Back in university, my biology professor was telling the class about the different assignments and exams that she had planned for the semester. The students in the front row (I was in the back), started to complain, saying that they had very little time to do all of these things and would the professor just cut them some slack? I’ll never forget this fantastic time management tip from my biology professor in response.

She told us that we all had a ton of time that we were not using to the best of our abilities. What kind of time the students wondered? She reminded us of the time that we spend waiting for the professor to show up. Or the time that we spend waiting for food at a restaurant. Or time spent waiting for the bus to show up. Even time spent waiting around for friends to come to the cafeteria so that you can eat together. There are small bits, maybe 5 – 10 minutes of time, each time we wait around which can be used productively. Instead, we spend it on our smartphones browsing social media or playing games or maybe we do not do anything at all.

She then told us that if we did not believe her, we should, for two weeks, note down what we are doing inside a notebook every 10 minutes. This ‘audit’ was likely not done by very many students in the class but she was willing to bet that if any of the students had done the audit, they would realize that the professor was right, we were wasting a lot of time when we could be doing something useful, like studying from flash cards or trying to remember that concept from the textbook.

This brilliant tactic never left me and ever since, I’ve been trying to make the best use of these small increments of time here and there throughout the day. How can you make the best use of this time? I can’t tell you, but I can share with you some of the ways that I try to make use of the time in the hopes that you will be inspired to develop your own habits.

Bring a book with you

Sometimes it can be hard to bring a book with you everywhere you go. I like to keep books in the car or in my backpack for just these kinds of occasions. When I know I’m going to a restaurant, I’ll try to bring a book and sneak in some reading while waiting for the food or waiting for friends to arrive. Or when I know I’ll be waiting for the bus or have some passive time on the train, I’ll make sure to pack along a book so that I can do a bit of reading. I like that with books, there are no distractions, only words on a page that you read and think through.

Try to solve a puzzle

I’m a big fan of these hanayama puzzles – they’re small, discrete and they have a variety of difficulty levels that can be very easy or extremely challenging. I’m working through a few right now – most of them I haven’t solved at all but it’s fun to play around with it in your hands and try to think through how to solve it. And when you get around to solving it (either purposefully or accidentally), you also have to figure out how to put it back together.

Write down 10 ideas

I like to carry around a small notebook that I can carry in my pocket. I started carrying one around because of James Altucher’s practice of writing 10 ideas a day to build up your idea muscle and so every once in a while, when I have about 5 – 10 minutes of time, I’ll write down either 10 ideas a day or write down different topics to generate 10 ideas a day (such as books to write, new board game ideas, ideas to improve the experience at hotels, etc.). Are the ideas any good? Not at all. But I would like to think that by generating 10 ideas every day, I’m able to generate more ideas and quantity is much better than quality when it comes to ideas.

Be okay doing nothing

Maybe you’re like me and you can’t sit around doing nothing. But sometimes doing nothing can be an impetus to do something. Comedians like Whitney Cummings has a practice whenever they have a stand-up routine to do – they are silent for the whole day. That way, when they get to the stand-up act, they’re bursting with things to say and energy to do it. In this day and age where everything is a ‘go go go’, it’s okay to step back and do nothing or to take a step back. It’s not unproductive time. It’s more like productive relaxation time.

If you do feel like you have to do something, I would suggest box breathing or taking six deep breaths. This is a really great way to relax and to gain clarity on whatever it is you have to do next.

Use your smartphone

I decided to put this last because I think by default, most people will do this anyway when they have a few minutes. They will browse social media, look at the news feeds or play games. I’m not saying that your smartphone isn’t handy – you can use it in many different ways but make sure that it is you who is in control of your smartphone and not your smartphone who is in control of you. If you head out of the house and forget your smartphone, do you have to go back no matter what? Do you find yourself reaching for your smartphone every time you are bored? Again, nothing bad but these may be signs that you are addicted to your smartphone. But, you can also harness your smartphone in many productive ways:

  • I like using apps such as Duolingo or Elevate to learn something every time I have 5 – 10 minutes – I can slowly pick up a new language or learn about the nuances of the English language
  • E-reader apps are heavily used on my phone and though I prefer reading from a physical book, I do enjoy the convenience of being able to read multiple books without carrying the bulk
  • Podcasts are my go to whenever I am doing something that does not require a lot of focus (say doing the laundry, cleaning or while driving the car). I also listen to quite a few audiobooks as well.

How about you? What do you do to make the best use of your passive time? And have you ever done a ‘time audit’ of your day to see where most of your time was spent?