The Productivity Benefits of a Timer

start using a timer

One of the best things I’ve done to increase my productivity is to start using a timer. A while ago I noticed I was having trouble with my concentration and as a result my productivity was dropping. While I’ve gotten much of that issue under control, I have a related problem with procrastination. When there is a task I don’t want to do (or one that I want to do but I’m afraid of doing badly), I will go to great lengths to put it off.

The only thing, of course, that ultimately gets anything done is to put my butt in a chair or pick up a cleaning tool (just for example) and do the job. It’s getting me to the chair or into the cleaning mode that’s often the problem. I hate the idea of sitting there for an hour trying to think of something to write. I hate the idea of spending an hour cleaning when I could be doing something fun, like watching re-runs of the Big Bang Theory. Enter the timer.

When I have a task to do and I find myself procrastinating, I set the timer on my stove for fifteen minutes. If I’m dreading cleaning, I set the timer and tell myself that I have to clean at full effort for those fifteen minutes. When the timer goes off, I can quit. If I want to keep going I can, but I’m off the hook if I want to quit. I do the same thing with my work. If I don’t want to work on an article or a novel, I have to work on it for fifteen minutes. I made a rule for myself that if after the timer goes off I choose to quit, I’m not allowed to feel guilty. I’ve put in at least some effort and it’s okay to walk away.

Things are often more bearable when we know there’s an end time. If we start thinking about those endless hours we need to spend working on a project or cleaning the house, we decide it’s better just to not even bother. Of course, it’s really not better because it only puts off things that have to be done until you have no choice but to attack them in a Red Bull infused haze of panic and stress. But it seems better at the time. Using the timer circumvents that little quirk in our brains by breaking things down into manageable chunks.

It kind of reminds me of school (and I was the super-dork who actually liked school). The school day was clearly broken into segments by the ringing bell. When the bell rang you changed classes or got to do something fun like recess. If something was getting too boring or complicated, you knew you only had to deal with it for a finite period of time. No matter how much you hated listening to Mrs. Jones drone on about the Civil War, you knew it had an end time.

The funny thing is that once I get started I often find myself wanting to continue even though the timer has gone off. Maybe I can see progress on that novel or I’ve sunk into the groove and have a good train of thought going that I don’t want to interrupt. Maybe I’m so jazzed by my clean bathroom that I want a clean living room, too. The timer helps me overcome the fear and inertia that feed my procrastination and keep me from even getting started. Once I get into a task I’m usually good to go with it for a while.

The best part about this is that it’s likely to cost you nothing to try it. Most of us have a timer of some sort, somewhere. If your stove doesn’t have a timer, you can use an alarm clock or a simple egg timer. You can also use the alarm function on your cell phone or your computer. Some of your kids’ games might have a timer included that you can borrow. There are plenty of ways these days to create an alarm for yourself. Next time you find yourself procrastinating, break out the timer and try working on your task for just a few minutes. Even if you still want to quit, you’ll have least put in those few minutes of effort.

(Photo courtesy of pasukaru76)

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4 Responses to The Productivity Benefits of a Timer

  1. I like this idea and will try it.

    We’re Big Bang addicts also.


  2. Minny says:

    Look at Flylady – she advocates this regarding cleaning – I use it as she suggests.

  3. Gail says:

    Absolutely spot on! Due to disability, I find my ability to do things decreasing rapidly, but find that I can do an immense amount of stuff just waiting 2 minutes for the microwave to go off, such as put clean dishes away, stack dishes, clean off counters, etc. I try to grab those spare minutes when I can. We turn on a room AC at night and so sometimes I have to wait to go to bed until the room is cooled down. Since my sewing room is next to the bedroom, I find I can quilt several seams in a quilt, clean out my machine, wind bobbins, clean up and put a few things away for those few minutes. I learned long ago from the “Side-Tracked Home Executives” (read this book if your housework has gotten away from you) that all household chores can be broken down into small sections of time and doing the work takes less time than thinking about it or procrastinating!

  4. jay says:

    I, too, use a timer. Started with FlyLady as mentioned above, and find it an incredibly productive tool. Amazing how much you can do while waiting for coffee to brew, or (if you still have to suffer through them) a commercial. Makes those dreaded, tedious tasks tolerable.
    Only caution is to not do the same small task over and over again, but rather have an overall plan.
    Big Bang fan, too!

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