W hat’s your go to tool or strategy? You know that thing you rely on to help you when you’re in a tough spot or when you’re frazzled. Do you have a strategy you can quickly whip out when your plan has gone awry or perhaps when you’re simply trying to salvage something from a day that has gone wrong?

The TIMER serves as my productivity Swiss Army knife, the versatile tool I rely on to resolve a host of challenges.

Situations for a timer:

  • Feeling overwhelmed—Need calming
  • Confused and not sure what to do—Need some direction
  • Tired and distracted—Need a break and a little fun
  • Office or home messy or disorganized—Needs some order
  • Time to get started writing—Need some motivation
  • Overly scheduled week—Need to keep long-term priorities alive and active
  • Important deadline approaching—Need to facilitate focused attention

Wow—that’s quite a list of varied and important situations and needs. I hope you’re beginning to understand why I love my timer.

Are you skeptical? Wondering how a timer can calm, offer direction, fun, order, motivation, focused attention, and salvage long-term priorities?

Timer is a proxy for constraint! Constraints offer the real magic.

  • Constraints narrow your attention. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and confused, narrowed focus becomes a plus. Additionally, when challenging, focused work demands your full attention, narrowed attention is a prerequisite.
  • Constraints narrow your options. When many possibilities lead to continuous mulling and even paralysis, limiting your options can yield a clear direction, a place to start.
  • Constraints ignite activation energy. When time is constrained by a deadline with significant consequences, procrastination fades as motivation and focused attention rise.
  • With constraints you can limit your misery.
  • With constraints you can carve out time for neglected breaks and long-term projects.

Situations for setting constraints with a timer:

  1. Situation: Your overwhelmed—mind is racing from one thing to another. Each time you start one thing you become distracted by something else that feels even more urgent. Constraints to the rescue!
    • TIMER: Stop, set a timer for a short time and do a quick thought dump of all the urgent and important things vying for your attention. Pick ONE and do it by setting a timer. For a more thought exercise to use when you’re in distraction chaos, read Triage the Chaos
  2. Situation: You’re tired and distracted but think you have too much to do to stop.
    • TIMER: Take your much-needed walking and/or stretching break to stimulate oxygen and blood flow that will spark some energy and renew your focus. But, set the timer, and limit this break to 10 minutes or less.
  3. Situation: You need to bring some order to your office.
    • TIMER: Don’t make a perfectly ordered office the measure of success. Instead set a time limit for making progress. Measure your time with music, bringing a bit of fun and energy to the dreaded task. Choose between 3-5 much-loved songs as you 10-20 session timer.
  4. Situation: You’re developing a daily writing practice but wrestling with excuses and resistance.
    • TIMER: Set a timer with a short time limit. Close ALL electronic distractions. Sit and write. Apply this use of the timer to ANY task you’re procrastinating.
  5. Situation: You’ve got significant grading awaiting you.
    • TIMER: Tackle rather than delay the grading with classic Pomodoro timed sessions—25 minutes of timed, focused work followed by a 5-minute break, repeat taking a longer break after 4 sessions. Of course, you can modify the number of sessions and the timed minutes to work.
  6. Situation: Your week is filled with meetings, classes, and other commitments that usually sabotage work time on long-term research projects.
    • TIMER: Instead of doing nothing keep that long-term project alive and percolating in your consciousness. Set a timer every day, for at least 30 minutes, and complete task related to the long-term project. This time can also create a needed respite from the high priority weekly tasks.

Types of Timers:

  • Easiest—phone. While this ubiquitous companion comes with other distractions, it’s readily available for most people.
  • Simplest—stand-alone timer (egg timer for example). These have no other distractions but you might not always have it handy. You can add elegance and engage your senses with beautiful stand-alone timers, such as hourglass timers with smooth glass and colorful sand.
  • Most fun & helpfulFocus@Will, online service that offers a timer with a broad research-based library of music designed to help you focus! I love it and use it regularly. But it is a fee-based service. Similar services are Brainwave Power Music (YouTube channel) and BrainFM.

Caveat. Many challenging situations need constraints, but of course constraints are not a ubiquitous subscription for getting things done. Some challenges need the very opposite—expansion, opening of your thinking, and broadening your possibilities. More on these in future posts.


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Nathan Dumlao