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Productivity Tip: Time for timers

Every day you have the same 24 hours as the rest of us to get what is likely a crushing amount of work done and out of your way so you can spend some time relaxing. Or, as one author has framed it, you have 168 hours in a week to accomplish what you want and move forward toward your goals. How do some people manage this while others are constantly rushing around late to everything? I was certainly guilty of this until I started minding my time in small chunks. Here are some ways to get those tactical moments -- the day-to-day stuff -- managed and under your control.

What are you doing?

At any given time, what are you doing? Probably the most significant thing you aren't doing is being mindful of the time you are spending on tasks. While the Pomodoro technique might not be for everyone, simply setting a timer to keep track of how long you're working on a given task is absolutely vital. At the end of the day you will have a better idea of where your time went, and by not getting bogged down in one or two things during the day, you'll find you can better cope with the myriad items you happen to be juggling.

Think about it like this: How many times have you become engrossed in your work so much that you "lost track of time?" While being in a state of flow and working on something for a long stretch can be beneficial, over time you'll find that you tire easily and get "burnt out" after too many of these marathons sessions. You'll also find smaller stuff starts slipping through the cracks. Brain scientists and productivity experts agree that there are good reasons to break up marathon work sessions into smaller chunks. This is to avoid fatigue, primarily, but also so that you are making sure you get to all the stuff you have to do in a day, not just the one thing you're communing with that morning.

Mindfulness

Guess what? There's an app that ships with every iOS device currently made which will help you be mindful of your time on tasks. The Clock app has both a stopwatch and a countdown timer. If you use Siri, you can easily set a timer just by telling your iDevice for how long. But of course, there are dozens of timer and productivity apps on the store to help you out. First I'm going to explain what you should be doing, then I'll list some apps to help you out.

Mindfulness has a specific meaning for Buddhists, but I'm really referring to the awareness aspect. By becoming more aware of how quickly time passes while our minds are engaged in a task, we can start to feel more in control of our daily tasks. Even emergencies (which I'll handle in a moment) won't throw our life into disarray if we have the knowledge of how our time flows at any moment. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be mindful of your time, and this doesn't mean checking the clock every hour or setting a chime. Being mindful of your time means you are setting the rules, you are taking control and you are paying attention.

In the book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam, one of her first suggestions is making a log of your time for an entire week. Everything, from brushing your teeth to making your bed to your commute and break times should be logged. While it sounds onerous, logging everything you do in a week is much like a very thorough physical exam. In this case you are getting an x-ray into your life.

By seeing how much time you spend in the morning making espresso, you can determine whether that time is well-spent. A lot of what we do is wasted time, maybe because we're not familiar with a tool we use or maybe because we're still doing things manually when they could be automated. In any case, a complete time log is the first step to awareness and will lay bare which parts of your day are being spent doing wasteful things. Note that I'm not referring to recreation time, which I feel (like family time if you have kids) is a necessary thing. So is sleep, although I have yet to accomplish 8 hours a day of sleep as Vanderkam claims is possible!

Once you see what you are doing and how long it takes you, it's time to start forcing yourself to be more mindful of your time. If you are the shortcut type, you may skip to this next part without a week's worth of data...

Set a timer

After you are done reading this article try an experiment. If you don't already time your tasks or use a countdown timer, try this: Choose a task to tackle next, something that's part of a project but not something you know will just take a couple of minutes, then set a timer for 20 minutes and see how far you get towards finishing that task. Pomodoros are 25 minutes, and then it is recommended to take a 5 minute break. Personally I like to go in 20 minute sprints, then take 10 minutes to read, make coffee or a snack, or just get up and walk. I find, since I work at home, that 10 minutes is enough time to handle light chores in-between work tasks.

So that's it! Set a timer for 20 minutes, then get to work and do not look at the timer.

If you were really engrossed in your work, that 20 minutes didn't exactly crawl by, did it? It never does. If you were bored, you likely kept wanting to look up to see how much time you had left.

This is how time escapes us, as the perception of time is fluid in our brains. Once you begin to time yourself, you begin to really manage what you are doing, and time becomes just a metric for focus. The joy for me comes in knowing that, in an hour, I can likely work on two tasks (possibly to completion) and get a couple of chores done. Now multiply that by 8 (not that any of us works a mere 8 hours a day) and all of a sudden you are making steps towards completing all sorts of larger goals by forcing yourself to march to a drumbeat of small time chunks. If you pace yourself, you can go anywhere with this, just like a march in real life. Don't forget to budget time to be social, however.

Emergencies and schedules

What about emergencies? I have tried a regimented schedule, and frankly, it isn't for me. I'm not the guy who gets up at 6am every day, refreshed and ready to start another day carefully portioned out in hour-long blocks. For one thing, my life is messy. For another thing, the news business isn't really conducive to careful planning of one's day. Instead, I needed a way to handle the numerous emergencies at work and in life with my larger schedule and long-term goals. Here's how.

First, you have to have goals. We'll cover this in another post, but for now let's just say it's impossible to know where you're going if you don't have a destination. All of your tasks are just steps toward that finish line. Next, you have to have priorities for those goals. As I said last time, I use OmniFocus to help me sort through all the things I have to do to determine, based on priority and time, what I need to do next. Only when you know what has to get done can you plan to do it. Yes, that sounds simplistic, but I find that a couple of times a year most of us could benefit from a housecleaning of our tasks and goals, otherwise we find ourselves swimming upstream with a constant torrent of downstream asks which can overwhelm us.

If you know what you have to do each day (again, something we'll work on in future posts), handling emergencies actually becomes a lot easier. Yes, you will have to shift things around. No, you will not have to freak out about it.

The secret is simple: Be mindful of your time. Also give yourself a break every so often. As an example, let's say you are going through email in a 20-25 minute block. You've set a timer, you dive in, and about 5 minutes into the task you see an email from your boss with the ominous, all-caps subject URGENT: RESPONSE REQUIRED. Knowing you have to respond to this, you open the email (still part of your "check email task") and read it.

It takes another 5 minutes or so to read the email and scratch down a quick list of what needs to be done. As you look at the list of 3 things needed, you can break down what is needed to accomplish this emergency goal -- or not! If it's a report "due tomorrow without fail" you can probably finish your email session and then get to work. If it's due by the end of the day, it's time to reset that timer, take 5 minutes to clear your head and then restart the timer and get back to work!

Again, if this is an emergency then everything else is on hold. By keeping at it in small, 20-25 minute sprints toward the finish broken up by short breaks, you can stay focused. You might even throw in a 20-minute "do something else" task if you start getting tunnel vision. The brain can only take so much, depending on your age, etc. Above all, don't panic. Know that like a brick mason laying brick by brick, over time your tasks will build towards the goal. Unless you are really terrible at what you do, you'll get there. Over time you'll learn to see how your pace is affected by longer sprints.

At the end of the day you'll find you can say "I spend X hours on this" and you will feel good about the fact that you put the time in. If you didn't get that emergency handled, you'll probably know why that happened, too. It wasn't because you weren't focusing on what needed to be done!

The other thing about emergencies is that we have to push other stuff we had hoped to accomplish in a given day back, which leads to stress. By knowing you can only spend so much time per day doing something, you'll feel less stressed knowing those time blocks will be there tomorrow, and whatever derailed your plans for today can hopefully be cleaned up for a fresh attempt in the morning.

As for schedules, we'll talk more about them in another post, but for now it's important that you stop thinking about your day in terms of appointments, and think more about what you're trying to accomplish every day. Do your best to minimize distractions on your calendar, as in your life. Timers help you focus, as long as you don't get distracted during those times.

Apps that can help

I've tried a number of timer apps but have settled into only using a few. As you can imagine, too many choices means you'll just trip up on what to use, and when. So I keep it simple, but I'm mentioning a few apps I think may be interesting to some of you, since you're not all as loose with a daily schedule as I am.

On iOS:

Clock

Well, this is free and from Apple and you have no excuse not to use the Timer function starting today. While Apple's Clock is a no-frills affair, you can set your own alert sound and the timer is Siri-enabled, if you're into that sort of thing.

Untime

I love this timer app for a number of reasons. It's free, it's fast and it looks cool. Not only that, the dots on the screen are like sands in an hourglass, showing you at a glance how much time you have remaining without numbers (until the last 10 seconds, when a countdown appears). I love that the numbers go away, so your brain only sees how "much" time you have remaining. The alarm is pretty great as well, and the whole app reminds me of something Tron might use. Untime is simple, elegant and cool -- just how I like my apps.

Due

My favorite across platforms, Due has been covered before. iCloud sync is a huge time saver when setting up task timers, however. And yes, I set multiple timers because a task of playing with Legos on the weekend with my kids takes longer than an email sweep -- this is called keeping your life balanced!

30/30

This might not be for everyone, but if you have a number of items to accomplish in a day that you do often, 30/30 is a very nicely designed app that helps you structure the order of those tasks and set timers to help you keep on target. I feel like 30/30 could benefit from a better ability to reset those lists, but on those days when I need a little more structure, 30/30 does an amazing job of helping me power through a hectic schedule.

Timer

Aptly named, Timer from App Cubby offers 12 slots for preset timers. I find something like this very handy if you have a number of timed things you need to do in a day. For example, I try to get in 40 minutes of cardio twice a day, so having that as a simple button makes it easy. I have a basic Pomodoro, a "sprint" of 20 minutes and a 5-minute timer all pre-set in Timer for when my day is fluid, but I still have some regimen to adhere to. App Cubby's apps are always beautifully designed, as well.

(There are lots and lots of Pomodoro apps, so feel free to share your personal recommendations in the comments below.)

On Mac:

Due

Again, since Due has a Mac version, setting timers and getting alerts doesn't get much easier, and again iCloud makes your efforts portable.

ApiMac Timer

If you're ready to get fancier, ApiMac's Timer is a power user's dream timer. While the free version is great, the pro version allows the app to do all sorts of awesome things like run AppleScripts, send email logs and can even put your Mac to sleep.

Timebar

Timebar is a minimalist's dream. It sits in the menu bar, allowing easy access to set a timer. Better yet, it shows a progress bar in the menu bar itself, and as the menu bar "drains" you have a good idea of how much time you have left on a task. For me, this only enhances my stress if I'm under pressure. For others, this might be a way to gamify certain tasks that you hope to do faster. But it's cheap, efficient and effective and offers a snooze button when you need more time.

Howler

Our own Kelly Hodgkins recommends this one, and if you use Growl, Howler can hook into it. Howler offers a lot of features you might not need, but if you find a basic timer isn't cutting it, or you need to loop or chain timers (perhaps you have a series of tasks which rely upon a sequence), check it out. There's also an iOS version.

Wrapping up

Even if you do nothing else to make your life more productive, the simple act of being aware of your time spent can have a profound impact in your happiness. When I discovered how much time I had spent mucking about in email, I began training to help change that behavior (and yes, we will cover email in another series of posts). As a result, I got about an extra hour of work time in each day without having to stay later than usual. If you feel frustrated that you can't get things done, start logging what you do and how long it takes, then start breaking up your day into manageable timed chunks no more than 30 minutes at a time. Within weeks you'll find that you feel happier and more in control than ever, and you'll know where you can improve.

Don't worry about fancy tools or tricks, just keep a timer going, pause for breaks, then get back to it. Unless you are Sisyphus you will find that eventually you've rolled that boulder up that hill.