With all the updates from Apple being released lately, I’ve been spending more time than usual sitting at my desk waiting for files to download or for my computer to restart. It’s a common time-waster for me, even when it’s not release season at Apple. I’m often sitting at my desk waiting for a file to upload or waiting for a Skype call to start.

Rather than letting this time be wasted, or filling it with checking Twitter yet again, I’ve found a few ways to make these tiny pockets of time productive and valuable.

Real-life Pomodoros

The Pomodoro Technique is a process for working in blocks. You set a timer (it’s based on a simple tomato-shaped kitchen timer) for 25 minutes and work until it goes off. Then you take a five minute break and repeat. It’s a good process for working through a busy day or a big project that you need to chip away at.pomodoro

I’ve created my own Pomodoro system which uses real-life events as timers. For instance, when I work from home and have the washing machine going, I sometimes work until it finishes, then take a break when it’s done. I often use albums as timers, too. Listening to a new album makes work more fun and gives me a timer for a solid block of work before I take a break.

You could use your waiting time this way, too. If I’m waiting for a Skype call to start, I often take out my notebook and work on brainstorming or outlining a new blog post. Knowing that I only have a few minutes to work until the call starts makes me more focused and productive.

Thinking Time

The biggest block in my writing workflow is almost always getting ideas in the first place. When I’m having plenty of ideas, I usually have a running list of ideas to turn to when it’s time to create something new. But when the flow is blocked, it comes time to write something and I don’t have anything to help me get started.

To avoid this blank page syndrome, I often use little pockets of downtime to think up new ideas. I put them into a swipe file so they’re always at hand.

Exactly what happens in our brains when we come up with ideas is still up for debate, but it definitely starts with finding inspiration in the world around us. Ideas are just new combinations of old elements so we start by collecting thoughts, notes, and inspiration, and then we find ways to connect and manipulate those into new ideas.


Finding these connections often happens in our subconscious, so using my little spots of downtime to collect thoughts and notes gives my subconscious fodder to chew on when I go back to my normal work.

When I sit down for another thinking session later on, I often have new ideas immediately, simply from feeding my brain and giving it time to process.

Add to Your Reading List

I use Paperback for my reading list, but there are plenty of alternatives: Instapaper and Pocket are popular options. Each of these services lets you quickly add links to your account so you can read the articles later when you have more time.

When I’m killing time, I sometimes visit a handful of sites I like and add anything interesting to my reading list. Here are some of my favorite sites to find great reading material:

  • Prismatic: follow your interests and algorithms will suggest interesting content for you (pictured below)
  • Digg: the editorial team at Digg finds really interesting stories to highlight, and you can subscribe to RSS feeds in Digg Reader
  • Flipboard: follow sites or topics you like and add social network accounts to see what your friends are sharing
  • Reddit: subscribe to subreddits for topics you’re interested in
  • Metafilter: users submit interesting content to Metafilter that you won’t find elsewhere

I’ve also collected a longer list of places to find content in this Buffer blog post.

Catch Up on Your Reading

If my reading list is already topped-up, or I’m in the middle of a great book, I’ll take advantage of any downtime at my desk to read. Five minutes here and there can easily add up over the week to an hour of extra reading time.

One app I enjoy using (though it hasn’t been updated for a long time) is Readtime. If you connect your Readability or Pocket account, it will scan your reading list to find out how long each article will take to read. Then you can plug in how much time you’ve got, from five minutes to an hour, and Readtime will serve up articles to fit that time period for you. It’s a great way to get through your reading list in short pockets of time—I used to use it often when waiting in line at the post office or grocery store.


Instapaper has a similar feature now, where you can filter your reading list based on how long articles will take to read. If you only have five minutes, or you just feel like reading a few short articles, you can filter your list to just show articles that will take five minutes or less to read. And for the times when you have a longer break, you can filter by just the long articles you’ve saved.

Read the Dictionary

I know this sounds crazy, but it’s something I’ve really done. A few years ago I lived with my sister who’s a nurse. She often worked night shifts so she was home during the day, and I was studying from home, so we’d find ourselves sitting around in the afternoon, wondering what to do. I kept a dictionary handy for my studies, and would often pick it up idly, open to a random page and choose a word I didn’t know. My sister would try to guess what the word meant or how it was spelled, and we’d discuss how to pronounce it and what its meaning was.

Although reading the dictionary sounds like a strange pastime, it was a silly, fun way to improve our vocabularies and immerse ourselves in language. As a writer, this has served me well, and I should probably make more time for it now.

A pocket dictionary doesn’t cost much or take up much room. Leave it on your desk and try picking it up whenever you’ve got just a couple of minutes of downtime. Pick a random word you don’t know and get to know it—then see if you can work it into conversation with your colleagues or ask someone to guess what it means. The more you play with the word, I’ve found, the better you’ll remember it so you can use it again later.


I recently came across some old pages of a notebook where I’d briefly kept a journal of my dreams. Here’s a sample:

Looking back now, they seem strange and funny. They’re not especially useful, but I had fun looking through them. I’ve never been a great journal-keeper but on the few occasions I have written a traditional journal entry, I’ve enjoyed looking back at it, just like I did with those silly dreams. I can often remember exactly where I was when I wrote a particularly emotional journal entry—whether I stood or sat, what pen I used, what room I was in. Like a strong smell or an old song, journal entries can take you back to particular moments in time and help you reflect.

A journal entry doesn’t have to be long. When you only have a few minutes of downtime, that could be the perfect moment to write an entry. You could write about why you’ve got downtime (what you’re waiting for), what else has happened today, how you’re feeling, or something you’re looking forward to. You could also try writing down three things you’re grateful for. This exercise has proved to increase happiness.

Chat to a Friend

Put that downtime to use by keeping in touch with friends, colleagues, and family. A quick text message, email, or Facebook post doesn’t take long at all. Sometimes I use downtime to run through my Facebook friends list and find a couple of people I haven’t talked to for ages. Firing off a couple of messages to old friends is a quick activity, but it helps keep those ties strong.

Some of my family members who live interstate still prefer good old snail mail, which I tend to put off longer than replying to an email or Facebook message. Downtime when I’m stuck at my desk waiting for something is perfect for replying to a letter or postcard. I usually keep the ones I’ve received on my desk so they serve as reminders for when I’ve got time to spare. I keep stamps on my desk, too, so I can use downtime to write a surprise handwritten note to a friend. Sometimes it’s just nicer to receive something physical than an email.

I bet you have your own tricks for making downtime productive and useful. What are your favorites? Let me know in the comments.

Image credits: A Year of Productivity, Hugh MacLeod, Abduzeedo