Here's a common situation I find myself in: it's 1:30pm and I have a commitment at 2pm. I'd like to spend the next 30 minutes working, but all of the tasks I need to complete will take much more than 30 minutes to complete. I think to myself: "By the time I get set up to do this task (context switching etc), it will be basically time for my 2pm meeting, so I'll have mostly wasted the last 30 minutes."

My primary fix for this is reserving contiguous blocks in my schedule for deep work. However, I do not always have control over my schedule.

What are tips for effectively using short (<30min) blocks of time? 

(Feel free to redefine "short" if you perceive "short" in a different way.)

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Do some planning or prioritizing - because you probably don't do enough of these, and they're usually a quick & excellent use of time. E.g.:

  • Think about which of these tasks are most important, and which you could drop or postpone, e.g. like this
  • Think of alternative ways you might do each task; e.g. delegate: get someone else to do part/all of it
  • Think of alternative ways to achieve the aims of each task/project, without actually doing it: ask yourself why you're doing each task (come up with multiple reasons), then brainstorm how else you might achieve those aims (other than by doing the task/project). Identifying why you're doing tasks also helps clarify how important they are (e.g. are you doing them just to please someone you don't care about?)

See also

Pomodoro is the phrase that immediately springs to mind.

A previous LessWrong post on someone's use of this technique.

A few things that can help (which I do sometimes, but sometimes do just "waste" the interstitial periods).

  • Keep multiple task lists by granularity, or keep entries on your task list that can be done (or worked on) in short time periods with low cost to switch in or out of.
  • ABR: Always. Be. Reading/Researching.  15 minutes is enough to remove 1-5 browser "read later" bookmarks.   Or enough to read a few more pages of my current novel or lightweight non-fiction.

"Keep multiple task lists by granularity, or keep entries on your task list that can be done (or worked on) in short time periods with low cost to switch in or out of."

This seems like it will take more time than its worth in the context of the question.

As a one-off, sure. Long term, it may be. I'm currently restructuring my todo list(s) to tag stuff by brain state. (Most of it requires considerable brain capacity, so if I'm exhausted/tired, I tend to scroll Discord or watch Twitch because "I can't do anything in this state anyway", which is neither productive nor particularly relaxing.) Lots of things like watering plants, cleaning the bathroom walls, throwing some cleaner into the sinks / tub / ..., taking out the trash, properly archiving last quarter's stack of records, making backups, etc. are all ~zero-brain activities that (1) I can do when I'm too tired to work productively on other "important" stuff, (2) don't truly have a fixed schedule and (3) they all have to happen eventually (often recurrently.) Searching for open tasks tagged #brainstate/amoeba is easy once you have the list, explicitly keeping a separate list works too. If wasted half-hours are actually a common situation, then the overhead of tagging or maintaining separate lists may quickly pay off.

N.B. I'm terrible at this so far, but I also run into this problem frequently, and my best idea is to keep an ~evergreen list of "things I can do quickly that are useful".

E.g. short bit of exercise/stretching/yoga, quick walk, read 10 pages of a book, make a healthy meal, deal with a couple of tedious admin-type emails, etc. I don't think most "real work" tasks fit into blocks that short for me (they may for some personality types/types of work), but there certainly are other useful things to do with that time.