If you’re anything like me, you have trouble keeping up with the day as it flies by in front of you. You wake up, scroll through your phone for 20 minutes while gulping down coffee, start work without eating breakfast, and before you know it, it’s 11:00 a.m. and you’ve been knee-deep in your projects for the last several hours.
How did we get here?! By the time you realize it, you’re taking just one more minute to complete a task, and then it’s the end of the day and you never got to the 100 other things that you needed to do… Sound familiar? The smartest solution I’ve discovered for when it feels like you’re falling behind is also incredibly simple: use a timer.
This small but mighty productivity tool has helped me incorporate better boundaries and learn better time management — and actually makes me worry less about the ticking clock.
Why a Timer Is So Helpful
I am now officially one of those people who uses a timer for just about everything. If I need to get something done but know that I really enjoy sitting on the couch, I set a timer to remind myself to get up in 20 minutes. If I only have space in my brain for a 30-minute admin block, I set a timer and get done what I can.
Part of what makes using a timer so helpful is it makes you in charge of your time, rather than the other way around. It’s empowering to feel that I’m keeping track of time so I don’t sit around mindlessly all day long. As we often say at Productive Flourishing, when you break your projects down into chunks, it’s much more manageable to get things done.
This turns out to be just as true when it comes to time, that it can feel more expansive and less overwhelming when you break it down into smaller time blocks.
There are certain days however where my executive functioning is subpar at best. That is, I have too many thoughts, too many things to do, and too many needs all colliding in my mind that I must wrangle before I can even get started on anything.
What can one do when even basic decision-making feels difficult? The timer can’t do the deep in-and-out breathing for you, but it can make the day feel less overwhelming. Maybe you can’t control what happens in the next 24 hours, but you can decide what you’re going to do for the next 20 minutes. And then for the 20 minutes after that.
Take a deep breath in and out, put some trust in the timer — and in yourself. We all have low executive functioning days. The days when things are just hard and you can’t figure out how you’ll manage to get through it.
In these moments, when the part of my brain that kicks into gear when stuff needs to get done is too tired to come into work, there’s always the timer. It’s outside me and will keep ticking regardless, to keep me on track. Tough workdays are the ones I find myself using the timer most. (It’s equally helpful on days when I feel like I can take everything on at once. We all have those days, too.)
Timers Set Boundaries… For Yourself
Whenever I mention to friends and family that I use timers to help stay on task while working, often the reaction I get is, “How can you stand the ticking clock?” Or, also frequently, “What happens if you’re not ready to move on when the timer goes off?”
These are valid questions, but they leave out one key component to using a timer.
The timer is your tool; it’s not an authority. The only way the timer will work for you is if you and your timer agree on what is going to happen when the beeper goes off. But more than that, you also must agree on what will happen when you actually honor the boundary you’re setting with your timer.
You might not see it immediately, but timers are about building habits and honoring boundaries. If you’re someone who struggles with setting boundaries with yourself, using a timer might be hard. But it is also a great practice in permission and self-compassion.
All too often people tend to overwork themselves because they forget to take breaks, or they prioritize finishing a project over something else that might be good for them. While it’s great that you finished your project, at the end of the day are you really more fulfilled? Or are you overly exhausted now because your body isn’t fueled up? (Now I’m no dietitian, but I think I can safely say that you need water and some kind of fuel to function.)
If you are down on yourself because you didn’t pick up extra work your team needed help on because you were so involved in another piece of work, is that really fair? What’s nice is that the timer is a neutral bystander and observer. There’s no judgment there. You can just do what’s possible in the amount of time allotted, and in my case, this helps me be less hard on myself.
We can avoid the negative self-talk kind of head trash if we practice more self-compassion and allow ourselves to work on what matters to us, not only what’s right in front of us. And one place to start this shift is by making the right decision, and then deferring the rest to the timer.
My Timer + Mindset Around It
I use my timer for just about anything, and there are two different perspectives on the subject that help me finish my projects on time.
1) Pomodoro Technique: You may have heard of this one, which involves splitting up focused work into chunks of 25 minutes, with 5- to 10-minute breaks in between each session for discussion, relief, or synthesis. I use my Pomodoro timer to help me do two things: A) to keep track of how much time a task or project piece is taking up, and B) to help me stay focused when I’m in a longer focus block.
With the job I do, I need focus time to do things like write, go over project plans, and process event recordings, so I tend to break my focus blocks up into smaller chunks to make them easier to digest. I may use two or three Pom timers back-to-back in one two-hour focus block when I’m energetically ready to get some serious work done. On days when I’m feeling less focused, having the short breaks in the middle of the Pom sessions (to drink water or to do some light stretching) helps me shift my energy and reorient myself to the task if I get distracted.
When I know what to expect, and that I’m planning to invest a certain amount of time into a task, the Pom timer doesn’t feel like a “countdown,” per se. Instead, I recognize that I will spend the same amount of time on the task no matter how focused I am and that when I’ve spent all of the time that I can on a certain task, I can move on to something new.
2) Ticktime Timer: For tasks that don’t fit into a focus block, I use my iPhone timer or the 99-minute tick-down timer Charlie and I both have. My rule for this one is that I tend not to time something for longer than 30 minutes. “Small tasks” can mean anything like taking a walk, cleaning the kitchen, or knowing when I need to leave the house for an errand.
For example, if I’m procrastinating on finishing my laundry, I’ll set a timer for 15 minutes when I start watching something on Netflix. This way I’ll know when I need to start my laundry, regardless of whether the show has ended, even if it’s in the middle of an episode. This practice works for me because I know it’s important that I get my laundry started and because I told myself that I would, not because I “have to” or that my timer is making me.
I’ve found the key to implementing any sort of time management routine is making an agreement with yourself and sticking to it. You can set 100 timers to go off at any time you want and still never get anything done because what the timer really signifies is the promise you made to yourself. If you’re not intent on keeping the promise that you are going to “do the thing” when it goes off, it won’t work.
It’s easy to get sucked into binge-watching TV, playing games, or scrolling through your phone. Oftentimes we tell ourselves that we don’t “have the time” to do mundane tasks, but in reality, we just don’t take the time out of our day to actually do them.
This practice reminds me of a bit from the TV series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In the show, Kimmy says, “You can stand anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds.” I like to take the same principle and apply it to staying focused and becoming more productive. If you can just get through the first few minutes of doing something, you can usually do it for 15 minutes longer — until you’ve spent all of the time that you possibly can on that one thing.
It’s up to you to create the action; the timer just helps remind you where you are in the process.