Proper time management is one of those skills that we all know has the potential to improve our lives immensely. We know it when we see it: those people who seem to always have their shit together, are always working toward their goals and getting things done, cook their own meals, work out regularly, still have free time, yadda yadda yadda. There are tons of tactics to properly manage your time and get the most out of your life, without always feeling like there isn’t enough time in a day. One of the most helpful, and yet simplest, ways to manage your time and keep it all together, is to implement what I call “The 5 Minute Rule”.
The 5 Minute Rule is pretty straightforward. When you see something that needs done, if it takes less than five minutes, just do it right then and there. That’s it. That’s the whole rule. You, like me, likely often notice that the bathroom counter needs to be cleaned, the dishwasher needs to be loaded, the plants need to be watered, the coat you wore yesterday needs to be hung up, the burned out lightbulb needs to be replaced, the snacks you were eating on the couch last night need to be returned to the kitchen, and so on. Each of these tasks takes no more than five minutes, but if they are all put off for a later time, suddenly you’re left with 25 five minute tasks, and that’s more than two hours of work. Accomplishing two hours of work is daunting, involves actually finding time in your day to do it, and leaves you tired afterward. On the other hand, taking two minutes to put away the things on my bathroom counter and wipe it down after I’ve brushed my teeth isn’t daunting at all.
When you initially implement this rule, you’ll likely find that the first few days or even weeks involve a lot of five minute tasks. They’ve probably been building up for months. This is okay. Chip away at them as you notice them. Don’t go out looking for them, or you’ll end up overwhelmed. Just complete them as they come up. As the backlog of five minute tasks gets whittled away though, your space will end up cleaner, your mind clearer, and you’ll feel like you’ve got your shit a bit more together, all without taking any noticeable time out of your day.
The 5 Minute Rule prevents dishes from piling up in the sink, since putting them directly into the dishwasher takes less than five minutes. The 5 Minute Rule means that my clothes are always ready for me in the morning, since it takes less than five minutes to set them out the night before. The 5 Minute Rule keeps my room clean, because every time I notice clothes on the floor or a plate on my nightstand, it gets put away. There’s almost never a large mess left for me to clean anywhere in my home.
You’d be surprised how much you can get done in five minutes. Loading or unloading the dishwasher, starting a load of laundry, putting away anything new that I’ve just brought into our apartment, cleaning the kitchen after dinner, and cleaning my bathroom counter all take less than five minutes. Often, if I have a bit more time, the momentum of the five minutes of tidying will lead into a few other small tasks that I have been meaning to do, and suddenly, fifteen minutes have gone by and the apartment is looking clean and organized.
One of the keys to making the 5 Minute Rule work is admitting that you do, in fact, have five minutes to spare. Getting to the gym five minutes later than planned, or getting into bed five minutes later than you wanted, or eating dinner five minutes later than normal, because you took a moment to complete a five minute task, has surprisingly little impact on your life. And by that I mean that, with almost 100% certainty, doing something five minutes later than you planned to will have absolutely no impact on your life. If you only run on the treadmill for twenty-five minutes instead of thirty, or eat dinner at 7:05 instead of 7, absolutely nothing will change about your life. Nothing.
As someone who is easily distressed by the thought of being late, it was incredibly freeing to realize this. This realization was what got me to start doing five minute tasks before work, instead of only doing them after work. I realized that taking five minutes to unload the dishwasher will have absolutely zero impact on my work out and my ability to get to work on time, but will absolutely make my fiance happy when he goes to make breakfast.
Unless you’re headed to the hospital for the birth of a baby, or will definitely get in trouble for being five minutes late to work or school, you have time for five minute tasks. And doing those five minute tasks will likely speed up the rest of your life, since maintaining a clean and organized home makes doing all of the rest of our daily tasks significantly easier. Don’t underestimate the power of the 5 Minute Rule.
There is also a neat way to extend the 5 Minute Rule in order to use it to accomplish tasks that take longer than five minutes. Because you know what takes less than five minutes? Pulling out your calendar and scheduling in a time to do something that needs done, but takes more than 5 minutes. Maybe you’ve got a couple pictures sitting on a table that you’d like to hang up. Hanging the pictures will take more than five minutes, so it doesn’t fit into the criteria of the 5 Minute Rule. Instead, when you notice those pictures that need to be hung up, pull out your calendar and immediately decide on a time to hang those pictures, and mark it down. Now you know that those pictures will get hung up.
Tied in to the 5 minute rule is a similar philosophy that I use, that of making use of what I call the “little pockets of time”. My most commonly used “little pockets of time” are while my tea is steeping, while I’m swishing my mouthwash, and while I’m waiting for Bennett to finish something so we can do an activity together. If you have any interest in cooking, you’ve likely heard the “clean as you go” instruction, where dishes should be done and counters should be cleaned as you’re waiting for water to boil or a dish to cook. Using the little pockets of time is the same concept, just applied more broadly.
Life is filled with little pockets of time. Write down your grocery list while you’re waiting for a meeting to start at work. Pull your pants on while swishing mouthwash. Unload the dishwasher while your leftovers are heating in the microwave. Study while your professor is handing out graded homework assignments (bonus: She’ll appreciate your dedication toward learning).
If you can find and use four pockets of three minutes in every day, and trust me, it won’t be hard, that’s over an hour of time that you put to good use that otherwise would have been wasted. Start paying attention to when you pick up your phone to scroll for a minute or two, or when you stand around absentmindedly waiting for something to happen. Those are your pockets. They exist while you’re waiting for the shower to warm up, for the elevator to come, and for your nail polish to dry. Notice those pockets, and use them for those little tasks that you need to get done, rather than sitting there wasting time.
One of the keys of time management is using the time that you have efficiently. If you can get the same amount done in four hours that previously would have taken you six, then suddenly, you have two more hours to put to good use. Those two hours can go toward a project that you’ve always wanted to start, or the next thing on your to do list, or toward relaxing. Don’t waste time agonizing over boring and annoying little tasks. Get things done in tiny little chunks wherever they fit into your day, and you’ll never again have to spend an afternoon picking up all the crap you’ve left on the floor.
The 5 Minute Rule and using the little pockets of time don’t create any new time in a day. You’ve still got 24 hours, just like everyone else. But with them, instead of wasting a few minutes here and there throughout the day, you’re using those few minutes. Finding a few three minute pockets of time every day easily allows you to fit fifteen more minutes of productivity in your day. Those fifteen minutes every day add up to almost two hours every week. Doing the five minute tasks as you notice them, instead of in one big chunk on Saturday morning (or not doing them at all), keeps your life significantly more together, without any noticeable loss of time in your day. You might ultimately end up with ten or fifteen fewer minutes to mindlessly scroll through Instagram when you should be sleeping, but is that really a bad thing?
Using the little pockets of time and following the 5 Minute Rule don’t sound like much, I know. And if your life feels really out of hand, these will not immediately put everything back in order, though they will prevent it from getting worse. But the 5 Minute Rule and using the little pockets of time, along with with an hour or two every weekend to do any larger tasks that need to be done, keep my life satisfactorily clean and organized about 90% of the time. The other 10%, when I’m supremely busy or life suddenly throws a lot at me, take some more substantial time management effort that we can get into later. Commit to following these two principles for a couple of weeks, and suddenly you’ll notice that most of the time, the counters are clear and the clothes are put away. By preventing the build up of lots of chores, big intimidating days where you have to get everything done largely become a thing of the past. You really can create large change by taking very small steps on a consistent basis.