Write a to-do list
Taking five minutes to jot down a to-do list every day is critical, but don’t just make it a list of tasks, says Charles Duhigg, New York Times bestselling author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. Put the short-term goals for your day at the bottom and write a “stretch goal” for what you want to accomplish over the next day, week, or month at the top. “It pushes you to think about your deepest priorities,” Duhigg says. When you have five minutes later in the day, revisit your long-term goal. If your recent tasks haven’t been getting you any closer to it, you might want to reassess how you’ll spend the rest of your day, he says. Here are sneaky reasons you don't finish your to do list.
Do some dusting
Keeping a list of tasks you can do in five minutes (or 10 or 15) is an easy way to make sure you’re prepped with ideas when you have a bit of downtime, says Laura Stack, productivity speaker and author of Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time. One of her go-to chores: dusting. “I have an awards shelf of things I’ve been given over the years and keep Pledge wipes on hand, so if I’m on hold at least five minutes, I just dust the shelf,” she says.
Visualize your next task
If you’re about to enter a big meeting, taking five minutes—or even just 45 seconds—to picture what could happen to make everything run more smoothly, Duhigg says. Take it a step beyond rehearsing what you’ll do and say, and imagine other people’s actions too. “If you tell yourself a story about how your meeting is going to go, your consciousness will be better primed for how to react to things, and know what to pay attention to and what to ignore,” Duhigg says. Using this method before running errands could prep you for a successful afternoon too, he says. Here are 20 little tips to make running errands way easier.
Sneak in some exercise
Getting moving for just five minutes can give you a big energy boost, Stack says. “People just sit way too much at desks. Sitting can shorten your life if you sit too much,” she says. “Get up and move.” Stack keeps dumbbells by her desk for overhead presses, but she also recommends doing squats, sit-ups, or stretches. Here are more ways to help your body recover from a day of sitting.
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Read an article
Keep a folder of articles you’ve wanted to read, then pull one out when you find yourself with extra time. “When you find a link, don’t read it—just print it out,” Stack says. “When you have time, peruse an article for a while instead of using ‘real time’ during the work day.”
Talk to people around you
Instead of shuffling notes before a meeting starts, ask coworkers around you what their weekend plans are. “The most effective teams tend to be the ones that have psychological safety, which often comes from learning how to pick up on each other’s nonverbal cues,” Duhigg says. “Learning how to listen better and how to show your listening is a critical aspect.” If you’re waiting in line, chat with the person behind you—Chevy Chase made friends with Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels while the two were standing in line for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Duhigg points out.
Clean out files
Five minutes is just enough time to clean out a filing folder. Stack keeps an orange folder sticking the opposite way in her filing cabinet to mark the last folder she went through, and when she’s on hold, she’ll go back to that spot. On the flip side, you can also add papers you’ve been meaning to file. “You can make a big dent in a file pile in five minutes,” Stack says.
Make a phone call
A quick phone call checking in with a friend or family member is a great way of showing your appreciation. “It’s good to say ‘I have five minutes and wanted to let you know I was thinking about you,’” Stack says. Here are 24 little ways to be a good friend.
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Water your plants
You might not remember to water your houseplants all the time, but make a point of feeding them when you’ve got some spare time. “I don’t water plants on a consistent basis, but if I have a minute I’ll water them,” Stack says.
Check your email
Instead of jumping to reply to emails as they come to you, wait until you have a five-minute break, or one that you’ve carved out. “The nice thing about emails is…you can talk to me without me being there to hear them,” Duhigg says. “The point is to check when it’s useful for me, not other people.” These are annoying email habits you didn't realize you had.
Embrace the boredom
Resist the urge to pull out your smartphone, and just let your mind wander—you might be surprised at the insights you have when don’t have to pump out emails or watch the kids. “Being bored is important,” Duhigg says. “If we could carry our iPhones into the shower, we wouldn’t have good ideas anymore.”