in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Possibilities in Spare Moments

Book cover, possibilities in spare moments by Abraham lincoln.

Success in many of the new year’s resolutions and goals folks are now making will be predicated not just on willpower but on time. If you’re aiming to do more reading, studying, listening to podcasts, writing, stretching, exercising, journaling etc., you’ve got to find the time each day to do so.

Identifying these needed minutes and hours in what likely feels like an already packed daily schedule, with all of its slots apparently accounted for, can seem like a daunting task. From where then can these fresh resources of time be mined?

A promising first place to look are your morning and evening routines. Waking up an hour earlier every day can open a rich, quiet, wonderfully productive expanse of time that has the power to shift your life in a totally new direction. Swapping the couple hours of Netflix and mindless web surfing you typically engage in at night with the pursuit of a hobby or side hustle can be a similarly transformative move.

Beyond your mornings and your evenings, also consider what you might do with your lunch hour at work. If you eat your meal in 15 minutes, there’s much that can be accomplished in the remaining 45.

Yet, outside these larger, more obvious chunks of time, there are even more golden threads of it waiting to be discovered.

If you know where to look.

The Hidden Gold Dust of Time

“On the floor of the gold-working room, in the United States Mint at Philadelphia, there is a wooden lattice-work which is taken up when the floor is swept, and the fine particles of gold-dust, thousands of dollars’ yearly, are thus saved. So every successful man has a kind of network to catch the raspings and parings of existence, those leavings of days and wee bits of hours’ which most people sweep into the waste of life. He who hoards and turns to account all odd minutes, half hours, unexpected holidays, gaps ‘between times,’ and chasms of waiting for unpunctual persons, achieves results which astonish those who have not mastered this most valuable secret.” –Orison Swett Marden, Pushing to the Front, 1894

Years ago, I discovered a guide who helped me locate the thin-yet-powerful fragments of time that most people overlook and waste unawares. His name is Orison Swett Marden and he was a popular self-improvement writer at the turn of the 20th century. Among the fifty some odd books and booklets he penned are many inspirational gems, but one of my very favorites, and the one that has perhaps stuck with me the most, was a chapter in his Pushing to the Front entitled “Possibilities in Spare Moments.”

Possibilities in spare moments! Even the phrase seems charged with potential, and it has rolled around in my mind regularly ever since I read it, helping me to see, and seize, opportune pockets of time that I used to miss.

Marden’s argument is as simple as it is profound: “Many of the greatest men of history earned their fame outside of their regular occupations in odd bits of time which most people squander.” Not just fame could be had in these “odd bits of time,” Marden exhorted, but personal development as well.

Small slices of the clock — 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there — seem to most people to be good for nothing except staring out the window or at their phone. But just as saving a few dollars here and there slowly accrues wealth, reclaiming a few minutes each day steadily accumulates a rich storehouse of hours. As Marden declares, “Great men have ever been misers of moments” who “hoarded up [time] even to the smallest fragments!”

Where can one find these hidden threads of time in order to spin them into greater success, happiness, wisdom, and satisfaction? Scattered all about your day-to-day life once you start looking through the lens of “possibilities in spare moments.” Below, interspersed with the wisdom of Marden, I’ll point out some of the typically untapped crannies of time you may have previously overlooked — micro reservoirs of precious minutes, which, once you become fully aware of them, can be amassed into rich dividends.

Where to Find Possibilities in Spare Moments

“One hour a day withdrawn from frivolous pursuits and profitably employed would enable any man of ordinary capacity to master a complete science. One hour a day would in ten years make an ignorant man a well-informed man…In an hour a day, a boy or girl could read twenty pages thoughtfully—over seven thousand pages, or eighteen large volumes in a year. An hour a day might make all the difference between bare existence and useful, happy living. An hour a day might make—nay, has made—an unknown man a famous one, a useless man a benefactor to his race.”

Active Commute

If you drive to and from work each day, you roll through some of the most valuable spare time in your schedule — provided via your stereo. Sometimes, jamming out to music is exactly what you need to get motivated or wind down, but why not swap those tunes now and again for an enlightening segment of something like the Great Courses or an edifying podcast? (If you need recommendations for good podcasts to start listening to, here are 27 of our recommendations.)

Even if you don’t have a long commute to work because you live close to the office or work from home, you likely spend at least a little time in the car each day, driving perhaps 10 minutes to the gym and back, and 10 minutes to your kid’s school and back. Add that up and you’re spending over 3 hours in your car just on the Monday-Friday stretch. Over the course of the year, that’s 7 days of your life. What are you doing with that week of time? Singing “Fight Song” and hating yourself for it, or expanding your mind with tons of new ideas that can improve your business, relationships, and understanding of culture and yourself?

Don’t feel you have to fill your commute with any kind of noise, edifying or not, either. While you drive (or walk or bike) in silence, you can mentally formulate music, or poetry, or some lines for your great American novel. The famous poet Wallace Stevens, in fact, composed his verse while he walked several miles to and from his 9-5 job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; when inspiration struck, he’d jot it down on the backs of envelopes he kept stuffed in his pockets.

Passive Commute

Maybe you’re a young man who doesn’t have his driver’s license yet and gets taxied around by mom and dad. Or maybe you ride the bus or subway to work each day. In such cases, you’ve got the same pocket of time as the active commuter, but, since you’re not behind the wheel of a car, you’ve got even more options on how to spend it.

Not only can you choose to swap out the music often coursing through your earbuds for a podcast, you can write down some notes on that groundbreaking novel you’ve been brainstorming. The famous, hugely prolific English novelist Anthony Trollope began his writing career that way. His job with the postal service took him on many train trips across Ireland, and he soon realized that this time could readily put him on, ahem, track towards his dream of becoming an author:

“I found that I passed in railway-carriages very many hours of my existence. Like others, I used to read—though Carlyle has since told me that a man when travelling should not read, but ‘sit still and label his thoughts.’ But if I intended to make a profitable business out of my writing, and, at the same time, to do my best for the Post Office, I must turn these hours to more account than I could do even by reading. I made for myself therefore a little tablet, and found after a few days’ exercise that I could write as quickly in a railway carriage as I could at my desk. I worked with a pencil, and what I wrote my wife copied afterwards. In this way was composed the greater part of Barchester Towers and of the novel which succeeded it, and much also of others subsequent to them.”

Carlyle’s objection aside (and commutes are indeed good times to sit quietly with your thoughts), riding to/from work is really a perfect time to get some reading done. To this end, always keep the Kindle app on your phone stocked with ebooks, or stash a paperback in the glove compartment or seat pocket of your vehicular conveyance and make it your exclusive ride-along read; never take it out of the car, and read it in snatches whenever you’re its passenger. Watch and see how these short intervals of time, which used to seem like bits of nothing to you, will allow you to read several big books in a year. Books you swore you didn’t have time for.

“Some boys will pick up a good education in the odds and ends of time which others carelessly throw away, as one man saves a fortune by small economies which others disdain to practice.”

Downtime at Work

In many jobs, there aren’t enough tasks to fill the whole workday and you end up metaphorically twiddling your thumbs. And by thumbs I mean your phone. In many such jobs, it would pay to ask your boss for other projects to take on, and to simply look for other tasks to help with. So too, in many cases, even if you don’t have enough to do, you have to pretend like you do, as your boss would frown on your engaging in a non-work-related pursuit.

There are a few jobs though where there really isn’t anything else for you to do once you’re done with your duties, and your supervisor doesn’t mind you filling this downtime time with non-disruptive personal activities. And there are cases of course where you’re the boss, and you sometimes have little pockets of time to kill — a few minutes between appointments, for example. Those few minutes don’t constitute enough time to dive into another meaty project, but they could still be put to better use than twiddling your phone.

Abraham Lincoln, for example, utilized every spare moment of his downtime to further his autodidactic education. As a boy, he always carried a book with him as he went about doing his daily chores, and would read a snatch of it whenever he could. When old Abe ran a general store in his 20s, he’d read books and study legal textbooks between visits from customers, launching him towards a career in law.

Theodore Roosevelt practiced a similar habit. He always kept a book by his elbow on his White House desk, and any time there was a spare moment between appointments and meetings, he’d read a few lines. This method, along with his ability to speed read, is how TR managed to devour several books a day, and tens of thousands over his lifetime.

Pomodoro Breaks

The Pomodoro Technique involves working for a set period of time, and then taking a rest for a set period of time. For example, you might work 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break, or work 45 minutes and take a 15-minute break.

What do you do during those breaks? The options are limitless. Surf the net (the distracting stuff that would normally get in the way of your work session). Take care of chores. Or, work on a goal in little incremental units. Read. Practice the piano or guitar. Write a quick thank you note to someone. Go over some flash cards for a foreign language you’re trying to learn. Whittle. Practice picking a lock. Throw a tomahawk. (Those latter suggestions assume you work at home; it’s not recommended that you try throwing a tomahawk down the hall and into the cubicle wall of Bob in Accounting.) Remember when you swore you didn’t have time for a hobby? Now you do.

If you’re aiming in the new year is to get stronger, more agile, and generally move your body more, Pomodoro breaks are the perfect time to achieve those goals too. “Grease the groove” and bust out some push-ups and pull-ups. Practice your posture. Perform some of the stretches that undo the damage of sitting. One of my goals is to stay limber, so I often use my break to do some MovNat stuff — crawling, stretching, balancing on a 2X4 in my living room, etc.

Working Out

When you’re doing an intense workout, listening to music that gets your blood pumping and your thumos inflamed is really the way to go. But for a slower, longer workout, like a long distance run, it’s easy to tune into a podcast and watch the miles fade away.

When I’m lifting weights, I sometimes read little snatches of books during my rests between sets. So at a given time, I might be reading the philosophy of Plato while hoisting a barbell. Gentleman barbarian style, baby!

“Time is money. We should not be stingy or mean with it, but we should not throw away an hour any more than we would throw away a dollar-bill. Waste of time means waste of energy, waste of vitality, waste of character in dissipation. It means the waste of opportunities which will never come back. Beware how you kill time, for all your future lives in it.”

Waiting in Line

Perhaps your favorite hip coffee shop always requires a 5-minute wait to get up to the counter, and a 5-minute wait to get your joe. Why not sneak in a bit of reading during this daily downtime? Or even studying. When I was in law school I used to carry a pack of flashcards with me wherever I went, and would look at them while I waited in line for lunch.

Remember: while little pockets of time don’t seem like much individually, they really accumulate. Ten minutes every day for a year adds up to more than 30 hours. If you’re committed to the pursuit of learning as much as possible and becoming the best man you can be, do you really have 60 hours a year, 25 full days each decade, to throw away?

“The days come to us like friends in disguise, bringing priceless gifts from an unseen hand; but, if we do not use them, they are borne silently away, never to return. Each successive morning new gifts are brought, but if we failed to accept those that were brought yesterday and the day before, we become less and less able to turn them to account, until the ability to appreciate and utilize them is exhausted. Wisely was it said that lost wealth may be regained by industry and economy, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance and medicine, but lost time is gone forever.”

Waiting for an Appointment (Or a Perennially Late Friend!)

We all hope that when we arrive at the doctor, or the dentist, or the DMV, we’ll register for our appointment, put our name on the waiting list, and be swept right in. Yet, we all also know that this isn’t unfortunately always, or even often, what happens. Instead, we’re stuck cooling our heels in the waiting room for 20, 40 minutes, and end up reading an issue of Sports Illustrated from 2011 or scrolling through Instagram to pass the time.

Instead of wasting this fragment of valuable time, read something really good you’ve been meaning to get to, but have felt too busy to engage. A classic novel. A meaty blog post.

Or use the time to catch up with friends. Not with a cursory comment on their Facebook page, but by writing them an actual email. With multiple paragraphs.

The habit of always keeping books on your phone or a paperback in your pocket comes in handy in another scenario as well: when you often find yourself waiting for a perennially late friend or significant other. While these times used to annoy you and be filled with the texting of pointed queries as to their whereabouts and ETA, they can now be something you practically look forward to — your personal reading time.

“‘Oh, it’s only five minutes or ten minutes till mealtime; there’s no time to do anything now,’ is one of the commonest expressions heard in the family. But what monuments have been built up by poor boys with no chance, out of broken fragments of time which many of us throw away! The very hours you have wasted, if improved, might have insured your success.”

Waiting for…Anything!

The number of times one finds himself waiting throughout the day are many and cannot all be neatly categorized. Waiting for your computer to boot up, for a file to download, for the coffee to brew, for your frozen dinner to finish cooking…these are all times you likely stare at the numbers ticking down on the microwave or start scrolling through your phone. If so desired, they could be put to more productive and edifying use.

That use includes following Carlyle’s advice of simply being still and sorting through your thoughts; you don’t have to be actively “doing” something to take advantage of the possibilities in spare moments. Great men always keep the motors of their minds running during the brief “interstices” of their day. “Under my tent in the fiercest struggle of war,” Julius Caesar declared, “I have always found time to think of many other things.” Director Woody Allen has said “I think in the cracks all the time. I never stop.” And author Umberto Eco told a journalist who visited his apartment:

“This morning you rang, but then you had to wait for the elevator, and several seconds elapsed before you showed up at the door. During those seconds, waiting for you, I was thinking of this new piece I’m writing. I can work in the water closet, in the train. While swimming I produce a lot of things, especially in the sea. Less so in the bathtub, but there too.”

You can likewise choose to mentally chew on an idea rather than mindlessly skimming through your Instagram feed. Just be sure to always carry a pocket notebook with you, should that short session of contemplation issue an insight.

And, truth be told, there’s even benefit of designating some of your spare moments to purely pleasurable phone use. Rather than scratching the itch whenever it strikes, you can create a “rule” like: “I get to check my phone whenever I’m waiting for the microwave/the first five minutes of riding the subway/etc.”

Once you start looking for them, you’ll find possibilities in spare moments everywhere. You never know when you’re going to find yourself in a holding pattern, and you can either throw away those minutes forever or spin their golden threads into the fabric of personal progress. Prepare to not just seize the day, but to seize every moment, by keeping books and podcasts loaded on your phone, pen and paper in pocket, and a vision of the man you want to become ever before you.

“The present time is the raw material out of which we make whatever we will. Do not brood over the past, or dream of the future, but seize the instant and get your lesson from the hour. The man is yet unborn who rightly measures and fully realizes the value of an hour. As Fénelon says, God never gives but one moment at a time, and does not give a second until he withdraws the first.”

Related Posts