Got 15 Spare Minutes? Here’s How To Make It Count

Having a head full of things we need to do is one of the biggest distractions. Here’s a better way to parse tasks and get more done.

Got 15 Spare Minutes? Here’s How To Make It Count
[Photo: Flickr user Rob Deutscher]

When we’re faced with only 15 minutes in between meetings, or waiting in line to get coffee or lunch, our natural inclination is to either answer email, look at social media, or text someone. These are not always the most productive uses of small slivers of time, according to several experts.


They say there is plenty you can accomplish in 15 minutes, if you do three things:

  1. Separate your to-do list into tasks and projects, and focus on the tasks.
  2. Write your to-do list in a way that allows you take immediate action.
  3. Look at email and social media with a focus on moving forward.

Tasks Versus Projects

The definition of a task is something that takes five to 10 minutes, says Kathy Lee, productivity tech expert and owner of DoubleSpaces LLC, a company that helps individuals use technology to boost their productivity.

There are several timesaving actions you can take with your smartphone when you only have 15 minutes to spare, Lee says. They include:

  • Unsubscribe from junk snail mail using an app like PaperKarma. While not always 100% reliable, it does help you to stop most catalogs, Lee says.
  • Read all your email subscriptions in one daily email with
  • Search for recipe ideas for tonight’s dinner.
  • Call the doctor, dentist, salon, vet, etc. to make an appointment.
  • Read an article you saved from a website or social media in Pocket.

You can also use the time to write down any tasks that come to mind as incomplete, such as picking up pet food on the way home from work, says May Wang, productivity expert, coach, and consultant. Making a list of anything you are thinking about doing but haven’t done yet allows you to free up your mind to consider other ideas and topics, she says. Keeping a running to-do list in your mind “is actually one of the biggest distractions,” says Wang.

Similarly, Wang recommends using the time in between meetings, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes, to capture action items and deadlines from your last meeting before the next meeting starts. Plus, she says, you’re less likely to forget about a deadline if you record it immediately.

Active To-Do Lists

A vaguely written to-do list with words such as budget, birthday card, or check to school can slow you down, says Maura Thomas, productivity expert, author, and founder of Regain Your Time.


Instead, she says, write your list in a way that allows you to take immediate action, rather than having to think about what to do. For example, an active to-do list would look like this:

  • Enter totals into spreadsheet
  • Find Jane’s address via Google or by emailing a friend so you can send a birthday card
  • Pay college tuition bill via online payment system

“Eliminate vague sounding words like plan, implement, and develop,” says Thomas, “because if you only have a few minutes, seeing a word like develop on your list will act like a speed bump, and you’ll probably skip over it.”

Another way to make your to-do lists more helpful is to categorize them into four quadrants: work, family, home, me. By focusing on goals from one quadrant at a time, you can use your time more wisely, says Lisa Woodruff, productivity expert and owner of Organize 365.


Forward-Moving Social Media and Email

You can use small pockets of time to catch up on social media and scan emails, but your ultimate goal should be to help you, your client, or your team move forward. For instance, when scanning through email, focus on quickly replying to a client who is stuck or team member who needs more direction, Woodruff says. “The key is to scan your social media and email with the purpose of moving everyone forward,” she says. “Cute quotes, lengthy emails to read, and long phone calls can wait.”

Most of us could easily let our entire day get sucked up by answering email, says Lee, but that won’t give us a sense of accomplishment. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I’ve read all my emails today,’ as if it was an achievement,” Lee says.

Necessary Wandering

Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is let your mind wander and allow yourself to daydream. Several studies have shown that a wandering mind can be both a well of creativity and a place to parse complex problems. “Being productive is a function of being focused and working from the state of peace of mind,” says Wang. “It is not about doing, doing, doing.”


Next time you are waiting in line, instead of browsing social media, write down two aspects of your life that you are grateful for, suggests Marie Levey-Pabst, founder of Create Balance. “Taking time to remember what you are grateful for will boost your mood, outlook, and focus,” she says.

Consider spending 10 or 15 minutes practicing mindfulness, doing a guided meditation, or even just closing your eyes, says Thomas. “The brain needs time to consolidate and generate insights,” she says, “and these are not things that we can command our brains to do.”

Productivity tips from the world’s busiest people