cc licensed/flickr user pasukaru76

Productivity gurus of all sorts, ranging from Merlin Mann to the Flylady (aka Marla Cilley) recommend using a timer. You probably already have one, or two, or more timers easily to hand (in your wristwatch, PDA, or cellphone; on your computer; or on your kitchen counter). But knowing how to use it can make all the difference in really maximizing its (and your) potential. So, this is a roundup of some different ProfHacker-tested timer strategies.

Productively Using Your Timer

Just 15 minutes (or 10, or 5). One of the best uses for a timer is to help you take small steps towards a large, difficult project or goal. Whether it’s a project you’ve been procrastinating on because you fear being overwhelmed by its monstrous size, or it’s a task you just loathe, plain and simple, you can chip away at it in small increments. The key here is to promise yourself that when your 15 minutes is up, you can walk away and do something else. Do a little bit of work, get a little bit of reward. Even 15 minutes a day will help you see some progress and get out of the procrastination cycle.

Merlin Mann has some great ideas for using very short timer segments, or what he calls running a dash.

Speed drills: work as fast as you can on something for 15 minutes. This is better suited to clearing physical clutter in an office, or household chores, rather than knowledge work. But again, the key is to STOP when the timer goes off, unless there are really just a couple more dishes to wash.

Schedule your breaks. Flylady insists that you should take a 15 minute break after 45 minutes of housecleaning. Mann offers a slightly more complicated (10+2) * 5 formula. I myself like (40+10) * x. But using any of these formulae depends upon two things: timing your work, and timing your break. And honoring that commitment to yourself in really giving yourself a break. (And no, checking email for the umpteenth time isn’t really a break. Play a quick game, read a novel, get up and walk around, do something different enough from your work to really change your perspective.)

Set yourself limits. Decide that you will spend only X minutes doing something, set your timer, and stick to it. This is especially helpful for activities that could go on forever (“online research” or checking your feed reader).

Test the task. Decide that you will give it 2 minutes (GTD style), or 5 minutes, or 10, and if it’s not finished by then, it’s time to move it to an action list to be completed at another time. Eventually, you start to develop a more accurate ability to predict how long a task will take. But the timer doesn’t lie.

Teaching. Your timer is also good in the classroom: I use it to time small group activities and student presentations, and sometimes to keep myself on track if I’m at risk of going off on a tangent. And it’s a lifesaver for grading.

Choosing a Timer

There are numerous software programs with timers and stopwatches. A couple of recent ones include Cook Timer for Windows and Minoteur for Mac. There are even several 2-minute GTD timers. (The 2 minute rule says: if a next action can be completed in 2 minutes or less, you should do it right then, because it would take longer to record it as an action item on a list.)

I’m a big fan of getting a separate timer, because once you start using it you’ll keep discovering other tasks far away from your computer that could productively be timed. Also, for ease of use, it’s hard to beat pushing a button to start and stop the timer. (In contrast, the timer on my phone requires navigating down through several menus, and always resets itself to zero, which is irritating if you want to do repeated 15-minute blocks.) I use a Polder 212 (recommended by Mann several years ago and no longer available), but Polder currently sells many other digital timers, as do other companies.

Some features to look for, in software or physical timers:

  • one timer at a time is simple (and thereby more GTD); some timers offer multiple alarms which let you keep track of, say, something baking in the oven and a 15 minute email drill.
  • alternate alarm sounds, whether different volume or entirely different rings. Sometimes you can become habituated to your timer and it’s useful to be able to change the ring. Like an alarm clock, it’s sometimes useful to put it just uncomfortably out of reach so you have to be aware of turning it off.
  • vibrating timers and/or blinking lights for alarm options are very helpful if you want to avoid an adrenaline rush from the beep, or if you’re working in a coffeeshop and don’t want to be disruptive.
  • easy to read display, easy to use buttons, general design. Some have clips or lanyards for wearability; others have magnets to stick on file cabinets or refrigerators.

But don’t make it more complicated than it has to be — pull out your cell phone or grab your kitchen timer and try a 15 minute drill. Later on, you can shop around for the perfect timer and develop your own work/reward calculus.

Using a timer is one of the easiest ways I know to easily increase your focus when you feel scattered, to break through procrastination or distraction, and to help ensure that you’re making progress on the things that really matter to you.

Got some other ideas for using a timer? Let us know in the comments.

[cc licensed/flickr user pasukaru76]