How to Set a Timer for Productivity

Typically, when one uses a timer for productivity, they’ll set the time that they intend to work for. If they’re using a small step strategy, they might set the timer for just 1-10 minutes. Then the timer goes off and they’re free to continue or stop.

There’s an alternative that I haven’t heard about elsewhere, and it goes like this.

The Small Extension

Sit down to work with no specific end time in mind, and have your timer nearby. Work as usual, until you have the urge to quit. When that urge comes, that’s when you use the timer. Say, “I feel like stopping, so I’ll set the timer for five minutes and when that goes off I can stop.”

This approach is useful for two reasons.

In the initial work session, you won’t be distracted or held back by a timer approaching the end or going off. When the alarm goes off, you will feel a sense of success and may feel satisfied enough to stop (which might not be ideal if your aim is productivity). The lack of an initial timer gives you as much “runway” as you want to be productive and ride the momentum.

Second, when you feel like stopping, a timer can reengage you. The primary purpose of timers is to cut through resistance by breaking down a large goal (I want to work for 6 hours) into something immediate and easy (I will work for 10 minutes right now). Once the initial session wears you down and you feel resistance, then you can use the timer to break through for a second wind.

When you want to stop working, it’s a form of temptation. Think about it—you’re tempted to stop and do something easier. In her book The Willpower Instinct, author Kelly McGonigal says about temptation, 

“When the brain compares a cookie you have to wait ten minutes for to a longer-term reward, like losing weight, it no longer shows the same lopsided bias toward the sooner reward. It’s the “immediate” in immediate gratification that hijacks your brain and reverses your preferences. For a cooler, wiser brain, institute a mandatory ten-minute wait for any temptation.”

Kelly McGonigal (The Willpower Instinct)

McGonigal suggests waiting 10 minutes to weaken temptation. In the same way, working just a few minutes longer can be a powerful tool for getting more done. Waiting out temptation allows you to lean in a better direction. 

Simply leaning in a better direction usually outperforms drastic measures because it’s sustainable and applicable in more situations. Over time, this slowly shapes you into a better person.

The Timed Break

One issue with forcing a few more minutes out of yourself when you want to quit is burnout. While it’s unlikely to cause burnout, pushing yourself always has that potential. In other words, when you need a break, it’s a mistake to force yourself to keep going. 

With burnout in mind, the other way to use this concept is to once again begin an untimed work session. When you begin to feel fatigued or agitated at the work (perhaps at a difficult crossroads), set your timer for a short break. At the end of the break, return to work. 

This is really useful if you feel short-term burnout. I get this way sometimes when trying to solve a complex problem… my brain overheats. A short break does two things for you.

It gives you brain a chance to rest and relax. The term “mathlete” is horrible in every way, but there’s some accuracy to it. Even at rest, the brain uses 20% of our energy, so when we are actively focused on solving a complicated problem, we can think ourselves to exhaustion. Taking a break in this case isn’t too different from a runner taking a rest between sprints.

It keeps you happy and engaged. Nobody likes an overbearing boss, but sometimes we can be that person ourselves! If you constantly overwork yourself, you’ll probably rebel at some point.

The common thread in these two techniques is to begin your work session without an end time in mind. When you feel like stopping, then set a short timer. The timer can either be to work five more minutes or to rest for five minutes before returning to work. As for which one is better, it depends on you and the situation. Try them both!

Buying the Right Timer

I use this timer (amazon) because it’s lightning fast to set it and the color overlay gives an instant visual representation of remaining time.

These manual “kitchen timers” are actually better than digital timers because of their speed and ease of use. One quick twist and the time is set from one to 60 minutes. Digital timers are more flexible and can work as stopwatches too, but for productivity, those extra features aren’t necessary and the extra required button presses are detrimental to the ideal.

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