“Time is more value than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time.”
~ Jim Rohn
The passage of time is an infrequently used, but extremely effective spark for taking action.
In my ten years of studying personal growth and productivity, and from surveying my readers, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest problems people have is procrastination, and that the biggest reason for that is a failure to start.
If you have trouble “self-starting,” you can use father time get you going. These five specific “timer hacks” can help you stop procrastination before it’s too late and you’re cramming for an exam, freaking out over a messy home, sorting through dozens of unprocessed emails, and wondering why you didn’t exercise earlier when you had the chance.
Are you ready to increase your productivity and spend your time more efficiently? Let’s go! *Timer starts now* 😉
The Countdown Starter
How it works: When the timer runs out, you must start your task immediately.
When you need to get started on a task, but motivation is low and you’re stalling, run a countdown timer. This works every time for me. Combined with my mini habits concept of starting “stupid small,” this strategy is sure to get you moving.
To combine it with the mini habits strategy, pinpoint the first very small action you can take to move forward. If you’re stalling to go to the gym, the first step is often changing into gym clothes (or more specifically, putting on gym shorts). When the timer hits zero, commit to taking that first step.
The reason this works is because it gives us a clear starting point. When you can start “anytime,” you’ll often choose to procrastinate. As for how long to give yourself, that may vary with context. When I use this method and I’m not busy with something else, I often give myself 60 seconds: enough time to relax and prepare myself for taking action.
The Decision Countdown
How it works: You must make a firm decision before the timer runs out!
Use a countdown timer to put gentle pressure on yourself to make a specific decision or a general “I need to do something, but what?” decision. Putting this pressure on yourself and practicing it daily is a great way to improve your decision-making confidence and speed. Pressure is a little bit uncomfortable, but as long as it isn’t overbearing, it is very useful to get us moving!
Make sure you give yourself enough time to deliberate over your options, but not too much time. I’ve found the sweet spot for me to be 3-10 minute countdowns, depending on the complexity of the decision.
The Focus Timer
How it works: For X minutes, you must focus on one task of choice (with strict rules for distractions).
When I do this, I often exceed my target time because I’ll become absorbed in the task.
Tip: If you have a Mac, use the fullscreen function, which completely blocks out everything but that one program. Set a rule that you can’t switch away to another program for any reason until time runs out. Trust me, even little things like, “I think I’ll put on a song in the background” are deceptively lethal to productivity: small concessions spawn distraction. Don’t move away from your focus area for any reason.
If it seems too hard to completely focus on one thing for very long, you simply need practice. Set your goal for 5 minutes of focus and work your way up to a more substantial amount of time. What you practice on a daily basis—whether it’s distracting yourself or focusing—is what you’ll “get good at.” Most people today are adept at responding to text and Facebook notifications and not very skilled at focusing on important things. With practice, we can change that!
The Pomodoro Technique
How it works: Work 25 minutes, rest 5 minutes. Repeat.
This is a popular technique that works well. My only gripe is that when I’m focused on a project, I will work for more than 25 minutes. I’m not convinced that 25 minutes is magical, or that it should be the same amount of time each day. I go more by feel. Sometimes I know I can focus for an hour or more. Other times, I’m lucky to get 20 minutes (or so I think until I get started!).
That said, the principle is sound, it will work, and it is much better than nothing. From wikipedia, this is the pomodoro process:
- Decide on the task to be done
- Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally 25)
- Work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
- Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
- Every four “pomodori” take a longer break (15–30 minutes)
The Work & Play Carousel
How it works: Work for an hour, relax for an hour. Repeat.
This back-and-forth technique rewards you handsomely for each segment of work you do.
“But that break is way too long!”
If you think it’s a bad idea to increase your relaxation time, consider this: Greeks worked an average of 2,034 hours in 2012; Germans though, worked an averaged of just 1,397 hours in 2012 (source: OECD). And while Greeks worked more hours, Germans were 70% more efficient in terms of GDP per hour worked (making them more productive despite working fewer hours). It’s not a perfect comparison because of other socioeconomic factors of these countries, but it drives home the point that:
Time spent working is an incomplete measure of productivity. (Click to tweet)
An hour of hard, focused work can absolutely be worth two hours of reward in some cases. You’ve likely had times where you “worked” for 4 hours and accomplished very little, and times where you worked for 20 minutes and deserved a trophy for all you accomplished.
Parkinson’s law states that work contracts or expands to fill the time you allot for it. If you give yourself more “R&R” and less time for work, you might find yourself doing more to maximize your work efficiency because of this phenomenon. One more thing: consider the increased energy you’ll have from being well-rested, which can be utilized for better focus and higher work intensity.
The Pomodoro technique is based on giving your body and brain short breaks for rest and revitalization purposes (to help you prepare for another session of work). This “carousel” technique is based more on creating a positive neurological association between work and play: the brain always prefers the activities that directly precede rewards (as we know from the science of habit structure). Being sufficiently rewarded after working creates a positive perception of work; over time, this decreases your subconscious resistance to working.
Now you have the methods, but you still need a timer! Here are some free timer tools you can use:
- Simple kitchen timer (an actual, physical, not-digital timer device!): A physical kitchen timer is hard to beat because you can start a physical timer faster than you can an app timer.
- Digital kitchen timer (Android): Yeah, there is an app for that too. This app even has three independent timers you can activate. I’m not sure why you’d want that, but it’s there.
- Alarm Clock Xtreme Free (Android): This is what I use. It’s my alarm clock, but the app also has a tab for setting a countdown timer.
- Timer Tab (Internet Browser): This is a good one if you work online, because as the name indicates, the time left can be seen in the browser tab.
- iPhone and iPad: No apps needed! The iOS has a timer app built into it. Select the clock app and you’ll find “timer” as one of the tabs. Set your time and click start, and you can select which ringtone to use when time runs out.
All of the above timer hacks can be effective, but you have to try them! Share these hacks with your procrastinating friends (friends don’t let friends procrastinate! Hmm…that will never catch on). To see my favorite focus tools to block out distractions and destroy procrastination, sign up for Tuesday updates at Deep Existence. You’ll get access to my “focus toolbox,” which contains the best focus software and apps that can be found online (most of them for free!). You’ll also get my custom-made focus wallpaper. Ok fine, I’ll throw in my well-liked ebook and exclusive articles too. What are you waiting for? An invitation?