Time Your Way to Greatness

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With nothing more than the timer on your phone, you can accomplish anything. In five, ten or twenty minutes at a time, you can bend the time space continuum to your will. It’s all about applying extreme intentionality and limits on tasks. And the sooner you consider your creative work as tasks the sooner you will become exponentially more creative.

I’ve used a timer for most of what I’ve written in the past five years. Without a timer I would have have completed three books, hundreds of articles, or this blog post. Using a timer helps me do the things I don’t want to do or can’t get started. Knowing I’ve only committed to the task at hand for a finite period helps push through resistance so I actually get something on paper.

The time also helps me be more creative. The focus required during the mini-deadline gets get me out of my head so the better ideas have room to flow in.

Use a Timer to Trick Yourself into Doing Something You Don’t Like to Do

Find work that you love, they said.

You’ll never work a day in your life, they said.

Bullshit, called me.

Dorothy Parker said it best: “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Using a timer is a great way to eat the frog, or bust through procrastination. Sadly, ironically, the things we most want to do can feel like a chore. Ask any writer who has chosen to clean the toilet or file taxes rather than face a blank page.

I learned to use a timer from the Fly-Lady, who helps people get their homes in order. During my years at home with kids I did NOT love keeping house. Fly-Lady helped me build a system around the never-ending tasks of running a household, largely based on small, hyper-focused bursts of effort. I used this method with my kids to great success.

They still remember every Saturday picking 6 chores to do for 10 minutes each. Cleaning their rooms, folding laundry, or mopping the floor. They could do anything for 10 minutes, with a clear end in sight. 

Use a Timer to Trick the Muse Into Getting to Work

Using a timer does wonders for productivity, but it’s also a huge boost to creativity. Because my Muse is lazy. And fickle. And shy.

When you’re focused on production, you’re in action mode so you’re not thinking so much. You don’t waste precious time and energy talking yourself out of this great idea or that turn of phrase. Knowing that there’s a finite amount of time quiets the voices in your head telling you your ideas are terrible and no one cares what you have to say. The limited time magically awakens The Muse, putting her on notice to produce!

Use a Timer With or Without a Plan

Whether you know exactly where you’re going or feeling lost, a timer can help. You can use a timer with a prompt or intention. For example, if you’re drafting an article that you need expert input, you could set a timer for 20 minutes to locate sources. You will be much more efficient with your networking or web-browsing if you’re strict with yourself about keeping to the time allotted.

Setting a timer and free-writing is also a great way to clear the mental clutter. Especially if you are a natural writer, you may begin to feel frustrated and confused if you go a period of time without writing. So even during times when you don’t feel you have much to say, it’s important to keep the thoughts and words flowing. A timer can help.

Use a Timer for Short or Long Bursts of Productivity

Different tasks call for different periods of focused effort. Experiment to find how you work best.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport calls for 90-minute blocks of work. Such a nice idea.

I never could have asked my kids to focus on a single chore longer than 10 minutes. If I did they’d have rebelled. I would have been handing out punishments vs. enjoying the sweet scent of dryer sheets in action.

At work, I’m lucky to carve out 90 minutes for important work once a week. That’s work I want to do. Making time to complete work I know I need to do, but I don’t yet want to do is even more difficult.

When I’m really avoiding something, I like smaller blocks of time. Short blocks of time are also great for when we are making something too complicated. Getting started is always simple, even if it’s not easy. You can make a hell of a list in five minutes, and often a list is all you need to get started.

Short bursts help me get momentum. Often they help me get far enough in that I’m actually enjoying the work. Even if I’m not all the way to enjoyment, short focused effort can help me make enough progress to see the value of the end result. Once any of these shifts take place I’m ready for a longer time block.

The other time I like a longer block is when I’m processing a complex set of information. More time is helpful when I need to sort the pieces of the puzzle and then put them together in a way that tells a story.

One caveat about longer blocks of time: Sometimes we use them as an excuse.

If only I had more time…

Not all schedules accommodate 90-minute blocks of time. Due to the nature of our personal or professional roles, some of us are interrupted all day long. If we don’t make the time, we’re doomed to be dreamers forever.

I went from catering to the needs and schedules of my children, to supporting the needs and schedules of my clients and colleagues. Neither situation offered me long, uninterrupted blocks of time.

Even if you can carve out longer time blocks regularly, I encourage you to challenge yourself on what you can accomplish in a shorter period. It’s good practices for when life throws you a calendar curveball.

Use a Timer for Almost Anything: Examples

Here are are just a few examples of tasks made easier with a timer. 

  • Mind-mapping (My favorite way to brainstorm! Watch for a post on this topic coming soon.)

  • Outlining

  • Drafting

  • Editing

  • Posting to social media

  • Searching for images for blog posts or social media

  • Playing with titles to articles, books, speeches

  • Finding stories to illustrate your points

  • Researching (do NOT browse the internet without a timer!)

  • Free-writing to find or develop your point of view on a topic

  • Writing to a fiction or memoir prompt

  • Audience mapping

  • Organizing digital files

  • Building a presentation deck

The possibilities are endless. So give a timer a shot. What have you got to lose? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? You spend more than that browsing Netflix for your next binge.

You may not choose to make the timer a regular part of your process, but I suspect you’ll find at least one good use for it.

Ready for external accountability? I can help.