Time confetti and NaNoWriMo

There are 168 hours in a week. Even if you work 40-plus hours, sleep 56, and spend a reasonable chunk of time on housework and family responsibilities, there will still be time leftover.

However, a lot of this time seems to come in bits and pieces. There are nooks and crannies everywhere: while you’re waiting for water to boil so you can throw the pasta in. When you’ve got 10 minutes after the kids get dressed but before they need to be at the bus stop. The 15 minutes between conference calls that always seem to slip through your fingers.

In her book Overwhelmed, Brigid Schulte refers to these chunks as “time confetti.” They’re not ideal. I do believe that with good scheduling, and letting some things go, many of us can carve out larger blocks of open time for restorative leisure if we want. However, bits of time can bring bits of joy, and my attempt to do a National Novel Writing Month project (NaNoWriMo) this November is showing me how usable these chunks are when I truly want to use them.

NaNoWriMo requires writing a 50,000 word draft of a novel in 30 days. That’s a bit under 1700 words a day. One of the upsides of writing for a living is that I’m realizing this is quite doable. I’m already writing a lot. Adding 1700 words is much like saying that instead of running 3 miles a day, I commit to running 4-5. It’s more, but not an order of magnitude more. The habit is already there. I just need to crank it up a bit.

The nooks and crannies of time turn out to be great options for cranking up the volume. Like most people, when I get bits of time, I normally check email, read headlines, or surf social media. I’m not saying I’m not doing any of that during November. I am. But a key component of the NaNoWriMo magic is that you turn off the inner critic. There is no editor. Words are words. If I’m just typing something interesting about my characters, something they might try that strikes my fancy, in 5 minutes I can write 100-200 words pretty easily. If I do that every hour or so, I can get a big chunk of the way to the 1700-word goal without even budgeting time for it. The time I do budget for it doesn’t have to be peak-productivity time. Twenty minutes before a phone call starts is good for another 300 words or so. The last 20 minutes of the work day, when I’m often inefficient anyway, is good for more.

Indeed, I’m so fascinated by how usable this time is that I’m trying to think of what I’d like to do when NaNoWriMo is over. I could edit this ridiculously-lousy stream of consciousness I’ve been cranking out. Or maybe I could read a book of poems or short essays. I made it through The Screwtape Letters over the past few days in bits and pieces. Or I could do strength-training. It’s hard to know. But it is interesting to see what can fit in little spaces.

What do you fit into your time confetti?

In other news: I’d love to make questions from readers into a regular feature on this blog. If you have a time management challenge that you’d like other people to weigh in on, feel free to send it over! You can be completely anonymous. My email is lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thanks!

19 thoughts on “Time confetti and NaNoWriMo

  1. I’m having a moment of time confetti right now, as my toddler is stalling bedtime and on the toilet. My computer is nearby, so reading this blog post is really easy to do.

    I suppose I could read poems, too. Or do a yoga pose. Or something “productive.” But so much of my days are just ON that I really don’t want to think about better ways to use 2 minutes. (15 is a different story.)

    1. @gwinne- I’m flattered to be your choice for time confetti 🙂 Yep, reading blogs/checking social media/checking headlines/email is pretty easy to do with time confetti and it’s often the default. And as a blogger, I’m happy people make that choice. I’m just seeing in my own life that there are other things I could do too (right now I’m checking blog comments and reading headlines…eh, time to get back to work!)

    2. The problem with that kind of time confetti is that you have no idea how long it’s going to be. I can’t remember how many times I’ve thought “he’s busy with something, I’ll just open up my laptop, pick up the newspaper, tidy the kitchen etc etc” and then the moment is gone. Toddlers and small children seem to have a sixth sense for when someone else starts doing something without them…

      1. @Nicola – very true! Yet another upside of the kids getting older is that they actually can be (mostly) trusted to play a video game for 15-20 minutes without needing anything. That’s probably why I’m at 15,000 words! I don’t trust this ability to stay occupied for work phone calls, especially with the 3-year-old, but it can work for jotting down 100 words.

  2. I’d love it if you could elaborate on how to prevent utilizing the “time confetti” into a “time tornado” (to extend Brigid’s metaphor a bit).
    Example: I work on Project A which requires me to run a report that takes 10 minutes. Let’s say I choose to be productive with those 10 minutes and respond to an email from my boss about Project B. Well, bosses usually require thoughtful responses, so I spend way more than 10 minutes writing that response. In that timeframe, I’ve also gotten an IM from a coworker about Project C that requires me to stop writing my email to look something up. By the time I answer the IM and finish my email, I’ve forgotten all about the report that I was running for Project A.
    Maybe a little more detail than you needed, but my point is: if I would have just spent the 10 minutes waiting for my report for Project A to run checking Facebook or some other “low concentration” task, it would have probably finished sooner because I wouldn’t have gotten as sidetracked. (This of course assumes I can pull myself out of the social media vortex, which is its own challenge!)
    Maybe this is just my own working style, but I’ve found that I’m better off losing those 10 minutes of “confetti” a few times a day as a time to regroup, rather than allowing myself to be pulled into a bunch of different “productive” directions and not getting very far with any of them as a result!

    1. @jacqueline – I don’t think using those bits of time confetti involves being “productive” necessarily, in quotes, because the implication of those quote marks are that we’re talking about some duty you don’t want to do. Bits of time are perfect for doing things you do want to do. If you truly want to look at Facebook, awesome. But there are other things: reading, walking, texting someone to say hello. What you’re describing is standard work multi-tasking, which is a different beast.

    2. This is my problem exactly… I use a model that runs in 3-10 minute intervals and feel like I’m wasting that time. When I’m at home, I knit. But there’s no comparable activity at work. If I go do other “serious” work I actually lose productivity.

      1. @Byrd – could you knit at work? Mostly kidding, though I’ve seen some research finding that doodling during meetings helps people pay attention. I imagine knitting is somewhat similar…

  3. I love the moniker time confetti. It fits so perfectly with all those little bits of time. I usually end up with a lot of time confetti throughout my days. Especially on slow work days. One of my favorite parts of one of my magazines is the “Time for Change” section. It really is advertising for what is in the rest of the magazine, but I find it useful. I tend to be a pretty anxious person, so the 15 second advice to close my eyes and just breathe has come in handy.
    I love the idea of writing a novel with those bits of confetti. Good luck with it!

  4. Sometimes, doing boring chores works well… Loading/unloading the dishwasher while waiting for the water to boil. Pulling out a couple of weeds. At work – making some stock solutions during all those 5 min incubations. These chores are not fun, but it helps that I know – I only have to do this for a couple of minutes. Bonus – a sense of accomplishment (did something useful!).

    Favorite thing to do with time confetti – just daydreaming. Not productive, but feels so good!

    1. @Natasha – daydreaming is totally productive! We need ideas to come from somewhere, and often it’s not forcing them that gets them to bubble up!

  5. The moaning about time confetti was one of the things that bugged the crap out of me about that book. I don’t see it as wasted bits of time — it’s a sign that I am NOT overwhelmed. I think of it as the margins in my day. When I can read blogs or check Facebook, or if at home, can go pay attention to a family member for 5 minutes. Not having to do much in those margins is a sign of time abundance.

    I think I made the book worse by listening to it via audible — the narrator (not the author) didn’t speak so much as whine.

    1. @Alison – I like the concept of margin. Maybe I’ll start using that instead of time confetti. But on a side note, to me one of the upsides of getting hired as the “voice talent” for my What the Most Successful People Do… audio books is that everything sounded like I wanted it to sound. I’m not sure who will wind up narrating my next book but I think there are upsides to doing it as the author, even if it is time consuming.

  6. ‘Time confetti’ is what I was thinking about when I read your post on apps and if they save time – while I couldn’t think of many that actually save time, there’s quite a few that help me make the most of little bits of time – and a quite like the phrase ‘time confetti’ to describe that! Key ones for this are Anki (a flash card app, really useful for my language course) Kindle (I’m short sighted so find it really easy to read on the iphone – I read a lot of non-fiction this way) and Audible (to listen to audio books – this app also saves me time because I don’t have to wrestle with the dreaded itunes!)

  7. The Kindle app on my smartphone helps me use time confetti: I am reading Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir one sentence at a time 🙂 !

  8. I have a time-management question for you, which if you have already addressed, please just direct me to the post. 🙂

    I have maybe 2.5 hours per weekday that are not dedicated to work/getting to work/eating/sleeping. I look at that time and make plans for it, and then when the time actually comes, I find I’m re-directed into other things. Let’s walk the dog, let’s watch this show, the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned, there’s a piece of clothing we need clean for tomorrow, etc. It wouldn’t be an issue if it was 1 or 2 days a week that I didn’t get any “me” time, but entire weeks can go by that it was all used up by others.

    How do I be bold and take this time for myself?


    1. Thanks for asking that question, Becky! I feel like that happens to me, too. Mostly my weekends. I almost always over-plan, thinking I can get three days worth of stuff done in only two. That’s my fault. But then, other people’s agendas get in my way, as well, and that just makes it worse. I love helping out my family, but then the stuff I really wanted to get done – doesn’t!

  9. I don’t tend to have many of those moments – there’s always something to do whether it’s something I want or need to do. There’s a decent balance at the moment since I usually WANT to do something productive 🙂

    I usually take a bigger chunk of time in the morning to open tabs to work on or read later, and then go to those tabs when my regular workflow has been interrupted by boredom or exhaustion. That lets me recalibrate or set myself up for the next chunk of free time.

    If I have nothing to read or do when my brain needs a break, I might take a few minutes to jot down things to do in my planner or I can just choose to take half an hour to do some other household stuff to clear my mind as well. Seems like “chunking” tasks or even distractions is the most effective for me, and I’m still getting those mental breathers that are so helpful.

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