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My Favourite Time Management Tool

Do you often find yourself distracted when you’re trying to get an important report written? Or perhaps you have trouble getting yourself moving on it at all? Perhaps you tend to find yourself wandering off around the net while you’re supposed to be answering your e-mails. If you have trouble with any of these, then the answer may be a very simple piece of technology – a timer.

Timers are my favourite time management tool. I started off years ago using a clockwork kitchen timer. Now I’ve progressed to an electronic one, which can also be used as a basic stopwatch. It is a flexible tool with many uses, most of which are to do with helping you to concentrate on your work and avoid being distracted.

If you have paid attention to my articles in the past you may have introduced some more structure into your day, in the shape of breaks and a definite time for stopping work. This sort of structure works best when the timings are exact. Imagine you are back in school. When the bell goes, you all pile out into the playground. The last thing the teacher wants is you hanging around in the classroom during a break. But as soon as the bell goes again, you all troop back in for the next lesson. You may have noticed how annoyed you get when you attend a seminar or a conference when the timetable starts to slip. It destroys your ability to concentrate on the subject under discussion. A timer or an alarm (like the one on a mobile phone) are excellent ways of keeping to any structure which you may have laid down for yourself.

The timer is also great for working in timed bursts. If you have a big writing project it is usually most effective to work in bursts of, say, twenty minutes with a brief pause between each. The exact length of the burst doesn’t matter so much as long as the fact that it is timed and as long as you stop immediately when the timer goes off, even if you are in mid-sentence. Make sure you time the breaks too because they will be more refreshing as a result.

The mind goes on working while you are taking a break, and you will find that it’s easy to get back to the task and that your mind has moved on because it has had a chance to assimilate.

When you are resisting a big task really badly you can try working on it for a very short timed burst of five minutes. Then you can gradually increase the burst each time, perhaps by five minutes. So you work a series of 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes and so on. This is a very good way of overcoming resistance and procrastination.

An alternative way is to say “I’m going to work on this for not less than five minutes”. Once the timer goes off you can stop or go on working as you please. But note that you must have decided which method you are going to use before you start. It’s no use saying “I’m going to do a timed burst of five minutes” and then going on working when the timer goes off. You will lose all the effect and make it more difficult for you to use the technique in the future.

Another method is to use the stopwatch for occasionally timing such things as clearing your daily email. Make it into a competition with yourself to see whether you can beat your own record. It’s surprising when you are working against the clock in this way how conscious you are of how much you normally waste time.

If you’ve never used a timer as a time management tool, then why not dust off that kitchen timer now or invest in a cheap electronic one? You won’t regret it!

Reader Comments (18)

I use a timer loads at home. Especially when I'm trying to tidy up, as I have a tendancy to get sidetracked! Flylady ( says you can do anything for 15 minutes! And I find it amazing just how much can be done in what seems like an insignificant amount of time. Flylady advocates the "do a burst and then stop, whether you're finished or not" method. I like this, as it gives permission to quit, which is sometimes hard to do when you think you ought to keep going even if you're not enjoying the task. It helps to avoid "crash and burn", too, where you do too much and then don't want to do anything for ages and ages!

I'm away from home at the moment, and forgot my timer, so I'm desperately looking for a new one! I miss my permissions to stop ;o)
August 13, 2007 at 7:17 | Unregistered Commenterkatie1980
Excellent post - as is the rest of your blog. You ideas re reactive vs. rational brain are incredibly powerful! I've ordered your latest book via Amazon Canada (via amazon.UK - $60 total, via - 4 to 6 weeks) and am very much looking forward to reading it.
August 15, 2007 at 20:51 | Unregistered CommenterBob Walsh
Thanks, Bob

I usually recommend readers in the United States to order my books through the "More Buying Choices" on

Chose a supplier who has the book in stock in the US and go for the cheapest!

At present for instance The Book Depository has DIT in stock for $9.83 + $3.99 shipping. You can get a used like new copy for even less.

I've used The Book Depository myself for books I don't need particularly quickly. They are always very efficient, and - even including delivery charges - the books are cheaper than buying them in the United Kingdom.

However you get it, I hope you enjoy the book!
August 16, 2007 at 10:25 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I suffered terribly from overwhelm procrastination until reading Mark's books, and completely agree the timer technique is very powerful in getting started with tasks you're resisting.

One variation I've used with ongoing tasks that require serious time is seeing how long I can stick with a task in a single sitting - I note down the time I begin and the time I run out of concentration, and try to beat my time each session. I also add up the sessions each day and if I beat a previous daily productivity 'personal best' I buy myself a bunch of flowers or a nice bottle of wine to celebrate.

Another variation, when I fear I'm settling into one of my procrastination moods, is to set the timer for 15 minutes during which I have to sit absolutely still on the sofa, without reading or watching TV or phoning up a friend or even "getting the file out". The empty wait quickly becomes so boring you can't wait to start working again.
February 24, 2008 at 1:18 | Unregistered Commenterlittle b
Little B:

I like the idea of giving yourself such a boring time that you can't wait to get working again.

It reminds me of a technique for giving up smoking I read about once. You start off by HAVING to smoke a certain number of cigarettes a day - the theory is that this makes smoking into a chore, rather than a pleasure.

I have no idea whether it works or not. And if anyone tries it out, they do so at their own risk!
February 25, 2008 at 10:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi everyone, just thought I'd say that I absolutely love reading Mark's books - they are excellent! I am now reading DIT for around the fifth time - still picking up tips from it too!

The timer is an excellent idea, I use it all the time now - not only does it help me overcome procrastination on starting a big task, because I run my own business it's perfect for charging clients by the hour!
July 12, 2008 at 22:17 | Unregistered CommenterJason Blackman

The timer technique has saved my productivity more times than I can count. Giving myself permission to work on something for just fifteen minutes (my usual interval) makes it so much easier to give it all my attention. I figure even if it takes me a week to do something that should have taken an hour, at least I'm doing it. If I just set off to work on it indefinitely I know I'd find something else to do!

Just found this blog through Stumble Upon and am really enjoying it!

August 5, 2008 at 17:44 | Unregistered CommenterSara
Greetings. I'm working using both a timer and a time journal. Here's a link to a blog post with links to free tools.

I'm happy to get recommendations on tools. I use MyLifeOrganized for tracking my commitments, wikis, Paperport and more. I've got DIT and am about due to read it again.

August 21, 2008 at 17:18 | Unregistered CommenterEats Wombats

Big DIT fan. What model of timer do you use? Do you recommend an up or down timer? What attributes should we look for when buy one.

October 1, 2008 at 0:41 | Unregistered CommenterSun_Ra
Hi Sun Ra,

My timer is a simple electronic kitchen timer. You can buy them at most hardware stores. It's basically a count-down timer though you can use it to count up as well.

There are also many timers available on-line which you can use on your computer, and most mobile phones have timers as well.

For time management purposes the count-down is the important factor. You also need to consider your working environment. If you work in an open-plan office then a noisy alarm wouldn't be a good idea. You might try a websearch for a visual timer - I know they exist but I don't have any specific recommendations.
October 1, 2008 at 16:26 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
If you use Windows, I highly recommend the following free tool, Instant Boss:

This is a Lifehacker post regarding the software.

I've been using it for a couple of years now and love it. Very simple. And because I can vary the length of the work and break times (and how many times that cycle repeats), it's endlessly flexible.

When I'm working on a big solitary task, I'll work for 45m and break for 15m. When I have lots of little tasks that I find myself resisting, I set it for 10m work and 2m break, repeated 5 times to equal 60 minutes.

Such are the tricks we use to get through the day!
October 2, 2008 at 18:24 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
Thanks, Mike. I'll check it out!
October 3, 2008 at 10:17 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
<a href="">TiddlyTimeJournal</a> has inspired a derivative that may be of interest to some: <a href=">SideMinder</a>. It runs in a FireFox sidebar and adds a to do list and reminder function. TiddlyTimeJournal is worth a look first. It's simpler and doesn't run in a sidebar.

Both will run in any browser but the clock graphic is FireFox specific at the moment.

Had a look / listen to InstantBoss. Fine except for the atrocious noises! Would be nice to add this functionality to a browser based tracker.

For what it's worth Gnome 2.24 (included with Ubuntu 8.10 and may other versions of Linux) has an activity timer built in. Check the Release Notes <a href="">here</a>.
October 5, 2008 at 22:40 | Unregistered CommenterEats Wombats

I am the developer of Instant Boss. You can change the .wav files if you would like. Just select new ones from your own collection, and replace the ones that come with Instant Boss. Drop them right in the folder. Just be sure to name them the same as the default sounds supplied.
October 7, 2008 at 0:48 | Unregistered Commenterapp
Hey Mark,

Re: Your story about smoking. This approach was used extensively by Milton Erickson for many behavioral problems. If a person could not sleep, he would tell them they MUST stay awake for some number of hours. It works for many kinds of behavioral issues. It sets up a tension that the patient resolves by rebelling and doing what you want them to do. Many parents have discovered this approach with their children as well.

January 11, 2009 at 1:12 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Thanks for this. I'll have a look at Milton Erickson's work - it sounds interesting.

Someone else mentioned a similar technique - which is that if you are procrastinating over some big task, tell yourself that you are not allowed to work MORE than three hours a day on it!
January 11, 2009 at 12:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
For anybody Hello! Come on <a href=>underwriting</a>. Legal services
June 10, 2010 at 11:36 | Unregistered Commenterurist-185
I'm also a fan of FlyLady.

My most productive days are often when I'm most tired. I can't quite focus on mental productivity but know that as long as I keep doing my 15s of physical tasks I'll have a productive day.
August 30, 2010 at 16:11 | Unregistered CommenterCricket

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