How many times do we tell ourselves: I only have 5, 10, or 20 minutes free, I can’t get anything done? I frequently think about the lines from the poem If by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With 60 seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the world and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a man my son.


What can possibly be done in 60 seconds? It turns out a lot of important things can be done in 60 seconds if you sprint. Quite literally, think about the fastest hundred-meter dash. The record time is 9.58 seconds. In one minute, that run could be done six times over. How many unforgiving minutes have we wiled away doing nothing of value? If we strung all the unforgiving minutes that we spend scrolling through Facebook, staring at the ceiling, or cataloging all the things that we should be doing, they would add up to hours a day. The key is being intentional about those small pieces of time instead of letting them pass or giving our attention away mindlessly to the lowest common denominator.

It is true that for complex projects that require a deep focus, we do better if we have larger time blocks. However, we can frequently get a decent chunk of work done even in smaller time blocks if we are intentional about it.

Instead of wasting those smaller increments of time, what if we used them in ways that propelled us forward? The first barrier is always in our own minds. Here are three tips to overcome the barrier and make the most of those small interstices of time.  

1. Change the narrative. Instead of continuously telling yourself it’s not worth starting anything since I only have a few minutes, change the narrative to I’m curious how much I can get done if I sprint for 10 or 20 minutes. Often, I’m surprised by how much I can fit into that time frame if I approach it with openness, curiosity, and an internal challenge. The competitive twinkle in my eye moves me forward to see what I can do like I’m racing against myself.

2. Keep a list of some tasks that can be done in 10 or 20 minutes but avoid getting sucked into excessive email. Email tends to sprawl and expand into all the time you give it. If you can, make the short tasks things that are either easy or fun. If you aren’t sure what to do when you have 5 minutes free, then you’re more likely to waste the time. If in doubt, try spending the time meditating to help clear your mind.

One of the most valuable things I do during five-minute breaks is to write down all my thoughts. This helps reduce the mental clutter and creates the clarity of a “mind like water.” This practice is particularly important the more stressed, overwhelmed, or busy your life feels. People I have worked with often describe a buzzing or cloudy sensation when all the thoughts whirring in their heads are annoying, indistinct, and sometimes toxic. Taking one or five minutes to gather all your thoughts onto paper and clear your mind helps clear so that you can concentrate better.  

3. Leave tasks as cliffhangers, so that when you come back to them you can jump right back in. I think about the concept of in medias res, a Latin phrase referring to the practice of starting a narrative in the middle of the action. At work, we frequently feel like we need ramp-up time before we can get going. Instead, jump into the task in medias res, at a sprint. Some writers recommend stopping in the middle of a chapter or even in the middle of a sentence when you’re writing so that when you come back, you’re right back in the action. You could also leave easy, low-hanging fruit. If you know you have to edit a figure, leave that work for when you just have 15 minutes free, and you can easily knock it out then, while saving your bigger chunks of time for the harder work of writing or planning.

We can never get more hours in the day, but we can gather up and live intentionally in the small pieces of time that we waste because we tell ourselves they don’t matter. So much of our lives are spent in the sum of little 5, 10, or 20- minute increments. Think about how you can create more value, peace, or mental clarity by filling those unforgiving minutes with distance run.

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