When Dr. Condoleezza Rice visited the University of Alabama in the winter of 2010, the athletic department arranged a small luncheon with her and a select number of student-athletes. The invite to attend was one of the stranger calls I've ever received:
"...You want me to go to lunch with WHO?!?"
Despite her accolades, Dr. Rice had such a humble demeanor about her. She joked that she's always rooting for Bama, unless they were to ever play her beloved Stanford, where she teaches in the Graduate School of Business and the department of Political Science (how cool would it be to be in a foreign policy class taught by the woman who logged more travel miles than any other Secretary of State?). She revealed in an interview once that during college football season she watches "14 or 15 games every week live on TV on Saturdays and records games on Sundays." Not an easy feat for a woman with no shortage of things calling for her attention: continuing to work closely with the national government, sitting on several boards, teaching at Stanford, and being deeply involved in several civil rights movements in her home state of Alabama, where she was no stranger to discrimination growing up (she was in town to attend a related event in Selma, Alabama).
The Q&A portion of the luncheon was very quiet, as everyone was hesitant to try to come up with a worthy question.
"How do you keep up with it all? You have so much going on at all times," I asked.
She laughed, and shared that because it's so rare for her to have an uninterrupted hour to get stuff done, she is forced to utilize the 5 or 10 minute chunks of spare time she finds herself with throughout the day. They add up—and compound—quickly.
My recent stint working in a Michelin star kitchen taught me a similar lesson. Every time I found myself with a few minutes between tasks like waiting for something to finish in the oven, the sous chef would ensure that I put those few minutes to good use:
"Let's have a quick sweep of the floor over here."
"Take this time to tidy up your station."
"Is there any prep you can do to make tomorrow easier for yourself?"
"Come and shuck some of these peas for me."
Condoleezza Rice would have done well in that kitchen, because she's become an expert at building with the fragments of time that present themselves throughout the day. It's so easy to fill these "gaps" with mindless activities. Instagram comes to mind for me personally. Recently I took the time to quantify how much time I was spending on it, and decided to publicly shame myself by posting on Instagram how much I used it over the last 7 days. A couple people reached out to me saying they were shocked by their own numbers and decided to also make a change.
One of the biggest hurdles when you have 10 minutes to spare is deciding what can actually be done in that period of time. Instagram is an easy cop out because it's mindless and has no definitive end point. Real tasks can often take a half hour or more, so we rule them out and defer them for a later date.
But the truth is, most tasks can be further broken down into smaller steps. Shopping for groceries really consists of inventorying the fridge and pantry, writing a list, going to the store, and unpacking. These smaller tasks can almost always fit inside a time fragment. And completing the earlier, quicker steps will always make the biggest step of the task more pleasant. Picking up a completed grocery list on your way out the door feels so much better than stopping to make a list when you're preoccupied with leaving.
I use OmniFocus to break my tasks into the smallest pieces possible so I can make small, consistent steps forward throughout the day. I plan to do a deep dive on OmniFocus later, as I think it's a game-changing tool, but for now, check out the weekly challenge for some practice on building with fragments.
Breaking Down Tasks
Active time to complete: 3 min
What is one task on your to-do list that's been there for way too long because you've been putting it off? For me, it's getting caught up on my finances on YNAB (maybe if I never check my credit card transactions, it's like they never happened?)
After identifying that task, try breaking it down into at least 3 smaller pieces. This can seem a little strange at first, but knocking off smaller chunks of the task one at a time will help you chip away at the daunting task. And before you know it, you'll be done!