Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Framing Work Sessions with a Timer

by Andre · 2 Comments

If you’re experiencing an action block, one of the best ways to get around it is to use a timer. Set it for a 15-minute interval, during which time you work completely without interruption. No email, no phone calls, no web surfing; just work exclusively on the assigned task. When the timer goes off, count or otherwise note what you’ve accomplished during that session. Then decide whether or not you want to commit to another session. Feel free to set intervals of any length, from 8 minutes to 8 hours. I prefer starting work with a 15 minute session to break the ice, then half-hour or one-hour blocks afterward.

In my experience, two things happen when I do this: I invariably accomplish more that I would have expected to otherwise (for instance, 166 words that didn’t exist 15 minutes before I started), and my resistance to continuing diminishes. For this to work, the mechanical component is crucial: use a timer. Don’t just “set aside the time” and assess it mentally or monitor your watch.

As a writer, employing a timer is even more important for me than the physical act of writing, for a couple of reasons. First, it takes motivation, inspiration and other intangibles of the equation. My job as a writer is to stare at a blank screen, sometimes filling it with words if they occur, until I hear an alarm. In the unlikely event that no words come, I’ve still completed the objective for that session: putting in the time. Second, it allows me to quantify the time inputs that contribute to my desired output in very concrete terms. I add up the timed sessions and the word counts, and am able to form a reasonable assessment of the time necessary to complete a project.

Timers put a frame around work sessions. Time becomes a canvas with absolute boundaries. Working untimed allows your psyche to perceive the flow of time according to the flow of work. When work is going well, time passes quickly. But for most of us, starting a work session involves overcoming inertia, and time seems to drag on, often inducing undue anxiety. Drawing a blank for a few minutes can seem unproductive, but in the context of a half-hour timed session, it’s easier to understand that some immersion time is necessary.

Timers can be useful to take advantage of short intervals that might otherwise seem too small to do anything with. I went to get my car washed last weekend. Since I usually spend most of the time at the car wash waiting to see when the workers are finished drying the car, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see how much writing I could accomplish in 10 minutes. I managed to crank out 83 words, but more importantly, my sense of direction for the post sharpened dramatically. It was much easier to continue with the interrupted beginning than it would have been to wait for a “better” time to write the post from start to finish.

Another timer application is to put a frame around your non-work sessions. When you’ve finished a timed work session, you have the option of starting another one or switching to another activity. If the impulse is to jump on the web for that “quick” lookup, set the timer for 10 minutes and indulge yourself until the alarm goes off (assuming you’re either on break, or not working under supervision).

After reading this post, I encourage you to pick some activity you been resisting, set a timer for some short length, and immediately start working on it.

Tags: Productivity


  • DougNo Gravatar // Apr 23, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Do you set the timer at 15 minutes and count down, or at zero and count up?

  • Andre KibbeNo Gravatar // Apr 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    I set it to count down, but it doesn’t matter, since I don’t look at the timer. One of the key principles behind using the timer is to free your attention from tracking time while working. This is why people in a flow state characteristically describe themselves of losing track of time. I focus on my main task until the timer goes off.