9 productive ways to spend 5 minutes instead of checking your email (again)

Reading time: About 3 minutes

If you were give five extra minutes, what would you do with them? Say, could you spend them writing?

Sometimes I catch myself wasting time, especially when I’m doing something I don’t like (such as working on my accounts for my bookkeeper. Yuck!)

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like writing, or who find it inspires you to procrastinate rather than sit down at your desk and work, I know it’s infinitely more attractive to spend five spare minutes quickly checking your email. Here are nine more productive writing things you can do in just five minutes:

  1. Write one sentence. I try to do most of my writing in pomodoros. This 30-minute commitment, marked by the steady tick-tock of a timer, keeps me focused and sharp. But when I don’t have the time to embark on a pomodoro, I know I can probably write one sentence in five minutes. This doesn’t sound like much, I know, but a sentence is the building block of all writing. If I’ve already started a story, one more sentence makes it 10 to 25 words closer to completion. If I haven’t yet started the story getting at least one sentence done means, the next time I write, I’ll be able to open document with words already on it. Bliss!
  2. Read a little bit. I like to keep a current book, or a copy of the New Yorker by my desk. Non-fiction usually suits me best, partly because that’s what I write, but also because non-fiction typically doesn’t have the draw of a plot that makes it difficult to put down. Magazines and essays are an especially good choice because how long can it take you to read one article (even if it’s New Yorker length)? My mother always used to advise me to eat “really good chocolate” (those were her exact words) because it would be easier to eat just a little and be satisfied. The same logic applies here: read just a little bit of something terribly well-written .
  3. Stretch. We writers sit at our desks, hunched over keyboards, thereby trashing our backs, shoulders, necks and, frequently wrists and forearms. Spend five minutes doing some quick stretches that will help restore your alignment and protect yourself from injury. I have a soccer ball in my office that I like to stretch over. I position it near the top of my thoracic spine, put my arms behind my neck for support and then stretch back, looking behind me. It opens my chest and fights against my tendency to hunch forward.
  4. Listen to some music. I can’t enjoy music while I’m writing — for me, it’s too distracting. But music is inspirational and if I’m taking a break and want to get myself revved up, five minutes of Basia Bulat,  The Cat Empire  or Rufus Wainwright is just enough to re-energize myself.
  5. Do a mindmap. For me, mindmaps are a little handful of writing fairy dust.  They help me focus on what I want to write about, they bring to the surface long-forgotten ideas and images, they are fun to do rather than daunting. Best of all, you can do one in five minutes.
  6. Read something you’ve written and try to make one paragraph better (aka: edit). When you write, you want to be in your creative brain. Since most of us spend our lives lodged in our linear, lucid, editing brains, it’s pretty easy to do five minutes of editing. But remember: five minutes is just enough time for a snack, not a full meal. Don’t try to edit an entire document, instead, focus on just one paragraph. Don’t even feel you have to “finish” it. Just make a good start.
  7. Read something you’ve written and find one cliché. Here’s another editing snack. Spend five minutes scanning an article or document looking exclusively for clichés.  Mark them with a yellow highlighter and then, in the remaining time (or later) replace them with more vital images.
  8. Read something you’ve written and try to add one more metaphor. More snacks! Like an Olympic skater logging extra hours on the ice, I’ve made it my job to spend more time adding figurative language to my writing. (See what I did just there?) When I’m on a roll with my writing, I don’t want to slow down for metaphors. So I stud my piece with XXXs — potential metaphors that can be added later. Five minutes is the perfect amount of time to be able to produce one of them.
  9. Think about the next piece you’re going to write. I planned this article two days ago. That’s because I knew I wanted to be able to write it in a hurry. Sitting at my desk is the worst place in the world to try to plan my writing. Instead, I like to go for a walk (in five minutes, I can walk through my house) imagining what I’m going to write about next.

It’s easy enough to let five minutes slip through your fingers. But in the end, all those little minutes add up to a life. Be mindful of how you spend them.

What writing chores can you accomplish in five minutes? If you comment on my blog by Feb 28  you’ll be put in a draw for a copy of the novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)