Productivity hacks: How to optimise your "fringe time" and get more done
In a whirl of "this year I'm going to sort my life out" productivity planning madness, I bought a planner. I haven't had a physical diary since high school (my life is in an app now) but I love to do lists and pretty stationery, so it seemed like a perfect fit. And yes, using it did make me more productive. But it also had some unexpected results.
Let me back up a bit.
The book in question here is the Imperfect Life Planner (cool, right?). I saw its edgy black-and-white form back in its Kickstarter days and immediately connected with its purpose. It was there to help you get over your fear of making mistakes, by encouraging you to do the things you wanted, fail, then get back up again. I was too scared to write in it at first, in case I made a spelling mistake. It gets me.
What is fringe time?
Around the time the planner came into my life, I heard about the concept of "fringe time". These are the little pockets of time you don't feel are substantial enough to begin a task. For example, in the queue at a store, waiting for a train, or while your dinner is cooking.
Unfortunately, there are usually quite a few of these little specks of dead time in an average day. If you actually used them (instead of scrolling through your phone, let's be honest), you would have time to put towards tasks you really wanted to achieve. Magically, you would gain more hours in your day.
Over time, using more of this fringe time could have major impacts. You could complete errands that would otherwise take up mental space ("Argh, I really need to fix that door") or clog up your down time. Instead of waking up on Saturday morning to a list of admin, you could really take the day off. You could take tiny, incremental steps towards your goals or work on projects you never seem to get around to.
Here's how to find fringe time:
Get a hour-by-hour planner or open your Google calendar and set it to the 'day' view.
Block off all the hours you have set activities (work, gym, sleep, cooking, etc) as close as possible to the actual start and end times. Tip: set up repeating events for ones that are on a regular schedule.
Look at the remaining pockets of time, even those little 10 or 15 minute periods. Ta da! Fringe time.
Another good way to spot fringe time in the moment is when you feel the need to pull out your phone just to see what's happening. That usually means you don't have a purpose for it (like needing to text your mom), but are looking for something to do while you wait, or to procrastinate with. Being conscious of this almost automatic impulse can help you identify and use that time differently.
How to use fringe time:
Once you have identified the space in your days, it's time to fill it. For me, there were 30 minute spots twice a day on my commute I'd never thought about. I usually just scrolled through social media or looked out the window while carefully avoiding eye contact with other commuters. Could I do something else to make that time more productive?
Draw up your action items:
Because the fringe time is generally quite short, I found that the best way to know what to do in the gaps each day (and make sure I was actually doing things I wanted to) was to make a list each week. This way, if a spot of open time arrived, I knew what could fill it.
I began with the large tasks or projects ("Publish blog post") and then broke them down into all the small actions that needed to be completed ("Research." "Draft text." "Proofread text." "Edit and resize images." "Format blog post." "Schedule post."). Then I filtered them by priority, or if one was dependent on another. So in this case, I couldn't schedule the blog post before I wrote it, so that was lower down on the list.
Chunking it down into micro tasks is key, as they are more likely to match the amount of time you have to do them.
Make the tasks accessible:
The thing about this spare time is that it sometimes pops up unexpectedly. To make the most of it, you need to be prepared. For example, if you want to listen to an informative or funny podcast on your commute, download a week's worth of episodes on home wifi while you wait for the kettle to boil. If you want to look for a birthday gift for your best friend while you wait in the doctor's office, download a shopping app or save a link in a spare tab so you can find it quickly. If your goal is to read more, carry a book (or headphones, if you're into audio books) with you wherever you go so it's always on hand.
Basically, get all the apps you need installed on your phone or laptop, or gather whatever materials you need to take action wherever you are. To make sure you can instantly harness any bonus time, I also suggest keep your list of tasks on your phone or in a notebook you always have on you, so it's easy to check what you should do next.
Beware of the mental blocks:
One of the problems with trying to squeeze the most out of your time is that your brain can doubt that the time is even squeezable. You might realise that you finished getting ready early and now have 22 minutes before you need to go. Even if your first thought is about a task ("Hmm, maybe I can research flights for my summer trip"), your second thought would probably be "No, there's not enough time. Let's go on Facebook or see what's in the fridge."
It's hard to catch, but that second thought needs to be ignored as much as possible. Just try. Maybe there isn't enough time to write a thesis on 'the best holiday flights ever', but you could check a comparison website or see if there are any specials. That's still progress, and saves you time you could use later on something else.
Another way to defeat this stumbling block is to set a timer and see how long it actually takes you to do something. Then you have facts to refute the doubts ("No, it took 12 minutes last time, so I should be able to do it quickly now").
Don't over do it on the to do list:
Remember when I said my planning fanaticism had some unexpected results? Unsurprisingly, after a few weeks of hyper-hacking my time, I felt like all I did with my day was complete to do lists. I got things done, yes, but it was tiring to constantly be trying to be super productive and efficient at all times. The kick of happiness I got from checking off a task became a bit of an obsession.
I had heard of how important boredom and distraction-free time is for our brains (there's even a book about it), and my quest to harness fringe time showed me that the spaces in between are necessary. The times where you are left alone with your mind can spark creativity and new ideas - how many times have you been struck by a genius solution while walking somewhere, or while in the shower?
But as time went on, I realised that the amount of "boredom" time needed fluctuates depending on the day and my energy levels. Sometimes, if I was tired or my brain was too full, I just wanted to sit in silence on the train and watch the buildings go by instead of plugging into an audio book and trying to learn something. But this was different to automatically opening Instagram or procrastinating. It feels different.
If you're keen to try taming your to do list with some fringe time smashing, pay attention to how you feel. The idea is to eventually make space to do the things you really want, not to push yourself until burn out. If you feel a sense of achievement and are proud you are making progress, wonderful. If it's getting too much, take a step back and see if you could add in some time to rest or just do something for fun.
Have you tried to reign in your fringe time to be more productive? I'd love to hear about your experiences! Let me know in the comments or on Instagram.