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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)
  • Christina

    I’ve been working on a way to incorporate many different creative projects between studies and full time work. It’s been amazing eye opening – we unconsciously put work and large portions of time aside, but don’t get started till the very last moment anyway (procrastination). Using small steps beforehand, those last hours of stressful working towards a deadline are actually slowed down: Informed decisions soothe the nerves and ensure far better results in the thrill and rush to finalise a project. I’ve been coaching graduate students ever since and find the results unbelievable. TRY IT!

  • dissertation service

    nice post

  • Rhynas71

    This is exactly the article I needed to read today! I suffer from a chronic depressive illness & I thought it was that that was causing all my procrastination. After reading this, I realise that, though some of it is down to that, the rest of it it normal. Hoorah, hoorah & thrice hoorah! The other block to getting started on a project is the fear of what you produce not matching up to the image in your mind’s eye, or lousing it up completely. 

  • hello there

    Thank you for this!  A perfect start to my day!  I was just about to put off doing some creative writing, thinking, Oh well, I don’t have enough time.  I’m going to stop checking my emails now and power write for a half hour!

  • nick parker

    Great post.
    Of course, there’s a really easy way of making all of this instinctive: have kids.
    Me before kids: ‘I should really start that thing, but I’ve only got a weekend to do it.’
    Me after kids: ‘I’ve got 7 mins spare a week on Thursday. Brilliant. I think I’ll write a book.’

  • Paula Farrington

    As an advocate of Kaizen – a Japanese word for small, continual, step-by-step improvements – I so agree with your wonderful post and philosophy of “Short & Sweet”. Also enjoyed the link re: Fred Wilson’s subconscious information processing – a powerful productivity tool – and a great reminder that the brain can’t resist a question … I’m finding the tiny steps really work … thank you, Elizabeth!  

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    So glad you found this helpful!

    Yeah for small blocks of time.

    As to your second concern about fear of failure/lack of achieving the ideal, you might want to check out my 99% article on Why Can’t I Finish?: http://the99percent.com/tips/7

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    LOL!

    Hilarious and true! Thanks for adding a smile to my day 🙂

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    You’re welcome!

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Theaperezdesign

    Your article hit so close to home that it practically stung.  I can’t control all the interruptions, but I can control my reaction to them and reclaim the time wasted by waiting for that perfect block of time.  Thanks for reminding me of that.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     So glad this resonated with you!

    There is a bit of a sting in the revelation but the balm is in knowing that there is a better way…

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Deb Kalikow Pluck

    great article-very usefull info-thanks!

  • Studio4PR

    It’s kind of frightening how closely this parallels my life! I can put off working on something because I don’t have a block of time, and then when I do try to focus, get stuck because I don’t have the right system in place. In the past, I’ve tried to manage a job, house, kid, husband, and creative endeavors, and been very frustrated that the creative stuff was never getting attention (and my husband was always skeptical of my ability to follow through on them).

    Now that I’m starting my own business, though, I need to make things happen, so your tips came at the perfect time. Thank you!

    Robin

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     You are so welcome Robin!

    Glad this info could be of service.

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

  • Grm

    That’s very funny – and horribly true

  • Sketch Tiger, NYC

    I write comedy in New York, & have tons of 15-minute blocks I don’t use. The subway is now my study.

  • Simon

    Just read this post and was thinking exactly the same thing. Brilliant post – you’ve helped me to not feel guilty about not having enough time to finish something – just start it! And I totally agree with the kids thing. I now get so much more done these days. Mainly because I don’t have the time to procrastinate!

  • Stefan

    Great. The idea sounds a lot like the concept of the pomodoro timer. It breaks down tasks into small chunks of 25 minutes and 5 minute breaks. You can complete a pomodoro whilst staying focussed on that particular task at hand. Try it out and see if it suits you!

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.c… 

  • Kade Young

    Wow, you must have written this just for me.  Thanks for the article, it really helps!

  • michael m

    WHy didnt you publish this a week ago?  Love

  • Heather

    I find this works even with sewing and painting, and other creative endeavors which require supplies setup and teardown. The key is often to set things up for the next time as part of your time block ending duties, like clean up. This way you feel more able to walk into 15 or 30 minute time block able to accomplish something.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     You’re welcome Kade! Hope that you’re enjoying putting this into practice.

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

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     That is a great idea!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Devin

    I’m a big fan of the pomodoro technique: break things down into 25minutes of really intense work. I get more done this way in a few hours than I used to get done in a whole day.

  • Francis Mwangi

    Good to know! Have a lot to accomplish, Thanks, GOD Bless!

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