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Making every second count at work

Oliver Burkeman tells us how making every second count can have a big impact on what you get done in a day

by Psychologies

The idea

We dream of finding hours of undistracted time to focus on what matters most: big work projects, relaxing with family, or writing that novel. In reality, time is fragmented – chopped up by interruptions from phones, bosses and children; or spent commuting and in queues. The result is numerous tiny portions of time that feel wasted, because they’re too short for any real achievement.

One solution is to reduce ‘bitty’ time by, say, arranging all meetings in the afternoons, leaving mornings undisturbed. But there’s a more cunning approach: learn tricks for using those small pockets of time, so they won’t be ‘wasted’ at all.

How to make it happen

Avoid the ‘postponement trap’

We assume important tasks require big blocks of time, but these are rare, and the ironic result is that we make more progress on what matters least. It’s always a long email from a friend that has to wait, while unimportant messages get dealt with faster. Spend small periods of time on something significant, and it will soon be ‘done’.

Keep an ‘in-between’ list

List tasks that you can finish in five minutes, or mark them on your to-do list. Then, when a brief window of time arises, you won’t waste it wondering how to use it.

Take a ‘micro-holiday’

There’s rejuvenation in even the tiniest break – a stroll or a cuppa – providing you first take a few seconds to close your eyes, simply feel the sensation of breathing, and mentally step away from stressful thoughts. Even a crowded train platform can be relaxing, once you let go of the thought that you wish you weren’t on it.

Oliver Burkeman is author of 'The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock