How to Use Timers to Be More Productive

Photo credit: purplemattfish on Flickr

So the other day I was twittering with fellow tweeple @RaiscaraAvalon when it was discovered we share a rather unexpected similarity, namely, the use of timers.

My first experience with consciously writing on the clock came with the Twitter hashtag #wordmongering, in which writers get together at the top of every hour and write as much as they can for thirty minutes, then share their word count results and pass around electronic goodies and bubbles of happiness.

Something about being aware of the ticking clock and knowing I only had thirty minutes to write really gets my fingers moving. I’m racing against the clock (and other writers) to get the most words down I can.

This ticking clock experience was amplified when I started using Write or Die, which literally has a timer in the corner of the application that shows the seconds and minutes slipping away as you work (it also has a running word count meter in the opposite corner that I personally find both encouraging and motivating, but that’s another matter entirely).

Point is, timers are a great tool for forcing you to focus on a particular project—whether it’s writing, editing, brainstorming, etc. All you have to do is decide how long you’ll be doing said activity (I find that thirty minutes is a good amount of time for a focused sprint), turn off all other distractions (yes, that means Twitter, too), set the timer and go.


By turning on the timer, you are making a silent contract with yourself to dedicate that set amount of time to do whatever it is you’re setting out to do, and nothing else. No checking Twitter, or e-mails, or tumblr or Facebook or taking phone calls or getting a snack. If you absolutely must stop for some reason (like, say, if your house is on fire), pause the timer and come back to finish the sprint later (unless your house actually is on fire, in which case completing your sprint should be the last of your worries).

The great thing about timers, however, is that they’re multifunctional. Not only are they a great tool for forcing you to focus for a certain amount of time, but they’re fantastic for cutting down on daily distractions.

It’s important to note that some amount of daily distraction isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we all need to take breaks throughout the day, and sometimes there’s nothing better after a particularly exhausting writing sprint than watching some mind-numbing YouTube videos or snickering at random tumblr GIFs or sharing your half-coherent thoughts with the Twittersphere. It’s only when we slip into relaxing-distraction-seeking mode and suddenly its 10 PM and you still haven’t finished that chapter you were supposed to write today and the laundry is piling up and you forgot to eat dinner, that it can become a problem. And that’s when the timer comes in.

It’s very easy to say, “I’m only going to spend fifteen minutes on Twitter,” then realize an hour later that you still haven’t finished your work. As they say, time flies, especially when you’re procrastinating (or something like that).

Believe it or not, it’s significantly harder to claim that time ran away from you when you set a timer for fifteen minutes and it beeps incessantly until you turn it off, thus letting you know you have spent your permitted fifteen minutes and now it’s time to get back to work.

Be warned: setting a timer means you’re serious. It means you actually only want to fifteen minutes on Twitter and after that you’re actually going to go back to work. It means you really intend to spend thirty minutes adding to your manuscript, and nothing else. It means you understand that your time is limited and you want to make the most of it.

You don’t have to use a timer to be productive, but if you’re serious about using your time wisely and hunkering down and focusing on your work for a period of time, I highly recommend it.

Or you can go check Twitter for fifteen more minutes.

Do you use timers to be more productive? Have you used it while writing? 


Chihuahua Zero said...

I keep intending to get a kitchen timer for this purpose.

But lazy writer is lazy.

Ava Jae said...

A kitchen timer can work, although there are also free timers online that can be just as useful. :) 

Daphne Gray-Grant said...

I am operating with a timer right now. I time EVERYTHING I do and take a brief stretch after every 30 minutes of work. But here is one secret: the time needs to be NOISY. For several years, I'd stuck by my silent digital timer to accomplish my pomodoros (see: ). I figured that the noise of a clicking timer would be distracting. Now that I've made the switch, however, I find the noisy timer wonderfully invigorating. It reminds me that I'm supposed to be writing (or doing whatever task I've designated) rather than surfing the Internet or checking email. I highly recommend it. You can always use an inexpensive (noisy) kitchen timer, but here's a description of the software I like: 

Matthew Rowe said...

Good advice, but unfortunately self-imposed restrictions don't work for me. I know I don't have to, so I don't. It's like trying to get up at a reasonable time on non-work days. I can never do it. However, what does work for me is to use my laziness against me. If I disconnect my internet when I go to make a cup of tea, I get distracted for a bit, then I have my tea, I come back to write and bam! I'm too lazy to get back up and turn the internet on again, so I write until my next tea break

Ava Jae said...

I haven't used the Pomodoro technique, but I've heard a little about it before. Interesting that noisy timers work better for you than silent ones--I've thus far stuck to silent timers since I feel like actually hearing the seconds tick by might make me a little antsy...but it might be worth a try. 

Ava Jae said...

I have to say, that's a very clever strategy. :D

Matthew Rowe said...

I have my moments.

Gene Lempp said...

I haven't used timers - but - for all the reasons you listed, I've been considering using one. Sometimes I can wander off for a few hours and get lost in a five minute task - or something *grins*

I think I'll try out Write or Die, you are the third person I've heard recommend it. Thanks for the helpful advice, Ava!

Ava Jae said...

Sure thing, Gene! I'll admit I was a little hesitant to use Write or Die, but once I tried it out, I realized it worked very well for me (and it's certainly boosted my writing sprint word counts). Good luck! 

Author Steven said...

Great post as usual. :) Right now as you may have picked up, I'm in the plotting stages of my book(s) (forever it seems!). But when I do write short stories to keep my fingers nimble and my mind sharp I use a timer.   I also use it when I decide to cautiously begin the first chapter of the first book haha. Speaking of which, I was wondering what formatting you use when you write. What font, font size, spacing, and margin size do you use? I keep changing my formatting because I keep getting mixed answers. I also try to get the average 250-300 apparent words a page most novels have so I can get an idea how long my book would be if it were on paper but I also try keeping a traditional, publisher accepted format. Thanks!

~Author Steven :)

Andi-Roo said...

I use timers for everything! Writing, housecleaning, keeping the kids on-task... anything that requires me to stay focused, I set a timer & don't stop what I'm doing till I hear the buzzer. Very effective strategy for the little one, as it turns whatever we're doing into a game. And quite effective when I'm writing, because if the fam wants to interrupt my writing, all I have to do is point to the timer & they know it means I'm in the middle of a timed session & to wait till it's done. LOVE me some timers!!!  :)

/// @theworld4realz

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Steven! I personally use Times New Roman pt. 12, double spaced and whatever the preset margins are in Microsoft Word. In the end, I wouldn't worry too much about formatting--as long as you don't use anything distracting (TNR is pretty standard, but there are other acceptable options as well), in the end it's the writing that's the most important. :)

Ava Jae said...

Sounds like you've really mastered the art of the timer! :D

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