Some people might say that using a timer is taking the term "Time Management" a bit too literally, but I've found my simple count-up timer to be an invaluable asset. Here's what you need, and five different ways you can use it to get a productivity boost.
What you need:
What you're looking for is a simple count-up timer. The simpler, the better - no need to break the bank! The best places I've found to buy them are small electronic shops (like "Radio Shack" in Canada) and drug stores. I haven't yet found one that I consider to be "perfect" but here is a laundry list of traits. (Update: What a difference two years can make! If you have a smart phone, there are dozens of really nice timer apps )
- Stopwatch/Count-Up function - Finding a clock with "count up" functionality is a bit trickier than one would hope. Stopwatches are perhaps the most common form of count-up timer, but I've always found them awkward to use and the numbers are too small.
- BIG NUMBERS - You want something that you can GLANCE at and get the picture of where you're at, timewise. No squinting, no picking up the thing to be able to SEE the time on it.
- No beeps - This is where my otherwise trusty count-up timer falls down. Because it beeps every single time I press a button (any button), so I can't use it at work and I get weird looks using it around town. The beeping is what led me to use "Cool Count-Up" at work.
- Small enough to carry with you - easy to throw in a bag or a pocket. If it's not where you are, you won't be able to use it!
- Simple and Easy to set - my timer doesn't get much simpler. You press a button to get to "count-up" mode, and then you press another button to start. Press the same button to pause or resume, and "reset" to start over. If you need to break out a user's manual to set your timer, that's going to IMPEDE your productivity, not help it. The built-in timer function and clock function of my timer are also very quick to set with a button for every number. When I want to set it for 15 minutes, I press 1500. (Not "minute" 15 times -- thank goodness!)
Hopefully you will be able to find a count-up timer that suits your needs without too much difficulty. If you're really stuck, and you work near a computer most of the time, you can use this Online Count-Up timer I've found. [Update: No longer on line Boo] Again, nothing fancy, it just works!
Why count up? Why not just count DOWN?
I've tried working with normal timers in the past, but for some reason I find counting DOWN stressful and counting UP motivating. Maybe it's because counting up focuses on how much time has already passed, versus how much is "left". If you use a count-down for a 15 minute block, you're going to use that ENTIRE fifteen minutes to get whatever it is done. That's the nature of procrastination. The alarm is an interruption that stops my productivity, too. At any rate, I respond to them differently-- maybe you will, too!
Haven't you ever heard of, uh, a CLOCK?
Okay -- fair enough. The clock is a count-up timer. However, can you remember when you started? Do you know the EXACT time you started cooking? Did you remember to note the time when you walked in the door? Can you glance at a clock and know exactly how many minutes have elapsed since 8:37? Remembering to write down the time I started is something I always forget, and that's a problem the count-up timer has fixed for me.
WHEN TO USE YOUR COUNT-UP TIMER
1) Time Your Everyday Tasks
Time management is about budgeting your time. Well, how long do your tasks normally take? How long is that bus ride? Is it half an hour, or 23 minutes? How long does it take you to unload the dishwasher? 10 minutes? (You might be surprised!) Timing everyday tasks and getting a sense for how FAST you can actually get them done makes it easier to motivate yourself. "I'll just empty the dishwasher right now before stepping out. The bus-ride only takes 23 minutes... and emptying the dishwasher only takes 3. I've got time!"
2) For your "focus times"
A lot of time-management techniques (like Pomodoro and Merlin Mann's Procrastination Hack ) utilize set blocks of time that you tell yourself to FOCUS on something. The count-up timer is crucial for that. Just set it going and get to work.
3) For your workouts
Most treadmills have a built-in timer... but if you're limiting yourself to treadmills you've got a pretty boring workout! Most good workouts involve variety - a bit of cardio, a bit of strength training. How long have you been lifting those weights for? How far are you into your 30 second rest time? When I started with the gym I told myself to just stay in the gym, working out for 30 minutes. I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I was moving, and as long as I forced myself to stay there for 30 minutes. The timer was invaluable for that.
4) For really boring tasks
There are two ways to use a timer in this situation. If it's something really boring that can be completed in less than an hour, just turn on the count-up and get at it. The best example I've found is folding laundry. I hate folding laundry. Haaaate it. It's SO BORING. When I set down to fold laundry I find that I'm extra easily distracted. I go to the kitchen to get water. I become really really interested in alphabetizing my bookshelf. I'm mesmerized by twitter. I started turning on the timer to remind myself of how much time I was WASTING ON FOLDING LAUNDRY by just not getting it DONE. After awhile, it became a game - I wanted to see if I could beat my average time!
The other way is if you have something really boring that will take many hours to complete, such as zeroing a really deep inbox. Resolve to attack it for just 15 solid minutes per day. That's it. Turn on the count-up and say you are going to focus on this until the clock reaches 15. Sometimes you'll find that you can manage to work a bit longer than 15 minutes without noticing (because the alarm doesn't go off!)
5) For times when you need motivation
Sometimes, especially before or after travel, I find that I have a hard time getting my focus back to working. After work it's so easy to just slump down in front of the computer and get sucked into the mountains of distractions there. To combat this, I started turning on my timer the second I got home from work. I then allow myself to do whatever, but I know that every second that ticks is time I'm spending NOT working at my passion. As I'm going to the fridge to get ANOTHER snack between facebook updates, I notice -- "whoa! I've been home for HALF AN HOUR already?? Sheesh!!" This helps me get OUT of that slump and onto my chores. The faster I finish them all, the faster I can start working on what is really important to me.
Hopefully this post has inspired you to put "get a count-up timer" on the top of your action list. It's probably my favourite gadget, as far as time management is concerned, and I'm always finding new ways to motivate myself with it. If you have found new ways to use it, I'd love to hear them!