Use A Timer As A Productivity Booster, Sanity Minder

Timers, in the face of 21st century technological marvels, can appear as antiquated as steam engines and telegraphs. The simple timer, however, is one of the most useful productivity tools around.

Photo by smemon87.

Outside of timing a pot bubbling on the stove, not a lot of people use a timer on a daily basis. If you haven't worked a timer into your daily routines, the expense is small and the benefits are great. Today we're going take a look at how the humble timer can take the nebulous conglomerate of tasks, breaks, goofing off, sweating deadlines and the entire mass of what constitutes your work day and break it into manageable — dare we say enjoyable? — servings.

Selecting a Timer

While your grandmother may have only had a choice between a timer that looked a lot like an egg and one that only kind of looked like an egg, you've got far, far more choices. If you're looking for a hardware timer, you've got classic egg timers, tomato-shaped timers, stopwatches and anything else you can set an alarm on. In the software realm, a host of timers for popular operating systems and smart phones give you a dizzying array of options to choose from.

We're not going to go over all of them here — we've highlighted several in the past — but we will offer some insight into selecting a great timer.

Select the simplest timer that will get the job done. The geek in you wants the cool timer app in the App Store so you can track while you time, cross-index your "scores" for timed tasks and eleventy billion other neat tricks. But is any of that actually going to help you get stuff done? Are you going to waste minutes you could be working or breaks during which you could be relaxing fiddling with it? You know what you can't fiddle with? A $5 egg timer from the supermarket. It's a crank with some gears and a bell. It only does three things: sit there, tick there or ring there. When you're getting started incorporating a timer in your workflow, I'd strongly suggest picking the simplest timer that will meet your needs.

Initially avoid, if possible, timers on your computer or smart phone. If the best place for you to have a timer is in your system tray or on your Android phone, it's better to use a timer than to not use one. When you're first getting used to timer-based productivity boosts, however, I've found it's helpful to have a timer that's extremely boring and unconnected to any work-related platform. (You can, of course, do whatever works best for you.)

If you have a timer in your system tray, for instance, you might notice that you've got new emails when you go to reset it for your break. It's too tempting to go mess around in your inbox and see what email just came in. Same thing for your smart phone; you go to reset the timer and you're staring right at the notification bar on your phone. What's that? New voicemails? There goes what should have been a relaxing break or a strong start to a new task, torpedoed right out of the gate because the digital crack our electronic devices feed us is too hard to resist for most people. Keep it simple and as standalone as possible.

Now that we've hashed out some basic guidelines to selecting a timer, let's look at the reasons you're going to start incorporating a timer into your workflow.

Timers Are Workload Containment Units

You've got work, and if you're anything like the great overworked populace of CorporateVille, you've got lots of it. You could work all day, all night and right into your eventual hospitalisation for a stress-related breakdown if you wanted. But who wants that? There will always be work to be done and in many jobs, especially those driven by deadlines, the work never really pauses or ends. Timers help you to impose some microcosmic order on a chaotic work schedule that, thanks to the power of always-on internet and telecommuting, can follow you wherever you go. Photo by JenVista.

A timer allows you to take a task and essentially cage it. Instead of looking at "Work on the Johnson account" or "prepare the monthly report" as a nebulous and potentially day-consuming task, a timer lets you create a "schedule cage" for that task. Whether you opt to set aside two 45-minute blocks that day to work on it or a half-dozen 30-minute blocks over the course of the business week, using a timer helps you quarantine tasks so they don't leak over into other important work and personal duties. Even if it's a task that you have to spend all day on, if that's what's required, a timer helps you get a firmer grasp on how long it's taking (and will potentially take).

Timers Force Commitment

How often have you started on a task, drifted to another, checked your email, were reminded about a third task because of an entirely unrelated email sitting in your inbox, and then ended up working on the third task and forgetting about the first two? Maybe you've got an iron will, but if you're like most overwhelmed information workers, you're more than familiar with splintered focus and task drifting. Photo by blumpy.

Using a timer forces you to commit to a task at hand. You consciously set the timer and say, "I'm going to work on this task for 20 minutes." Even if it's a task you don't enjoy, you're more likely to stick with it because you've set a limit on how much that joyless task can torture you today. Imagine, if you will, that you go to the dentist and she says, "We need to drill and fill a cavity in your tooth. We've got two ways of doing things around here. The first method involves a timer; we get it done in an hour and then you're on you way, no more drilling. The second method is a bit more relaxed. We come and go all day, hammering away at your tooth until it eventually gets done." Which method would you choose?

Of course you'd choose to limit the pain and hassle of getting your teeth drilled to a set and controlled window. Do the same thing with your work. Contain the work to a set allotment of time and commit yourself to the task at hand so that regardless of whether or not it all gets done in that productive push, something gets done and you've earned your break at the end of the countdown.

Timers Keep You Honest About Time

It's easy to deceive yourself about how much time something takes. Just like people who don't pay attention to how many times they swipe their credit card have no idea how much money they're spending, people who drift through the work day grinding away at tasks have no idea how much time things really take. Photo by modomatic.

When you set a timer for a task and dig into it with 100 per cent commitment, you get a chance to see how much can really be done on the said task in that block of time. Using a timer shows you what you're capable of, and it hones your ability to give realistic estimates of time. If you let your work expand to fill all available space in every work day, you really have no idea how long anything takes to get done. All you know is that work takes all day and there will be more when you come back tomorrow. Using a timer will give you a more accurate perception of the time and commitment tasks take. Not only that, but the time estimates you give other people will become more accurate, and they will view you as more honest and reliable because your promise of "you'll have it by the end of the day" is really a promise to get it to them by the end of the day.

Timers Make Breaks Better

Who hasn't taken a guilty break before? You know, the kind where you don't feel like you've really accomplished anything yet in the day but you're goofing off anyhow. The lull before lunch and before going home for the day are prime times for aimless goofing off. Goofing off is stressful when you haven't earned it. Timers give you a chance to commit to a task, work your arse off on that task and then take a break you earned. Using timers disrupts the cycle of goofing off and avoiding work, then rushing through projects to get them done and avoid the wrath of your boss. Photo by Paolo Camera.

It is far better to work hard for 40 minutes and take a 20-minute break than goof off for 20 minutes and rush through 40 minutes worth of work. Even better, the containment factor — the first rule of timers we discussed above — allows you to goof off totally guilt-free. Work time is for work and break time is for relaxing.

Excited about trying out timers to increase your productivity? Take a look at the free ebook The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo. You may not adopt the Pomodoro Technique — a series of 25-minute work sessions with five-minute breaks, followed by a 15-30 minute break after every four "pomodoros" — but the free book is filled with insight on the benefits of timers, and the Pomodoro Technique itself is a great place to start with your timer experimentation.

Have a favourite timer tool, app, tip or trick to share? Let's hear about it in the comments.

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    Sometimes when working on a tough problem an hour can pass before I realise it. Often though, especially when the task is not so interesting, I struggle to stay focused. At times like this I've found a timer incredibly useful. It breaks up a huge task into manageable chunks - a workload containment unit as the article mentions.

    I went for a computer based timer only because it was free & I could download it immediately. I found that it's important that the timer is not too in-your-face because it will firstly distract you and secondly, everyone who walks past your desk will ask you what it is.

    For boring or complicated tasks where my motivation is low I set the timer to 20min. For interesting tasks or when the deadline is near, it's easy for me to go for 40min or longer. I still get lots of little breaks but those timed chunks are really intense. It's important also to choose carefully to do in your break too to make sure that what's supposed to be a short break doesn't turn into an hour long distraction.

    I often calcify in place for hours at a time. Sometimes 6 hours will go by before I get up from my desk if I'm really involved in something. Judging by all the creaking that goes on when I finally get up, it's likely not a good thing. I will try to do as this article recommends.

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