How I Use Timers
A tool for creative productivity
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Time without a ticking clock can be very subjective. When you are impatient, time seems to march ponderously, especially if you are waiting for someone else or something entirely outside of your control. Imagination – the anticipation of a dreary or unpleasant task – can inflate the time something will take.
From an opposite point of view, many of us imagine we can get way more creative work done in a set time than is borne out by experience. One of my biggest – and repeating – flaws is regularly adding too much to my to do list. Over time, that can mean that I feel like I'm always behind, even though those deadlines were entirely arbitrary.
The greatest value of timers for me is they give me realistic grasp of how long tasks take.
When my daughter was very young I would sometimes get impatient waiting for her. One day I decided to time how long it actually took her to be ready to leave and I was delightfully and rather ruefully surprised that what felt like 10 long minutes to me was really only about 90 seconds to two minutes. I learned how to exercise patience as a proactive mindset, rather than simply in reaction to the feelings of impatience that arose.
I recommend using a timer to track how long it typically takes you to write say a 1500 word blog post, or complete a household task even if you've been dreading it, or to examine how long it takes to set up or take down your work space or studio setup. Sometimes you will find that things do take longer than you expected, which allows you to more accurately plan your time.
Perhaps you need to build in the set-up on the day before, or perhaps you will realize that you need help for some of these tasks just to make the time spent more reasonable. Sometimes just dreading putting your paints away, can lead you to have them sitting out when the in truth putting them away and getting them out again would take up less time than reorganizing them before re-starting.
Timers for boundaries
You have heard the phrase, “the work expands to fill the time available.” Therefore one helpful strategy is to clarify and specify that available time.
This may not work for every kind of task, but when a task has a clear endpoint, setting a reasonable timer in which to get the job finished can be a helpful spur to action.
There's nothing like a ticking clock to get you moving faster. Or at least focusing your attention on the one job that is needing to be done, rather than procrastinating getting started with distractions. An audible or a visual timer can be very helpful.
Another useful strategy is to set yourself a 10 or 15 minute warning before the endpoint.
Of course, this means you need a good, realistic idea of how long the task takes to be done well or properly.
Timers for inspiration
Related to using a timer as a boundary, is the idea of giving yourself a specific block of time to brainstorm, come up with solutions, or sketch out the problem. Competition creates urgency. In this case, you are in competition with the clock itself.
On the other hand, we have all watched those creative competition television shows where the contestants have what feels like a ridiculously limited time in which to complete their creation. It makes a nice counterpoint to real life, where we all can see that the “haste makes waste” mistakes would not apply. However, many of the artists seem pleasantly surprised at how quickly they can work if pressed.
My general opinion is that most of the time your first idea will not be your best one. Having more time to design and go through that process is usually helpful. Having an arbitrary deadline can actually help you realize the value of allowing more time for your creative process – especially “noodling time”.
Time blocking is a calendar technique of grouping together similar tasks or activities that have a common practical need, such as they are all in one particular place, and actually blocking that time out on your physical or digital calendar. The time is locked on your calendar and then considered sacrosanct. If you like color and stickers, you can color code your activities depending on the type of work it is.
Blocking allows you to determine where your priorities lie specifically. For example, when you work out your calendar blocking you realize that you have allocated so much time to administrative activities that you are left with no time to actually go into the studio, that is a key to where you may need help, or where your priorities are askew.
Time blocking works well with the rocks-in-a-jar analogy. This is the famous visualization of putting “first things first” by first putting the large rocks into your jar, then the pebbles, then the sand, then pouring in the water. Trying to do this in any other order means that the large rocks will not fit.
Time blocking, or calendar blocking as it is sometimes known, has not been a big part of my toolbox, mostly because I haven’t had many external demands on my time. That is changing. I get up in the morning, having written out my to do list at the start of the week, and updated it the evening before, prioritized with a numbering system of what most important, and what has a deadline, and then I begin at number 1 and work till I'm done, sometimes using a Pomodoro timer that I will discuss in a moment.
However, for someone that has to interact with other people a lot or has a cascade of deadlines, time blocking can be very helpful. I do have some daily time block reminders set up through my calendar program including my daily 2 hour writing time for my current book project. Here’s a tip: block in time to play with your materials, doodle, and just think.
Francesco Cirillo invented what he called the Pomodoro Technique, after the tomato shaped kitchen timer he used to develop the process in the 1990s.
The foundation of it is a timer set for a specific amount, usually 25 minutes, with a built-in 5-minute break at the end, followed by another 25 minutes, until you have worked consistently for 2 hours (including the breaks) at which point you take a 20-minute break. It is founded on productivity research that shows that people who take frequent short breaks become more productive, effective and energetic. For people who sit a lot, the break should be getting up and moving. For people who are doing physical labor, the break should be a sit-down rest. The result at the end of the day is more accomplished.
I use a Pomodoro-style app on my phone called Focus Keeper. It is customizable, but I tend to leave it at the traditional, standard 25 minutes. I use my 20 minute long break and get some household task done. There's that ticking-clock time-limit effect at work right there.
Or, I can use the 5 minute pauses to fetch a quick refreshment, and check my email, rather than fall into a black hole of online or social media time-sucking madness. I use the audible ticking function for my breaks, but not the work sessions.
When I remember to use Focus Keeper, I seem to get through my to do list more effectively. I also gain a clearer idea of how long certain tasks are taking me these days. Just having the timer going, prevents me from getting distracted or procrastinating. At the end of a day when I don't use it, I'm usually sorry I didn't turn it on. It has the potential to really help me get into a rhythm of creativity and productivity for my short-term and daily task list.
Open ended creativity – or working effectively over the long haul
Flow is the creative state where time seems to disappear altogether. It is a heightened state of creativity and realization. It happens for me when I'm writing a story and I look up to realize that the sun has gone down. This is not inefficiency, but rather the opposite because of the heightened creativity and actual accomplishment of work that happened. Having enough time to allow the state of flow to take over is often the goal of all kinds of other time management and productivity hacks.
A long-term project, such as writing a novel or preparing for a major show or completing a complex project of some kind - by which I mean one that has multiple steps that must be completed in a sequence in order to be able to move forward effectively - might require both an awareness of daily efficiency, and the ability to just get started today. Your deadline might be at a distance in the future.
Just as with goal setting, completing a large or long complex project is a matter of breaking it down into smaller, manageable steps. Like time itself passing, looking forward to a distant date or milestone can feel overwhelming or so far on the horizon that it's not worth thinking of yet.
However, when we turn around and look back down the path, we are often amazed at how long it has been since we started something or how much we have done over a period of time - or more sadly, how little we accomplished over what we now see is a long time.
When I was writing my book, I had an accountability buddy who I checked in with every morning. My mandate was to write for two hours without interruption. Two hours didn't seem like much, but there were some days with other competing deadlines or needed tasks, when two hours was a big chunk of an otherwise busy day and I barely made it. But then there were other days when I had the opportunity to sink into flow and write all day long, pausing only for lunch.
In the end my book was finished and is now published. If I had a Pomodoro at the time, it may well have been finished sooner. Hmm. I’m writing another book now, with the same accountability system. Perhaps I should get back into the Pomodoro habit.
I am an older artist, yet still young in my most recent career. I look back and see that I have wasted time, in what is still a very full life. I see someone who has worked in multiple careers, and still has dreams and multiple careers ahead of her.
But, I also see someone who is running out of daylight. My awareness of my own mortality gives me a sense of urgency and a desire to be very organized and use my remaining time effectively. I wish I had this focus on productivity and accomplishment when I was young and starting out.
My advice to all of you is to find a timing system that works for you and start using it consistently today.
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