The Art Of Focus: Use Bits Of Time For Big Goals

Last Updated Jun 6, 2011 9:07 AM EDT

Last week, I wrote about my favorite time management tip: namely, recognizing that time is a choice. Days and weeks are blank slates. If you don't like how you are choosing to fill them, you can, over time, choose differently.

I had a few readers write me and let me know that, while this idea was fine in the abstract, right now their lives were what they were. Right now, they only had a few minutes here and there for big goals. So what advice would I give to people in their situations?

For help with this question, I turned to novelist Camille Noe Pagán. Her new novel, The Art of Forgetting -- a tale of two friends, and how they cope with one's traumatic brain injury -- is out this week from Dutton. Normally, we think of authors toiling away for hours in some forgotten tower. Noe Pagán, on the other hand, managed to write her book in 15-minute spurts between her full-time journalism work and caring for her two children (ages 3 years, and 6 months). If you've got a big goal and a full schedule, try her tips for making the most of whatever time you have:

1. Just do something. "Like most things, working in short bursts is a skill honed over time,” says Noe Pagán. "I like to use small chunks for tasks that I can jump right into -- for example, balancing my books or doing a quick edit of the last chapter I wrote.” If you wait for the perfect time, it will never come. But if you get started, work feeds on itself. "There is something very powerful about beginning a project, so that when you sit down to work again the next time, you know you're not starting from scratch. It breaks down the mental barrier,” she says.

2. Minimize and plan for distractions. 15 minutes is enough time to write, but it's not enough time to write and check Facebook. "I'm an email junkie,” says Noe Pagán. "I like to read and respond to my emails quickly. It's like an instant hit of accomplishment and it keeps my inbox from filling up.” However, "like most people, I could sit on email all day and still not stay entirely on top of it, so I've trained myself to minimize or shut my email down when I'm trying to accomplish something; otherwise, the siren song of a new email is too strong. On a similar note, I set aside certain times where I know I'm going to do distracting activities; for example, I let myself log onto Twitter at lunch and around 3 p.m., when there's a lull in my workday.”

3. Give yourself a gold star. Every time you use a 15- minute chunk well, give yourself a tiny reward. "I'm very big on using check boxes and charts; there's something inherently motivating about being able to check off an accomplishment,” says Noe Pagán. "For my novel, I printed out a box with 80 little '1ks' written on it, each of which stood for 1,000 words (80,000 is about the average length of a novel), and taped it above my desk. Writing 200 words here or there doesn't seem like a lot, but I knew every time I did so I put myself that much closer to being able to cross off one of those 1ks.”

4. Don't aim for perfect. Aim for done. When you have all the time in the world, you might second guess yourself. Having only a few minutes helped to "silence my inner critic,” says Noe Pagán, and so she was able to crank out a rough draft in less than five months. "Granted, it needed work--all first drafts do--but I had cleared the major hurdle, which was getting the gist of the novel down,” she says. And then it was on to more short spurts of editing.

What big goal have you achieved in 15 minute chunks?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, incase.

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