Using a timer to improve your life

I am easily distracted. As soon as I start on a task I think of other things I would like to do, for example, “quickly” checking my email then losing track of time.

Several years ago, Merlin Mann (author of www.43folders.com) wrote about a technique for overcoming procrastination and giving focus. He called it a “dash” and the only tool you require is a kitchen timer (or something similar).

Set the timer to 18 minutes then do the task at hand with full attention. If you get the urge to do something else, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, check your email or your phone, DON’T! Wait until the timer goes off then deal with the distraction. Next, take a great of 2 minutes using the timer then continue with another dash.

More recently Francesco Cirillo packaged the technique he called the Pomodoro Technique named after a tomato shaped timer (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato). Read all about the technique, download a cheat sheat and worksheets from the Pomodoro web site. The basis of the Pomodoro technique is a 25 minute dash, appropriately named a Pomodoro.

I use timed dashes for two main purposes – maintaining focus and minimising time wasting.

Maintaining Focus. When I start a big task I procrastinate because I dread the thought of being involved in a lengthy activity. By setting the timer, I am telling myself “I just have to work on this task for 25 minutes”.25 minutes of focused activity is far more productive than a couple of hours “multitasking” and trying to get the work done.

By working in dashes (or counting Pomodoros) I can turn work into a game. How much email can I clear in this dash? Can I write a blog article in one Pomodoro? I record the time spent on a task by drawing a tomato shape next to the item in my notebook, then color it in when I finish the dash. At the end of the day I can see how much productive time I spent.

Minimising Time-wasting. I enjoy browsing the web, checking Facebook, reading and writing personal mail, reading Twitter and browsing news web sites. Setting a short time for these activities helps minimise wasting time, with the benefit of giving me more time for other activities. I can indulge in the activity for a short time-period and free of guilt. For example, if I wanted to minimise time spent on Facebook, I could allow myself two 5-minute Pomodoros on weeknights and 3 8-minute Pomodoro on Saturday and Sunday.

What happens if I get the urge to do something else during the dash? I allow myself to make a note of what I want to do, but I don’t do it. A quickly pencilled note in my note book is sufficient.

Choosing a timer

Because I experience the greatest time management problems on the computer I have explored various software products. I once downloaded a browser based “red disk” timer from Time Timer. This is pictured at the beginning of this article.

Recently I wrote my own timer using the Java-based Processing  language. I will describe this application in a later blog article and you will be able to download the program.

There are many excellent countdown timers available for iPhone and Android, and you can always buy an inexpensive mechanical timer in a kitchen supply shop or a digital timer. You may not be popular in an open planned office if you use a noisy timer, and this is where software timers are good.

What is the ideal length of a dash?

The first version of this technique suggested three cycles of 18 minutes work and 2 minutes rest in between. The Pomorodo suggests 4 cycles of 25 minutes with a 5 minute break followed by a longer break. I am still experimenting but for smaller projects I like the 18 minute dash.

Working and playing in a predefined time limit helps you learn how much can be achieved in a given time.

Further reading.

Here are two excellent articles from the Lifehacker web site on using a timer to boost productivity and keeping sane.

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2 thoughts on “Using a timer to improve your life”

  1. Sometimes it’s better if you don’t actually set a specific time to ‘dash’ each time round. Let’s say the usual is 18 minutes, but you only have 10 minutes on your hand now – so does it mean that you don’t do anything?

    I prefer to work in longer periods because my focus is quite good, and once I lose that attention and focus it’s tough to gain it back. 😀

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