Using a timer is one of the best and simplest life-hacks EVAR. I first became aware of this time management hack several years ago when someone suggested I learn about the Pomodoro technique which involves creating a task-list, chunking out the work into smaller 25-minute pieces, and training myself to concentrate wholly on one task for each 25-minute work-block. The simplicity of this method appealed to me. I’m really turned off by complicated productivity apps and techniques; please, keep your worksheets and special products away. I already have everything I need to do a better job at managing my attention and time and being more productive.
Note the two main components of this method: 1) Write out my task list. This means putting pen to paper (or perhaps typing it out on my screen) and naming the (ambitious? impossible?) list of things I want to accomplish in my day. Even David Allen, the Getting Things Done productivity guru, underscores this important step to increasing productivity. He describes this process of clearing one’s memory of all the little things we are constantly trying to remember as having a “mind like water.” In other words, this step is about what gets our attention, the task at hand or all the interrupting thoughts that try to sneak into our minds. I often feel busy and my attention is constantly being pulled to distractions: ideas to remember for other writing projects, household chores I have to take care of, items for the grocery shopping list, emails to send, phone calls to make, references I need to look up—the list of details is endless. But, writing these down helps me clear my memory instead of going over and over the same list in my mind.
Once I’ve decided what’s most important for my concentrated attention, 2) I use the timer and work on one task at a time. This means choosing the most important thing on my task-list and focusing on it for the time-interval. It means taking a break at the end of my time-block, standing up, doing a few squats or stretches to get some perspective on what I’m working on. If an idea or question pops into my mind that’s not related to my current task, I just write it down and let it melt away. When the buzzer goes off (or the crickets chirp!) at the end of a block of time, I know I need to finish my task. Estimating how long it takes to do big projects is not one of my gifts, but I’m learning to be better by reflecting on how much I was able to accomplish in each block of time and then doing the math to see how much more time I’ll need to complete a project. Even if I’m not done with my task, I take a break, get some water, and refocus. This way I can scan my task list, wrangle my attention away from niggling details, and muster the resources to finish the task in the next round with my timer.
I downloaded a free Pomodoro app and practiced their method. My productivity improved, but I quickly realized that for many of my projects, I needed more than 25-minutes to get “in the groove.” An easy alternative is using the timer on my iPhone and setting it to longer chunks of time. I find 40 minutes is about as long as I can work without hitting the brick-wall of distraction or boredom.
25-minute and 40-minute chuncks of time are great for reading and writing projects. As a parent, I often use my cell-phone timer for much smaller chunks of time. Sometimes I’ll use the timer and get everyone (especially my husband) to tidy up our living room for ten minutes. Toys, mail, laundry, dishes, clutter—everything gets put away and cleaned up! Ten minutes is a short enough period of time that it doesn’t feel onerous, yet long enough to actually make a difference in the house. Other times I’ll set the timer for 3 minutes when I need to measure out the length of time my son sits in time-out. Thankfully, he doesn’t need time-outs very often, but when he does, I want him to know that I am being fair about the length of time he must sit quietly on the step. Just as it’s important that he understand the reason he is being disciplined, it’s also important that the discipline itself doesn’t seem arbitrary to him.
And there you have it, one little “life-hack!”