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Time Management

The Counter-Intuitive Benefits of Small Time Blocks

Let's face it, the interruptions aren't going to end. A look at how to let go of the "perfect moment" mentality and take advantage of small windows of time.


It’s a common assertion that doing hard, creative work requires long stretches of concentrated attention. And if you have the luxury of big, open blocks of time, it is a great way to get things done. But what if you don’t? What if you get interrupted left and right by clients and co-workers? Is there a way to push creative projects forward in this non-optimal environment?I would argue that it IS possible. And not only is it possible, but – in certain ways – as good as or better than waiting for the “perfect” block of time to arrive. Why? Because resisting starting until the ever-elusive perfect moment often leads to extended procrastination. You never have as much time as you’d like to really “settle into” the work so you just keep putting it off – creating a vicious cycle of over-ambitious goals and little-to-no progress.If this sounds uncomfortably familiar to you, it may be time to own up to the realities of your schedule and consider a different approach.This “Short & Sweet” process developed in collaboration with one of my time coaching clients shows you how to invest the often-overlooked bits of time into your day in meaningful progress on creative projects.

Here’s how it works:

  • Write down all possible next steps involved in completing the project without worrying about whether the list is complete or in order. You don’t have to “think of everything” or make the “ideal plan.”
  • Schedule in just 15-30 minutes to move forward on the project. The point is to set aside a short enough block of time that you can commit to it without feelings of anxiety or hesitation about your ability to follow through. (Think baby steps.)
  • During that designated time, take action toward your goal by choosing to make progress on one or more of the steps you brainstormed. Don’t aim too high. Just tackle a small amount of work that you know you can actually complete in that time window.
  • At the end of the time, write down any new steps you discovered on your master list and schedule the next specific day and time when you will move forward on the project.
  • Repeat as needed, which may mean for the entire project or may just mean for the very initial messy stages when making a comprehensive plan or setting aside huge amounts of time to move forward is impossible or fills you with dread.

Now, some of you may be wondering: “Will I really get results when I work in these tiny chunks of time? Is it possible to really ‘get in the zone’?”

The short answer is: Any action is almost always better than none. But there are a number of reasons why working in small chunks might not only be practical, but also preferable for you:

  • Reduces build-up energy. If you haven’t made progress on a project for weeks, months or even years, even five minutes of forward movement is an improvement. You can choose to spend longer periods of time on a project, but the Short & Sweet method makes it excruciatingly easy both emotionally and mentally to break through the inertia.
  • Makes you like yourself & your project again. When you won’t work on a project until the “ideal” moment, you begin to feel a massive weight of guilt and shame that makes you not even want to think about the project that once brought you great joy. Taking small steps forward will help you to feel successful and renew your positive associations with the entire process.
  • Gives you time to get help. One of the scary parts of beginning a creative endeavor, especially with a new technology or a new client, is that you aren’t quite sure of the total scope of the work. By starting early and starting often, you have time to ask for help, get feedback, make edits or even request a timeline extension before it’s too late for you to do so without embarrassment.
  • Allows you to unleash your brilliance. As Fred Wilson so beautifully describes in his post on subconscious information processing, as soon as you give your mind a problem to solve, it starts working day and night on the project. By using short bits of time to move forward, particularly in the initial brainstorming phase, you give yourself a greater opportunity to unleash your genius than you could have done in a long single spurt.

Over to You…
Do you tend to do nothing unless you can get everything done at once? How have you learned to use short bits of time effectively?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at http://www.RealLifeE.com.

Comments (52)
  • lo-bo

    This is brilliant. 

  • lo-bo

    This sounds so uncomfortably familiar to me. But the great thing about this is that it sounds so achievable. 

    I particularly relate to the feelings of guilt at not getting on with something. I’m currently working on a really important project (that I’m struggling to start) and I’m going to give this a go to see how I get on. 

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    I’m glad that this feels uncomfortably familiar–because the whole point is to expose the truth of the situation so that you can then open yourself up to real change.

    I look forward to hearing how this strategy works for you and encourage you to commit to the first 15-minute time block today.

    I believe in your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Useful Design

    Much as I think 7 Habits… by Steven Covey is brilliant and it takes a different approach… I like these ideas. Any time in Quad II is effective time.

  • Dobler Aaron

    Copywriters who also want to write when they’re not “writing” could benefit from this article as well as “The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time.” A few minutes here and a few minutes there still adds up to a substantial hourly billing at the end of the month…and a few words here and there over a period of years is called a novel.

  • Bschildt

    Feels a bit like the Pomodoro Technique. (http://www.pomodorotechnique.c… Something I really should start using. 🙂

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Yes! It’s similar but just a bit more flexible.

    I find that sometimes people get a bit stuck on trying to fit everything into 30-minute blocks instead of giving themselves the choice to make progress in even shorter bits of time.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Wilson Filho

    I think it goes deeper than the Pomodoro Technique, cause the whole purpose of the 25min blocks and 5min of rest is to get you over 4 hours of work (or more)…

    I think this “Short & Sweet” process is taking us to a whole new level of productivity, helping us to carve out our time… searching for that extra time (that we claim we don’t have).

  • Wilson Filho

    I just loved it. I’ve been stuck in the editing process of a Documentary that i shot few months ago in Mozambique / Africa, and this is one of my problems: finding the perfect time blocks (cause i have also a regular 8h job).

    I’ll try to apply that in my lunch time or in my way back home (in the bus)…

    Thanks for sharing it!
    I’m already feeling better.

  • Srinivas Rao

    This is really odd. I was taking a break from one of my time blocks and I came across your post. I’ve been doing this everyday for the last 2 weeks and I’m 15,000 words into a book I’m aiming to ship by the middle of February. I’ve also made quite a bit of progress in numerous other areas. 

    In my experience we don’t have the capacity to work for 8 straight ours. But in small bursts when we focus on just one thing, we can get quite a bit done. 

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Yeah!

    Glad to hear it!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Pete R.

    Procrastination killer, these tips are. 🙂

  • Cheryl

    I’m a homeschooling mom of six. My entire life is about baby steps. People often wonder how I can homeschool, take care of a house and family, write numerous blog posts a week, take photos everyday, and find time for other creative projects like jewelry making, drawing and painting. I do it all just a little bit at a time. The absolute best part of accomplishing great things a little at time is knowing that I will not have great blocks of time for anything. Because I no longer expect anything other than baby steps, I’m perfectly happy to live my life this way. I don’t get frustrated; I don’t feel cheated. This way of working is worlds better than waiting for the planets to align before starting a big project (like I did with my senior thesis all those years ago).

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Great work Cheryl!

    Glad to hear this type of philosophy has worked well for you.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Scuffle

    I found this post procrastinating.. this feels weird. Great article! Thank you!

  • Bad Spoon

    A great article, as always, Elizabeth!

    The Pomodoro Technique is a wonderful productivity tool, but is not without flaws. Thank you for this interesting alternative/complementary technique.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    De rien!

    The Short & Sweet technique frees you to make progress when a 30-minute block seems like an uncomfortable constraint.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Sue Mitchell

    I’ve been a fan of the Japanese principle of kaizen, or continuous progress through small steps, for a while, but your explanation of the benefits put a new spin on it for me.

    The bit about the unconscious working for you in between small bursts is definitely true, and helping you love your project again instead of it feeling like a burden that you’re shirking is a huge perk! And in addition to being able to get help as needed if you’re working this way, you can also be more responsive to the need to adapt or change what you’re doing because you’re only placing “small bets.”

    I also think your point about listing out all the little pieces of the task ahead of time will make these short bursts more effective. Really brilliant!

  • Pilotkamal

    that’s how we do @JJK, but could not write like this.

  • Robyn McMaster

    Elizabeth, most of us do not have the luxury of working on creative projects for long periods of time.  You provide a doable strategy to stay on track and not lose sight of the project.  I’m glad I met you since I look forward to future insights you might share.

  • Adam Robinson, MBA

    This is how I try to structure my work every day as well.  Some days are better than others, but I find that as each day goes by I get better and better at it.  I find that it is much easier to focus with smaller blocks of time.

  • 99designs vs Crowdspring

    I liked that idea, good one. Thanks to providing useful information.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Thanks Sue!

    So glad that you received value from the description of how working in small bits of time can actually be more effective than facing an expanse of open work time.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Fantastic Adam!

    So glad to hear this strategy has been effective for you. I’m also glad to see that you understand the importance of progress, not perfection. Incremental improvements and adjusting when we get off track leads to success!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Geoff Talbot

    Very cool… Thanks Elizabeth. I am concentrating on working in short time blocks.

    Switching on and switching off is a new skill for me.

    It is bought on my a new baby in our house, who for some reason has decided not to respect my creative process. Apparently his food is more important than my film?

    Thanks again

    Geoff Talbot
    A Creative Blog

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