If you’ve been looking for the edge in getting your task list done, you should consider investing in a timer. Picking up a timer stands out as the one thing I’ve done that significantly increased my productivity.
What’s so great about a piece of plastic with a couple of wires on the inside? After all, something that you can pick up at the dollar store can’t be a huge influence on our ability to get things done, or we’d all have one already. It turns out that it isn’t the gadget that really provides the benefit, at least for me: it’s the ability to set firm boundaries on my time

How many times have you opened up your email, swearing that you were only looking for one message and as soon as you responded to it, you’d shut your email? And how often does that one email turn into twenty minutes of reading email and sorting through spam? I’ve noticed that when I have a boundary on my time — when the ringing of my timer reminds me that my time is up — I get back to the tasks that I really need to be working on.

Your timer doesn’t even need to be fancy: you can pick up an egg timer at the grocery store (or borrow it from the kitchen), install a piece of software, use your microwave’s timer — you can even use a song as a timer, or an album if you need a longer setting. The key to a good timer is knowing when your time is up.

  1. Race the clock. There are certain tasks that I simply want to get done and over with, like certain household chores. Rather than putting them off and being miserable about what I have in store for myself, I’ve set aside ten minutes in the morning to get those chores done. I set my timer and try to get all of them done in the allotted time, as a sort of race against the clock. Most days I can actually get everything done in that 10-minute race, though it would take me an hour of moping around to get them done without my timer.
  2. Take a break. I try to break up my work each day by stepping away from the computer. I might give myself 15 minutes to read a book or 30 minutes to take a walk. But, without the sort of boundary my timer provides, I often run over — way over. I’ll read without looking up from a book, and find that I’ve read for an hour, and ate up all the time I planned to spend on a given task. I’m not a compulsive watch checker: without my timer telling me the time, I don’t know that I’ve gone over.
  3. Process similar tasks. I always have emails to respond to, blogs to read and other similar tasks — all of which I could spend hours a day on. Instead, I set my timer for 20 minutes, or so, and try to get through the most important emails (or other tasks). I’ve found that I get into a groove and can actually process a larger number of similar actions, simply because they’re batched together and I know I can devote the next 20 minutes to them.
  4. Set deadlines. I work best with deadlines — not knowing when a task needs to be finished can drive me crazy. But with a timer, I can set a deadline within my overall work day: a given task needs to be finished in 30 minutes so that I can move on to the next thing I need to do today. Sure, I may not be able to complete a task within that short amount of time, but you might be surprised by just how much I can get done. I also know immediately how much I need to adjust the day’s schedule by.
  5. Take time to move. Various studies have said that you need to move away from the computer every so often. The exact number varies, but it’s somewhere between once every 20 minutes and once every hour. But I never remember that I actually need to go move around. So, I set my timer for every 30 minutes or so, and make sure that my immediate action after it goes off is to stand up and stretch. After that, I can sit down, or do whatever I need to get started on my next task.
  6. Start big projects. Big projects are intimidating. It’s often hard to get started because you know that you’ll be working on the project forever afterwards — or at least it seems that way. But you may be able to start smaller. Try picking out one small task to get you started — preferably something you can handle in 15 minutes. You can tackle any project in 15-minute increments.
  7. Track your billable hours. Knowing just how you spent the last hour can give you a good idea of how much money you earned during that time. That figure can be more than motivational: it can also give you an idea of whether certain tasks are actually financially worth the time you spend on them, and demonstrate where the deadweight is in your day. If you can get rid of that deadweight, you can get more productive time in your day — and potentially up your earnings.

Timers are useful devices. There are plenty of ways to use them to up your productivity and, if you’ve been looking for a way to up your productivity another notch, you might want to consider a timer.

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