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The Sand Grains Method -How to do productive work in free time

Today I’m pleased to announce the first guest post on Develop Good Habits.  The following article is written by Michal Stawicki who recently published the book Master Your Time in 10 Minutes a Day (which is free for the next few days.)  The habit that Michal is about to discuss can have an amazing impact on your productivity and overall ability to manage time.   

Do you know that feeling of frustration when you waste time waiting at the dentist office? Or when you’re stuck in a traffic jam?

There is an easy way to transform that feeling of frustration into a sense of achievement. It is possible to do productive work in free time. The trick is to fill those unproductive minutes with tiny tasks—a concept that’s called the “Sand Grains Method.”

This approach is one of the core ideas in David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. You put every important task on several to-do lists. Those list are context dependent—some tasks can be done only using your computer, some at home and others are errands. Your goal is to manage your time based on those lists.

Examples

Let’s say you have a five minute walk from the bus to the office, you pull out the “calls” list and use that time to talk a friend you’ve been meaning to call.

If you are tired and need a break between job related tasks, instead of surfing the Internet mindlessly, you pick a task from your “to do on the Internet” list: searching for a specific book on Amazon or reading that blog post you bookmarked a week ago.

4 Advantages of the Sand Grains Habit

There are a number of benefits to developing the Sand Grains habit:

1. The Sand Grains Method can raise your level of happiness. Each time you do a tiny job you feel satisfaction from finishing a task and it fuels your energy.

2. It’s really easy to fit several 10-minute blocks of time into your daily schedule.

Just as you can more efficiently fill a jar with sand than with stones, the sand grains method allows you to increase your “productivity density.”

I structured my habits around this idea. I have many activities which take 10 minutes or less. Speed reading practice, studying the Bible, pull ups, reviewing my vision board, a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout, adding my site to a web catalog – all require 10 minutes at most.

3. The Sand Grains Method also helps in avoiding boredom and monotony. I jump from one task to another and I feel the joy of achievement each time I cross out a tiny activity from my daily plan. When my focus is strained from working on a long or complex task, I often feel the temptation to distract myself. You know that urge to open Facebook or browse a news website. In such cases, I take one of the small tasks from my to-do list and complete it. This small accomplishment energizes me for the further work on the bigger task.

4. Another advantage is you’re productive during those moments of “lost time.” For example if your commute is simply a matter of moving from point A to point B, then you’ll lose an opportunity to use this time productively. You can listen to the podcast while driving. You can read while traveling by train.  Or you can make a phone call while walking.

5 Steps to doing productive work in free time

So how do you develop the habit of doing miniscule tasks during your day?

Here is a five-step process:

Step #1: Identify useful “filler” activities

Not every type of activity is suitable for 10-minute blocks. I’ve been forced before to write in 10-minute installments, but I am much more productive if I write during a 60 to 120 minute block of time.

We are talking about fillers here, not your core activities. Believe it or not, even physical exercise can be a “sand grain activity.” I don’t plan long sessions on a treadmill or jogging outside. I just do a series of push-ups or other similar exercises here and there, a few times a day. For a white collar worker, it’s enough to stay in shape.

Step #2: Recognize the wasted opportunities.

Take out a pen and paper and write down every moment in your schedule when you feel you could do more. The activities like daily walk to the bus stop, standing in the queue in the cafeteria or those times that are wasted on the Internet. It should be something you do regularly, so you can get a best return on your time investment.

My hints:

  • Commuting
  • Working out
  • Surfing on the Internet
  • Queuing
  • Waiting; not synonymous with queuing; for example you can wait for your spouse while she gets ready for the party 😉
  • Driving

Step #3: Identify core “Sand Grain” activities  

For example you can make a phone calls while walking to the bus stop; you can read on your mobile device while standing in the queue; and you can read a valuable blog post instead when you’re overwhelmed at work and need a break.

Here are some times of how to fill those small pockets of time:

  • Reading: a book, a blog, a magazine
  • Making phone calls
  • Listening to: podcasts, music, audiobooks, audio programs
  • Working out: stretching, bodyweight exercises
  • Napping
  • Mental activities: praying, planning, repeating affirmations or a personal mission statement
  • Reviewing your goals or vision board
  • Going through your to-do list

Step #4: Compose a to-do list with specific tasks.

The trick is to go down from the ideas level to the actual implementation. On your to-do list are the tasks that need to be completed.  So often getting them done is a simple matter of finding those moments when you can quickly accomplish them.

So, if you figured out that your “sand grains” are the phone calls to make while walking home from the office, then write down a few calls you have to make.  Like that call to an old friend to meet up, to your accountant to check your taxes this month and a quick message to your favorite client.

Those are just examples for productivity while walking. You can make similar detailed plans for commuting, driving or working out.

There is a plenty of things you can do while waiting for an appointment, but you have to be prepared. That’s why you need to be specific and compose your list in advance. It’s too late if you’re sitting in an office wondering how you can fill this time.

If you find looking for tiny tasks troublesome then chop bigger tasks into smaller chunks and do them “in the meantime.” If your job is to contact 100 people this month, divide this up and send five emails a day. Composing and sending a single message, especially if you’re using a template, takes only a few minutes.  So you can easily fit do it when you have a spare few minutes.

Step #5: Use your to-do list regularly.

Having a great list will do you no good, if you don’t use it habitually. But there aren’t any rules for how you should structure this list. You can:

  • Write it down on a piece of paper
  • Use an app on your mobile device (like Lift.do)
  • Start the list with pre-determined set of actions and then add to it.
  • Create a set of voice reminders on Evernote

Do it the way that you find useful.  The two important things to remember is it must be fast and it must be easy to use.

My experience is that your personal mobile device can became a productivity hub—if you use it correctly. There is a lot of different apps to help you achieve your goals and they are always with you. I use Nozbe for managing my to-do lists, Lift for tracking the multitude of my habits, MyVisionBoard to review my goals and plans, and Readability to store lots of reading material. What is more, I carry with me hours of podcasts and other audio materials to listen to in any given time.

How to Get Started with the Sand Grains Habit

Your ultimate goal is to have an accessible list every time you’re in a previously frustrating, time-wasting situation. However, if you don’t have a prior experience with operating a daily to-do list, no system ready to adapt, then I encourage you to start slowly.

Implement your solution and track your progress. If the system works fine, then expand it to the next area of your life. According to the Develop Good Habits underlying philosophy—build one habit at a time.

It’s pointless to start hard and fast just to recognize after a month, that the system you so carefully planned doesn’t work. For example if you narrow everything down to a single to-do list with specific tasks, but never refer to it, then this exercise is pointless.  My suggestion is to start slowly, add a few small productivity tasks to this list and then expand into the other areas once you’ve fully developed this habit.

The best part about the Sand Grain Method is it can become a Keystone Habit.  When you learn how to fill those small pockets of time, you’ll start to notice additional tasks that can be quickly accomplished.  In essence, you’ll learn how to do more with less time.

A big thanks to Michal for this article.  Personally, I love the idea of using lost time to be more productive.  If you want to learn more about how to get more things done with the same amount of time, then I recommend checking out Michal’s book on Amazon: Master Your Time in 10 Minutes a Day.

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