When I was growing up my mom had a box labeled “Odds and Ends,” where she stored bits of string and ribbon and cord. And whenever I had a project that required just a little bit of string, I could look through the box and find something that would work. I didn’t have to wait and go to the store to get something. I could just do my project and be done with it.
Now, I could write about thriftiness and reusing things, but I actually thought about my mom’s box for a very different reason.
A friend recently told me that she had improved her productivity and her level of general satisfaction with life by using the “in between” times to get things done, and that got me thinking: how much time do we lose to being in between things, waiting for stuff to happen, and enforced idleness? And so, of course, I googled it, and discovered that according to a survey conducted by Timex, over the course of a lifetime, the average American spends about 6 months waiting for stuff.
So how can we avoid wasting those 6 months?
Now I’m not suggesting that everyone should become frenetic multitaskers, checking emails while taking a shower, or putting makeup on while driving. In fact, I would enthusiastically discourage both of these activities. And I’m also not suggesting shortening leisure activities like sleeping, reading, taking walks, watching movies, or whatever you happen to find recharges you. These activities are important and deserve their time.
What I’m talking about are those moments that you probably haven’t noticed. Like while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew in the morning. Or waiting for supper to cook. Or waiting in line at the grocery store or at a doctor’s office. Or, if you’re a mom, maybe those moments where you’re sitting around breastfeeding, or waiting for a baby to go to sleep. Or waiting for a toddler who wants to do it “all by myself.”
Most of us spend these moments feeling stressed, thinking about all the things we could be doing if we didn’t have to wait. But what if we could turn them into opportunities instead of sources of stress? Instead of stressing about all the things we can’t do, what if we figured out what we can do?
Here are just a few ideas that I’ve come up with for using those in between moments. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas, too.
Waiting for something to cook
Whether it’s your coffee brewing in the morning, or your lasagna baking at night, waiting for things to get done can be really frustrating. But since you’re stuck in the kitchen anyway, there is probably a lot you can actually do.
I happen to have my home command center in the kitchen, so while waiting for stuff in the morning, I can look over my to do list. It only takes a few minutes, but it improves my day by reminding me what I actually want to get done, and in those little moments throughout the day I can check things off as I do them, and feel like I accomplished something, even if it was just eating lunch.
Or you can do those never-ending kitchen chores: sweeping the floor, washing a few dishes, wiping down or tidying counters, setting the table up for the meal, or putting away dishes in cabinets. Even dusting can be done quickly in between other things.
Or maybe you’re too tired to get all the kitchen chores done while you cook. In that case, take that time to relax as effectively as possible. While napping is probably not a good idea unless you’ve perfected the five minute power nap, there are things you can do to use that time to recharge yourself.
Sit down and put your feet up. Catch up on the reading you say you never have time to do. Do a simple mindfulness exercise: just take a couple of deep breaths, close your eyes, and focus on one sound, one sight, or one sensation. Don’t think about it, just experience it, relish it, savor it. Even just a minute spent that way can be surprisingly effective at reducing stress. I have recently started doing this, and it amazed me how different things seem when you try to experience things without thinking about them or judging them.
Waiting in line
I don’t know about you, but waiting in doctor’s offices is one of my least favorite ways to spend time. I spent quite awhile in one particular doctor’s office not too long ago, just waiting for a nurse to call my name. In some waiting rooms people talk to each other, but no one ever seems willing to talk at that office. Everyone is closed up in their own little bubble, texting, reading, or staring at the TV set, which is invariably playing a vapid quiz show, or sports commentary.
There are magazines, but after I’ve paged through the first several issues of Good Housekeeping, looking at things I couldn’t afford even if I wanted them, I generally feel like I’ve gotten what I can out of the magazines.
But fortunately I’ve discovered that there are plenty of options for productive use of time even while waiting alone for an appointment.
First of all, you can use your phone in a productive way. That friend you haven’t talked to in a couple of months? It would probably be rude to call if there’s other people waiting with you, but why not send your friend a text or an email, just to see how they’re doing. It might make her day.
With a little preparation, your time in the waiting room can become even more effective. If you need to write something, you could consider installing a writing app on your phone, like Google docs, so that you can take it wherever you go. I’ve done a couple of different writing projects while waiting for things to happen. Or if you’re more old school, bring a notebook and catch up on your journaling or letter writing.
Or if you think you might have some time on your hands, bring a book, settle down as comfortably as you can in the waiting room chairs, and catch up on your reading. You might even be able to meditate if you want.
The important thing is to start with the attitude that the time you spend in the waiting room is not automatically wasted. This will leave you free to use it productively. Start thinking of it as special time reserved for your own relaxation, for catching up with your friends, and for doing things that you’re usually too busy to do, and you might even feel disappointed when they call your name.
For the first few weeks breastfeeding often takes concentration, but as time goes on and you and your baby get used to each other, it often becomes quite boring and frustrating to sit around for hours every day in unpredictable, 20-minute increments.
I really enjoyed those times, though, because it gave me a perfect excuse to sit down, make myself comfortable, and read a book. I think my baby appreciated it too, because I was more willing to let her linger as long as she wanted, since I was enjoying it, too. Some people instead watch movies, write to friends, or journal.
While transitioning my baby to her own bed in her own room I had to spend a lot of time getting her used to the idea of sleeping in the new place, which basically meant staying in a dark room until she went to sleep. It was unbelievably tedious until I realized I could install Google docs on my phone and write a book while I sat there. It made the process of sleep adjustment much more pleasant for all concerned, and I wrote a book.
Waiting for a child
One of the hardest things to do as a busy parent is to stand back and wait while your child tries to do something for himself. It’s so tempting to just shove the kid into his clothes, carry him out the door, and drop him in the car seat, and sometimes you have to do it that way.
But if you always do everything for your child, he’ll never learn new skills, and you’ll be stuck taking care of everything for him forever.
But I think it’s possible to avoid making the wait too tedious. There’s a few ideas you can try.
One thing I’ve found helpful is to tell my toddler what’s going on and have her get started on getting ready while I’m still getting ready, too. Or, if she’s taking her sweet time going to the potty, I can quickly wipe down the bathroom mirror, or throw in a load of wash.
Depending on your child’s attention span and level of development, this may or may not work. So another technique you can try is to simply think about it in a different way. Instead of viewing your child’s laggardly ways as a frustration, try to view them as quality time you spend with your child teaching him or her new skills. (And if you don’t believe this can work, I was able to get myself to think of diaper changes as quality time with my baby.) You might have to plan ahead and get started on activities a little earlier, but a simple change of focus can turn a source of stress into an enjoyable and productive experience.
Even those frustratingly short moments, like the time it takes for a pot to fill with water, can be useful to regain focus.
Try one of these ideas next time you’re waiting for your pot to fill up, the dish water to warm up, or your microwave to finish microwaving.
Take a couple of deep breaths. Close your eyes, straighten your shoulders, relax as many muscles as you can. Then think of one happy thing: maybe something you’re looking forward to this week, something you’re grateful for in your life, or something pleasant you heard or saw in the last few days. Or, take the moment to say a short prayer. Thank God for something you appreciate, praise Him, or ask Him for help in getting through the day.
These are just a few ideas. There are other odds and ends of time during the day that we tend not to use well, and that maybe even make us deeply unhappy. But I think there’s always a good use for time. Have you come up with any good uses for boring time?