Productivity and goal-setting are popular topics these days, with many of us trying to sort out the best ways to effectively accomplish what we need to do each day while squeezing in time for the fun-to-dos as well. There are endless sources of information out there in the forms of websites, blogs, apps, books, podcasts and many others that focus on how to make the best possible use of your time.
Generally, I tend to be fairly organized and goal-oriented, so my problem is not coming up with a plan of action or things that I want to accomplish. However, I often have trouble with focus. I know there is only so much time to spend in a day on certain tasks, like writing, without them crowding into other areas I am responsible for. And like many parents of small children, I am subject to often unpredictable pockets of time. I am grateful for the nap, for example, but how long will it last? (I learned long ago not to rely on what normally happens, as that will be the one day the kiddo decides to change things up.)
As a result, when I do have time to sit down and read, write, meal plan, or whatever, I find myself thinking about all the other things I could be doing, even when I’ve decided beforehand that this time will be for a certain task. Or worse, I start my task, but then go down a rabbit hole of distractions around the house or online.
To combat this, on almost a daily basis I use one of my favorite tools: a simple timer. Here’s why I love them.
1. Timers help keep goals spaced into manageable chunks.
To state the obvious, setting aside a small amount of time to dedicate to something you want to accomplish will help prevent being overwhelmed. You only need to spend the allotted time on it, and then you are done.
In her book Happier at Home and on her blog, Gretchen Rubin talks about the power of ‘suffering’ for 15 minutes. That is, when a task is daunting and overwhelming (Rubin uses the example of wrangling her large collection of digital photos), devoting 15 minutes to it daily until it is finished is an effective way to deal with it. The idea is that you can stand anything, no matter how annoying, for just 15 minutes a day (or even every couple of days). It may take time, but slowly chipping away at small chunks can accomplish a great deal over the long-term.
I have used this idea several times now, including to work on organizing my own digital photos. It is great for tasks that technically don’t need to be done (there will not be dire consequences for you or your family if you don’t eventually organize your photos), because they are likely never even to get started. Starting a timer for 15 minutes, and keeping to the definitive start and end points, helps make space to complete goals that can be overwhelming into tiny chunks that are doable. On the other hand…
2. Timers can work as a kick-starter for things I have trouble getting the motivation to do.
If I want to work on a piece of writing but just can’t seem to get started, or am struggling with an idea, I will set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and just start in. Usually, this helps me focus in and not think about all the reasons I am having trouble with it. This is different from the point above in that my goal is to get a little momentum and keep going once the time is up. Sometimes, this helps me break through the apathy and keep on writing. But if not, at least something has been started!
3. Timers reinforce how much can be done in a very short amount of time.
15, 10 or even 5 minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but we tend to overestimate how much time it takes to do a dreaded or annoying task. I tend to put off certain chores like changing the bed sheets or emptying the dishwasher because I don’t like doing them. But if I set a timer for 5 minutes and complete a task like this, it becomes obvious very quickly how little time it takes. (The dishwasher can often be unloaded in as little as three minutes.) I’m far more likely to just do these things when they need to be done because I’m aware of how little time they will actually eat up.
As an aside to this, you can use a stopwatch (most smart phones have this feature now as well) to time certain tasks you dislike. You might discover that they take far less time than you think they do.
4. Timers help keep my least favorite, ongoing tasks to a minimum.
Unlike emptying the dishwasher, some tasks can take an infinite amount of time if we let them. I do not want to spend large chunks of my day cleaning or tidying beyond the necessary. Especially when, in the case of things like picking up toys, things will get messy again pretty quickly. At the same time, clutter and mess tend to drive me nuts.
If I want to pick up and tidy a bit at the end of the day or any other time, I will often set a timer for 5-10 minutes and just go at it. (The kiddo loves setting timers, too.) Whether you attack the clutter or go slowly and methodically, your space will often look very different after even 5 minutes of picking up. And then you can stop. There will always be more you could do. But setting a timer will help things stay relatively manageable without having to feel like you are spending half your life cleaning.
5. Using a timer keeps my overactive brain in check.
If I set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes or even longer, I know I have a finite amount of time to use. Writing a blog post or working on other writing projects, brainstorming ideas, or even working on a household chore can really get me thinking about other things that need to be done or all the ideas I have, and before I know it I am overwhelmed. Setting a timer reminds me that right now, the task at hand is all I have to think about, and generally this helps me feel calmer.
What is your favorite way to manage your time?