5 Reasons You Should Be Using Timers for Better Productivity

A black alarm clock sits on a desk next to a laptop and a wire pencil cup

There are 32 fifteen-minute increments in an average eight-hour workday. 

We rarely think about the day in terms of how many micro-blocks of time there are, but that framework could make a big difference in the way you get things done.

Setting a timer to track those increments is, in a lot of ways, a game changer when it comes to productivity. 

Think about how you currently manage your day. If it’s by simply working down a to-do list without any sense of order, then you might be losing time. Setting a timer — even just a simple hourglass — shifts perspective.

Instead of letting your day creep by and having to put part of your list off another day because there simply aren’t enough hours, you’ll achieve a level of hyper-focus to help you get much more done

For some, the Pomodoro method — which works by breaking up your work into 25-minute sessions with 5-minute breaks in between — is ideal because it’s so structured.

For others, some research shows that the ideal work ratio is 17 minutes of break for every 52 minutes of work. 

What works best for you? There is no perfect answer that works for everyone, but you can be sure that incorporating time limits into your work structure will enhance your productivity. 

There are a bevy of reasons why you might want to add a timer to your productivity routine - plus they can look pretty chic on your desk too.

1. Timers limit distractions

You may have heard that the human brain is not made for multitasking. That’s actually true! And it's probably why you feel like you end up losing so much time when you’re splitting your attention between a bunch of tasks.

“Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears,” says Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, in an interview with the New York Times. “If you constantly make ‘quick checks’ of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.” 

Instead, take one small task at a time instead of batching them all together. Instead of an hour of administrative tasks (that ends up being even longer because you’re taking more time to switch between multiple tasks as you think about them), it might be better to take 15 minutes to respond to email, 15 minutes to file paperwork, 15 minutes to organize your desktop and 15 minutes to formulate your timesheet.  

In the end, you won’t be bouncing around, distracting yourself with other tasks or between tasks. Everything else can wait for 15 minutes.

2. Timers encourage prioritization

The tough part about time management is often knowing how much time you actually have. How often do you overestimate or underestimate how long a task will take? We humans are actually pretty bad at these kinds of estimates.

A timer is an easy way to become more mindful about your work flow and keep you on a helpful schedule — both of which are important when it comes to peak productivity.

By setting a timer and working the whole time without any other distractions, you’ll learn more about yourself and the task, so you’ll have a better idea in the future.

3. Timers get you to start

Sometimes starting is the most challenging part of finding your momentum on a task, but challenging yourself to work for just 5 or 15 minutes can help.

After all, what’s 15 minutes in the grand scheme of things? And once you’ve completed that much, you’re likely already in the groove and can keep rolling.

Setting a timer is like a challenge to yourself to work at least that long — and often it’s the little bits of time that add up. You’ll be surprised how much more productive you are when you waste less time procrastinating the task that probably won’t take you that long after all.

4. Timers combat perfectionism

For even the most dedicated perfectionists, a timer can have a profound effect on productivity. If you feel like you frequently end up in a cycle of re-hashing tasks because you want to improve on tiny details, having a timer system can help you move on instead of dwelling on one detail you wish you could have done better.

If you only have 20 minutes to draft an important email, a timer can give you the reason you need to declare everything "good enough" and hit send.

Pouring all of your attention and effort into simple tasks is an easy trap to fall into, especially when there isn't a clear boundary telling us we have to stop. There is only so much we can control about our work day, and sometimes it’s truly better to take on the “done is better than perfect” model. 

5. Timers focus your attention

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says that even though productivity is his expertise, he doesn’t often feel very productive. It’s not because he isn’t getting things done - it’s because productivity is more about attention management than it is time management.

“Productivity isn’t a virtue. It’s a means to an end. It’s only virtuous if the end is worthy. If productivity is your goal, you have to rely on willpower to push yourself to get a task done,” he writes. “If you pay attention to why you’re excited about the project and who will benefit from it, you’ll be naturally pulled into it by intrinsic motivation.”

If you want to better focus your attention, take into consideration when you’re more productive, how long it takes, and what prevents you from getting into the groove. Being mindful about these factors is just as important when it comes to productivity. If you know when you can block out the distractions and how long you’ll need, you’ll be a lot more successful. 

A timer is a tool that can help harness your attention, so you spend more time on the tasks that matter and less time on the ones that don’t.

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