Some jobs operate on a predictable rhythm. Meetings and phone calls get scheduled in advance. You know roughly what the "hard landscape" of your day is, and what time is available for other projects. This can change, of course, and interruptions can be frequent, but the nature of the days is to be scheduled. Since the standard office job looks like this, much productivity advice (including mine) tends to operate from the assumption of these parameters.
Other jobs have a fundamentally different rhythm. Maybe you work in a retail environment, or health clinic, where you deal immediately with a customer/client when she comes in, but they come in at varying times. Or it could be a lab environment where you need to wait for an experiment to run. You quickly get it going…and then hang out until it finishes. Or it could be that your job is to support someone else, and do various tasks as soon as the person sends them. Some performance related jobs can have an unpredictable rhythm too. You film a scene for a video, then have an uncertain wait until you’re up again.
These are often "hurry up and wait" jobs. There's open time, perhaps a decent amount, but it's unpredictable open time. And it often comes in short spurts that are hard to use well.
So what to do? The easy answer (where it's allowed) is to pick up the smart phone and deal with email. But that — and social media scrolling — can feel like a lousy way to spend time. I know of what I speak. I had a job at the student center in college that involved answering questions and giving directions to anyone who came to the information desk. People were seldom lined up waiting to ask questions, but they also came with some frequency. In between queries (or crises; I once called an ambulance) I would sit there and read comments on various news sites. For hours. Probably I should have used the time to study, and likewise, most hurry-up-and-wait jobs involve other things that need to get done too: administrative work, setting up other projects, etc.
I probably sound like a broken record on tracking time, but one good reason to do it is to figure out if there is any rhythm at all to the days. Maybe after a few weeks, you can see that there is an 80% chance you'll get an open slot of at least an hour in the middle of the day. Knowing that, you can safely plan 3 1-hour tasks for the week, knowing that the odds are good you'll get about four slots during five days. You can also see exactly how long things take. Making use of unpredictable time requires a really good sense of what fits in various spaces. Maybe a certain kind of report takes 8 minutes. Reading and taking notes on a journal article generally requires an hour, but can be broken up into smaller chunks.
Then, you can keep a running list of projects and next steps, with a time estimate next to them. This helps you make choices. If you are pretty sure you'll be waiting about 15 minutes, you could aim to write one of those 8-minute reports. You could also start a second, understanding that you might need to stop.
As for that stopping, forward momentum in hurry-up-and-wait jobs requires developing the ability to stop and get back into things quickly. This might actually be the hardest technique to master. As I've studied how many people interact with technology, I've noticed a pattern. People get interrupted, then go through a cycle of activities after they resume working. A quick email check, maybe checking a favorite news site, checking comments on a favorite forum, then back to work. The problem is that if your last interruption was a mere 15 minutes ago, none of these things will have changed much. It's just a habit. Get right back to what you were doing quickly, and you can save all kinds of time.
And finally, if there's nothing you really need to do, or if the waiting time is small enough that it's going to be hard to use for other things, I'm a big fan of using the Kindle app on a phone. Picking up the phone feels productive, but then instead of looking at the same emails (again!) you can read for 3 minutes. That's annoying for any sort of gripping fiction, but a lot of non-fiction can be consumed in such chunks. And reading something edifying feels a lot better than deleting newsletters you can't remember subscribing to.
How have you dealt with hurry-up-and-wait jobs, or jobs that involve frequent interruptions?
In other news: I'm looking forward to reading Worth It, the new book from DailyWorth and WorthFM founder Amanda Steinberg. If you want to join her book club (basically by pre-ordering the book) you can sign up here.