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Mind the Gaps: Get a Little Ahead Each Day

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Be deliberately efficient or deliberately Zen.  Never be arbitrarily inefficient.

Click for photoI tweeted a version of that a few days ago and it pretty succinctly sums up my approach to "time management".  In essence, it’s saying do what you do and be 100% there… and do so in a way that isn’t randomly wasting precious time in the present moment due to sloppy planning or weak preparation.

How much downtime did you have today if you counted up the minutes?  10 minutes, 60 minutes, more?

If your house is in order you can use every minute to your advantage, whatever that means to you at that time.  You aren’t passing up the opportunity to use that time just because you don’t know what’s next or what you need to do – you can just seamlessly move from one thing to the next at a deliberate pace doing high-quality work or enjoying needed downtime.

Ultimately this approach goes back to having the right system for knowing what the open threads are in your life.  Getting Things Done by David Allen is one such system, hugely popular and very common sensical and intuitive, but there are others.  Assuming you’re already on your way to productivity black belt status and at any given moment can identify what you need in the moment, one of the best things you can do to act on this data is to start living in the gaps.

Gaps are those small 5-30 minute "in betweens" throughout the day that offer you some level of personal sanctity.  They’re part of your daily rituals – your commute, an afternoon walk, a 20-minute wait in the doctor’s office, time between meetings, the 30 minutes your spouse or partner is watching the kids, and so on.  They’re time periods in which you could choose to be productive or time you could use to disconnect and recharge.  Ultimately it’s up to you how you use it.

Time is personal.  If your life is full of work, family time, or other non-personal time, these gaps may be the only time you can hear yourself breathe.  Yet it’s natural to just view them as "too short to be meaningful" instead of what they are: time for you.  They’re really not idle time – the more control you get over your system, the more you realize just how much you can get done in three or four 15 minute blocks of time each day.  And once you do, it’s hard to ever look at them the same way again.

You could clear your inbox, write a couple paragraphs, do push ups, stretch, listen to a chapter of an audiobook, go for a quick walk, send flowers to a friend, order something online, call your parents, or straighten up around you.  You can almost always check some things off your list assuming you have one handy!

In order to get the most out of these time gaps, you need three things:

  1. The list of what’s next
  2. The means to relax, learn, or be inspired
  3. The means to get work done

And you should have all three of those things all day, every day. 

If you don’t know what’s next, you’ll spend valuable time trying to figure it out, sometimes without the context of everything else you could be doing (i.e. the rest of the list). 

If you don’t have the means to relax, learn, or be inspired, you may end up feeling like you have to get work done – which imposes a sense of obligation.  And you won’t be able to recharge when you really need it.

If you don’t have the means to get work done, you’re frankly not getting ahead and making things happen.  Of course “work” doesn’t have to mean strictly work, it could mean anything from buying a gift for Mother’s Day to calling the credit card company about an invalid charge on your statement.

What these three things mean to you will be an individual choice.  I choose to keep all three things in a smartphone – my to do list and projects for what’s next, podcasts, audiobooks, and music for relaxation, and email and phone calls for getting work done.  It means I’m never without the means to fill the gaps when there’s time.

For you, it may mean carrying a book, newspaper, notebook, or folder around.  Or it could mean always having a laptop handy.  No matter what you decide to do to fill that time, just make sure you’re being deliberate – you shouldn’t be caught letting time slip idly by without taking advantage of it… in one way or another.

Written by Mike Torres

August 24th, 2010 at 10:05 pm

  • James Tsv

    Good Article Mike. However would you say, it's easy to also get distracted during the down time and spend it on pointless activities such as chatting, face book etc?? I guess you can have all this stuff on hand but then need to be disciplined enough to do participate in value adding activities. Keep up the good work mate!

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