff you can pick up and drop on zero notice.

  • Carry flashcards for a language you're trying to learn. Use five minutes in the grocery line to study irregular verbs en Français.
  • Keep audiobooks in your car, whether on CD or on your iPod. If you're stuck in traffic, listen to a chapter and calm your jangled nerves.
  • Make an index card with a list of valuable tasks you can do almost anywhere in fewer than 5 minutes. Prune your to-do list, make a holiday card list, or just call your spouse to say “I love you.” No need to be cranky and bored when you could be doing something useful.
  • Try inverting the formula by forcing a few minutes of interstitial time. If your virus scanner is running or your PC is rebooting, you really have to do something different. Perfect chance to knock down a few of the non-computer tasks you've been procrastinating, or, hell, just go walk around outside for a minute.

How do you make best use of unexpected changes to your schedule? Have you found a good way to turn disruption into improved productivity? What kind of constraints make you more rather than less productive in any given day?

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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