Can using a timer help you boost your productivity?

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While many of us associate timers with cooking, using a timer can be an excellent way of persuading yourself to do some important work…

By Ann Gomez

Years ago, a patient colleague listened to me bemoaning a big task I was struggling to start. Moments later, she returned with a small plastic timer, set it for 25 minutes, and told me to focus exclusively on the dreaded task until the time was up. Little did I know how big a shift this simple tool would prompt.

Fast forward to today and I am now the one recommending timers.

What my friend introduced me to many years ago is known as the Pomodoro Technique. (In Italian, pomodoro means “tomato,” and many kitchen timers are often shaped like a tomato, as you’ll see in the photo in the Publication Coach post linked above). The Pomodoro Technique prompts us to focus for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break.

Of course, you can use any timer, and you can set any length of time. The magic comes from the dedicated focus.

As we have all experienced, work easily expands to fill the time allotted. (This is commonly known as Parkinson’s law.) Conversely, when we place a limit on the time we dedicate to a specific task, we tend to work more efficiently to get it done. Using a timer helps us contain the task.

And while the Pomodoro Technique recommends 25-minute focus blocks, don’t feel constrained by this fixed amount of time. As highlighted in this article, imagine telling Dolly Parton to write her next great song, but only allowing her 25-minute working periods to do it. (If this was the case, we may have all lost the opportunity to sing 9 to 5 at karaoke!)

Thankfully, you already have a timer in the palm of your hands. Your phone (which is often a source of distractions) has a built-in timer you can use to help you focus. The caveat is you’ll want to turn off any other notifications which may tempt you to lose your focus.

You might wonder if seeing and hearing time tick away is more stressful. But the opposite is true. Knowing that time is diminishing reminds us to stay focused on our current task. It reminds us to protect head space for that one task. We feel less stressed because we are more present and doing what is most important at this time.

This focused approach allows us to make progress in our work, which is a powerful source of motivation.  Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle found: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

If you’re really struggling to dig into a task, like I was many years ago, try setting your timer for a mere 10 or 15 minutes. Once you commit to focusing, you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish in short bursts of time. You may even start to enjoy the task.

Admittedly, using a timer isn’t always necessary. When I’m highly motivated and can easily get into the zone (like Dolly writing her next hit), I don’t use my timer. But whenever I find I’m struggling to focus, the timer is a great motivator.

I hope this inspires you to use a timer the next time you’re struggling to start a task

For more information about using the power of focus to get more done, see Ann’s latest book, Workday Warrior: A Proven Path to Reclaiming Your Time, published by Dundurn Press, 2022.

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