Advice · Word of the week

Word of the week: interstitial

There are many uses of the word “interstitial”. I use it in the context of time. “Interstitial” means “of or relating to an interstice or interstices”, and an interstice can be defined simply as an interval or intervening space. This definition from goes further:

a small or narrow space or interval between things or parts, especially when one of a series of alternating uniform spaces and parts: the interstices between the slats of a fence.


If you search for “interstitial” on the world’s most-used search engine the first AutoFill suggestion is about “insterstitial cystitis”, which I have no experience of, and am not going to write about. There are various other uses of the word in medicine, science, arts and the media. (An interstitial programme is a short item shown between films or other events; an interstitial web page might appear before the page you want to view is loaded, advertising something or requiring some input from you.)

I have been thinking about interstitial time for many years, ever since reading this 2008 piece by Oliver Burkeman. It refers to this 2005 piece by the blogger Merlin Mann, at, where the phrase crops up. Until today I had never read that 2005 piece. Back in 2008 I rarely clicked on links within web pages but that changed some time ago. My reluctance to follow links through was based on my early days of using the web, on dial-up. To follow links within a piece would often take too long, and without multi-tab browsing it would take just as long to get back to where you were originally. It took me many years – after broadband, after multi-tab browsing became part of my day-to-day web use – to get in the habit of following links through. Also, back then, I read the article first in print so would have had to make a special point of reading Merlin Mann’s piece whenever I was at a computer; these days I am more likely to read articles on the web first.

Burkeman describes “interstitial time” as those “small chunks of minutes spent waiting at the doctor’s surgery, or for someone who’s late, or for a meeting postponed at short notice”. What’s the best way to spend them? Around 2008 I used these intervals to sort out texts on my phone. Back then my phone (not a smartphone) could only store a small number of texts so they needed to be dealt with and deleted frequently. I would do this in those 2- or 5-minute chunks of time. I also carried one short book around with me (this was in the days before the Kindle and Kindle Apps for other devices), Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style” which has the same short story told 100 different times, in different styles as its title suggests. Each piece takes less than a minute to read.

On my current phone (which is a smartphone) I never need to delete texts, so my interstitial time is often spent on other short tasks – deleting and sorting emails or checking things on the web. I also have some documents and lists stored locally so that I can work on things when out of range of broadband or 4G, as on parts of the London Underground. (I have lists of information from the web for things like chemical elements, countries and their capitals and poets laureate, all part of my interest in Trivia, and lists in general.) I have my Kindle library on my phone too so can read any of the 180 books stored there, but there isn’t much that you can read in interstitial time. If you only have 2 or 5 minutes, how much will you get from the book(s) that you are currently reading? Not enough, in my view; ideally I will have at least a 20-minute chunk of time to spend on any book I’m reading. Knitting is offered, in Burkeman’s article, as an ideal use of interstitial time:

Take inspiration from knitters, Mann suggests. Knitting fulfils the three criteria of a good interstitial-time activity: it’s portable, it can be done amid distractions, and even a few seconds spent on it contributes to the end result. (That’s not the case with tasks requiring “set-up”, such as waiting forever while Windows boots up on your laptop.) Identify in advance which of your tasks fit the knitting criteria: those involving reading and (hand)writing are a good place to start. Or take up knitting.


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