I have a disease that afflicts a large number of people under the age of 25. Most call it Shiny Object Syndrome.
It manifests itself in the usual ways. I open my laptop with the intent of getting a paper or other important work done. My eyes linger for a second on the blinking cursor and then through some irresistible force I find myself playing around with 10 tabs open for hours on end. My chances of finishing that article? Slim.
There isn’t any inherent problem with playing on the Internet (when the intent is to have fun). But when the intent of a session is to get work done, this becomes a serious problem.
Earlier this year, after finally listening to the advice of my wiser friends, I spent some time experimenting with the Pomodoro technique.
The technique is pretty straight forward. It was developed in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo as a way of improving study and work habits. The basic protocol involves deciding on a task you’d like to focus on. You then set a timer for 25 minutes and block out everything except for work. After 25 minutes have passed you get a small 5 minute break and then you repeat.
For the most part, the technique worked well for me. I started finishing more things.
And yet, I felt I could take the power of a timer even further.
The Use Cases
This isn’t an exhaustive list but here are some of the use cases for a timer I find myself going back to on a consistent basis.
- Want to track the time between exercises or rest periods between sets? Set a timer.
- Want to schedule in time for deliberate procrastination? 10 minutes of deliberate procrastination is enough to satisfy most basic urges.
- Need a nap? Rest your head for 20 minutes. Or find an interval that helps you recharge without any of the normal sleep inertia.
- Want to set limits on time-sucking open loop activities like email or social media? Use a timer.
- Frustrated or depressed? Whenever I’m feeling sad I like to do several things. 1) Watch, read, or listen to something funny or uplifiting. Tig Notaro, Casey Neistat and Louis CK are currently my 3 favorites. They always crack me up.. 2) I write. Writing is my own form of therapy. No one except me ever has to see what I’ve written and it’s a way of externalizing my demons. It gives me space to vent. [Note: Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, you might find the practice of writing practical and helpful for relieving anxiety] 3) I give myself a deadline to stop being sad. I can be sad or pity myself for 10-15 minutes.But after those minutes go by and the timer sounds, I collect myself and move on. Life is too short to stay in the pits of despair.
- Don’t call your parents as often as you should? Set a daily timer to call your parents.
- Want to form a habit? You can do 1 minute of anything. Set a timer and do the thing you need to do. It sounds silly but you’ll find that once you’ve started something, the resistance to continue doing it lowers signifcantly.
- Want Vitamin D from the sun without looking like a crab? Set a timer that fits your skin type, location, season and tolerance. I’ve found that 30-45 minutes works well for me on most days.
- Want the benefits of cold shower therapy? Set a timer for 30 seconds for warm water exposure and then set a timer for 5 minutes for cold water.
- Want to get better, regular sleep? Have a shutdown ritual and set a timer that tells you when you need to start getting ready for bed.
- Tired of sitting all day? Set a timer every half hour or hour and do some push ups, pull ups, go for a five minute walk, stretch or do mobility drills. Your hip flexors will thank you.
Tools & Resources
- E.ggtimer.com for when you’re at your computer
- Your phone’s native timer app
- Insight Timer for Meditation
So why does timing things work so well? At its core, a timer creates a sense of urgency. It externalizes our internal clock and it allows us to focus on the task at hand. It’s a way of sending a message from “past you” to “future you” about what you need to do. It gives you control because you set the time. But it also gives you peace of mind because it creates closed loops. You now know when one activity ends. You have psychological distance from your past decision and the mental cost runs lower than if you were to make the decision to move on mid-task.
Setting a timer before your work and rest activities is a tiny habit with great practical implications. Don’t “just do it.”
PS If this article helped you in any way, please pass it on to those who might need it.