The Serious Business of Tinkering Time
Image courtesy of frankieleon.

The Serious Business of Tinkering Time

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

I have a problem.

Well, I have plenty of problems. But one in particular is bugging me right now: I’m no longer in the exciting early stage of my current priority project, brimming with initial enthusiasm. I’m fighting the temptation to fall into a pit of cynicism and despair and tedium.

Not only is it hard to push on during the demoralizing middle stages of a marathon project, I keep having new ideas, which tempt me away from what I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing.

I should keep working on my draft… but perhaps browsing the internet for a secondhand saxophone would be more fun?

At least I’m not alone. Most multipods I know have confessed to me that they’re constantly being enticed away from their current priority by some new, exciting idea.

My usual strategy for keeping on task…

Historically, I have handled pesky new ideas by repressing them. I try to ban myself from even thinking about new musical instruments, other book ideas, languages I’d like to learn, TV shows I’d like to binge…

If any distracting ideas pop up, then I dump them into a document. (This is a handy technique: dumping any irrelevant thoughts into a list, and reviewing them after the project is finished.)

But this strategy of repressing all my new ideas requires a lot of discipline. And, honestly, it isn’t very fun.

An alternative strategy: Tinkering Time

Recently (being the fancy Puttylike insider that I am) I was lucky enough to get a preview copy of Emilie’s new book How To Be Everything.

I used it as an excuse to give myself an afternoon off, and I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting, in a cafe on the first day of spring sunshine. (I recommend every part of this.)

On this very pleasant afternoon, I was struck by several of Emilie’s great ideas. One of these ideas, in particular, solves my current problem: an idea Emilie calls “Tinkering Time”. It’s a very simple, very obvious, very practical idea; so clear that as soon as I read it I felt stupid for not thinking of it before.

Simply put, Emilie suggests building a short amount of time for playful productivity into your regular schedule. In other words, first make a list of every activity that you mentally classify as “someday” (someday I’ll write a book / learn Japanese / make a website…) plus all those other tempting ideas that pop up from time to time.

When you need a break from your priority projects or are suffering from extreme shiny object syndrome, allow yourself to set a short timer (Emilie suggests 40 minutes) and play with any or all of these ideas.

So simple. And it addressed many sides of my current getting-through-the-lackluster-middle-of-a-huge-project problem.

The benefits of indulging in unstructured play time

1. Recharging motivation + creativity

Taking a short period of time away from my main priority actually increases my energy. Instead of a constant slog at one project, I can play with something fun and return to the main project re-energized.

2. Leading a more balanced life

Sometimes I don’t let myself play because I fear that I’ll enjoy it too much. (I realize how ridiculous that sounds, but I fear I’ll never get back to what I’m supposed to be working on if I let myself enjoy anything else. I suspect I’m not alone in this!) But if I commit in advance to a specific amount of playtime, I can enjoy it without worrying about killing my progress on my current priorities.

3. Turning play into tangible progress

Without a system like this, I would realistically never make progress on those “someday” goals. The day when I have time to sit down and learn Japanese might just never come. But if I treat tinkering as a reward at the end of a working day, then I have something exciting to look forward to—something which also progresses one of my long-term goals.

4. Taking control of your time

Emilie suggests that you schedule Tinkering Time for later in the day, so you’ve already made progress on your main priorities beforehand. Of course it’s totally in your control. Perhaps a weekly tinkering session works better for you? Shorter sessions, longer sessions, different times of day. Experimentation is the key!

We can move forward on our priority projects and our “someday” projects

I’m excited to experiment with some Tinkering Time in my schedule, to clear my mind and release some of the nervous energy of a long-haul project.

Instead of frittering time away on social media, I’m going to delve into my “someday” list and make my recharging time productive.

Your turn

How do you balance your shiny new ideas with your current priorities? What are  you dying to tinker with right now?

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Iraide says:

    Hi, Neil!

    It looks like you’ve read my mind! :) Right now I’m going through the boring stage of a project and yes, I tend to fritter time away on social media (which is, in fact, also boring but takes no mental energy) and I like the idea of tinkering time.

    Btw, I’m also learning Japanese! I devote 30 minutes 4-5 days a week and I’m making progress little by little. If it’s of any help, I’m using Quizlet in order to learn the vocabulary. :)



    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yay, I love it when I’m in sync with somebody! I often feel like the ONLY person who experiences these problems, when in reality I know there are many, many people in the same boat. Helps not to feel so useless ;p Thank you for sharing :)

  2. Justina says:

    Awesome article. Its neat cause I find I do this. Just never called it tinkering time. I love the phrase. I resonate with your bio..As a homeschooling mother, blogger, mindset coach, and makeup artist! There are so many projects and staying focused on just one can be challenging. I’ve been rewarding myself with this tinkering time in the area of writing. When I feel stuck on my book, or emails to nurture my list, I free journal to help release the creativity and it actually helps me a lot. I love how this has been expended in a big picture way. I can see some more areas of my life and work I can apply to this too.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yeah, I think something about the phrase makes it much more attractive to me. I often schedule things in such a way that they become a job, so it’s like “right now for some ENFORCED FUN TIME”. But making it playful, just having some tinkering time… much easier :)

      And yes, thanks for sharing your writing experience, that really resonates with me too. Sometimes I get very stuck, then I write something *else* and the words start to flow. It’s like a tinkering time just in the domain of writing. Hope it helps you in more areas too, how exciting!

  3. Melissa B says:

    This is an awesome idea!!! I always feel like I am missing out on something when I have to focus on one thing at a time but if I don’t then I get nothing accomplished ( I also have ADHD on top of being a multipot :0)). The boredom thing is a HUGE obstacle. I am going to work this in with my use of a timer to help me focus and stay engaged! Your articles always seem to fit how I am feeling Neil!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yay :) It’s amazing how every single time I discover I’m not alone, it’s still exciting. Working from home means I often convince myself it’s only me… thank you Melissa, that means a lot! Do let me know how your experiments with the timer turn out!

  4. Jason says:

    I totally have this problem as well, as the projects drag on and there are no fires to put out. One thing I do which sounds just like this is take work vacations. Focus on hiring or some other effort, sometimes totally out of my department. New people, new activities. A diversion from the daily grind.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely. Sometimes we just need change, and whether that’s a regular scheduled thing, or a one-off “I need to do something else for a bit” it makes SO much difference to energy.

  5. That’s a good idea. The timer would keep me from diving into the rabbit hole of research to emerge hours later covered in great ideas and not remembering what I was supposed to be doing. I like the idea of sticking it all in a document, too. I need some more documents full of odd notes to fill my documents folder. :P Must be something about Japanese and multipods because I’m learning it, too.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly! (It probably won’t surprise you to know I nearly got super distracted while writing this article and wrote a LOT about the ‘document dump’ idea, which I see as a handy extra to tinkering time. If it helps you stick to what you want to do, while also having fun, then that’s awesome. Good luck!)

    • Maryske says:

      Quote: “…diving into the rabbit hole of research to emerge hours later covered in great ideas and not remembering what I was supposed to be doing.”

      LOL That is *so* me… Thanks for the apt description! And ehm… learning Japanese is on my bucket list, too. Though I’m not sure why I’d need it. If I’d ever get to Japan, I’m likely to spend all my time on Rabbit Island. And rabbit language is fairly universal, I imagine. And even if not, the bunnies there are totally used to tourists from all over the world ;-) so what I’d need Japanese for?

  6. Aishwarya Pradhan says:

    This is just super cool and at a very exact time.
    Thank you so much :))

  7. Tim Rivett says:

    “I should keep working on my draft… but perhaps browsing the internet for a secondhand saxophone would be more fun?”

    Bloody hell, this is me to a T, right down to working on the draft. Except it’s more likely to be an electric mandolin.

  8. Sue F says:

    This is very similar to the process I have always used…just the name is different. I call mine “puttering” days. Those are the best days!

  9. I’ve never thought of keeping a list of the ‘someday’ things before. Sometimes I might schedule tinkering time (or ‘follow your gut’ time as I’ve called it before) into my day but then not know which thing I want to focus on/can’t remember what awesome thing I was excited about three days ago. Having a list to choose from would help with this I reckon.

    Thanks for another great post Neil :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Interesting! I think I assumed everyone made that ‘someday’ list but now I think about it I didn’t used to… I just got tired of constantly being distracted by ideas so started writing them down!

      (I think part of it was internalising the ‘capture’ habit from Zen To Done – you heard of this?)


  10. Tinkering time is important! I didn’t always call it this, but I do something similar when I get to the boring part. I tend to do 1 of 2 things. I sketch/draw/watercolor or I play some legos with my son. Looking at the world through a child’s eyes always seems to get me in creative mode again!

    Great post and ideas!


  11. (oh)Lauren says:

    Oh my goodness yes. I finally found/watched Emilie’s TED Talk tonight (a friend/mentor told me about it a couple weeks ago as I was bemoaning how hard it is to find a new job when you don’t know what you’re looking for…but she didn’t remember the details that would actually pull it up in a search so it took a while) and I literally cried watching it. And nearly did again reading this post. There are so many things I want to do and every time I actually need to do one of them (generally because somebody’s willing to pay me to) all of the other ones completely overwhelm my brain so I’m miserable even though I theoretically do want to be doing the thing I need to get done! When I am in the groove of really doing something I get so much inertia I forget to eat or sleep, so I’m afraid to do anything other than the thing that needs to get done next. For instance, a month and a half ago I lost my job (that was marvelously varied and flexible and I’m heartbroken the company had to shut down) – one would think all that free time would be perfect, split between applying for new jobs and working on various projects and cleaning my apartment and visiting friends… but I couldn’t bring myself to let myself do anything but update my resume then look for jobs then apply for jobs… Eventually I had a couple good possibilities rolling and got a freelance project, so I shifted gears to that, and then got/started another freelance project, by then knowing I had a full time job lined up but a couple weeks before I had to start… But it wasn’t until both projects were done as far as I could get them and waiting on feedback that I felt I could let myself do anything else… The next thing on the list was clean all the things… So now I’ve killed my month and a half of “free time” and not worked on any of my for-fun/betterment projects at all…. All that to say, yeah, I completely get the feeling and will have to try scheduling in some “tinkering time” – and definitely with a timer.

  12. Kristine says:

    Wow! and finally I found this website. I’m 15 and I just found out that I don’t only have ADHD I’m also a multipotentialite (I found the video of Emelie in TED). And this article also helped me alot. Now I know I’m not alone! Thank God .. now I also don’t have to be pressured for choosing a career I can just choose everything. ???

    • Nicole says:

      Hi Kristine!
      So nice to see someone so young pop up here – if I had a wonderful resource like Puttylike in my teens I feel like I would’ve avoided a lot of pain and doubt and stress. Grab it with both hands and let it guide you!
      Good luck.

  13. Nicole says:

    I love tinkering time. It’s like working with our nature, instead of against it. Helps productivity, creativity, and relives stress!
    Thanks for a great article.

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