I use my kitchen timer throughout the day. In fact, I started using the timer as a productivity tool when I was in college. My roommates and I would set “power hours” for studying through the night. We’d set the timer for an hour and focus completely on our work. When it would go off, we’d give ourselves a treat for 15 minutes – sometimes we’d watch TV, get frozen yogurt, or paint our nails – then back to another study hour.
Because it was a fixed and finite amount of time, we were able to completely focus on the task at hand and keep the distractions that would normally keep interrupting our study time at bay.
I’ve carried on using the timer in many others ways since my college years. Now that I’m a Mom and running a household, I use it more than ever. Here are some ways a timer can be a very effective in helping you focus and get things done:
1. You have so much to do, you don’t know where to start.
There are many times when I feel overwhelmed by my list of things to do. Without a clear plan of attack, I can often feel paralyzed and wasteful of the time I have. When I use the timer in these moments, it helps me take that first step. I avoid the mental trap that says, “If I can’t get everything done I might as well not even try.” By setting my timer, I commit myself to getting something done and surprise myself every time with how productive I am.
2. Move efficiently through a cleaning session.
Every week I take a couple hours when the kids are out of the house and I do as much of a complete house cleaning as I can. On some occasions I find myself getting “lost” in the details of a cleaning or organizing project instead of working my way through all the major areas of the home that need some attention. On my cleaning days, I set my timer in 20-minute increments. Every room gets 20 minutes of my time. Once the timer goes off, I move to another room (or task). If I have extra time I can hop back to something that I wanted to finish up more thoroughly, but this allows me to do a decent job with the whole house and not get sucked into one detailed project.
3. Get unstuck when you’re feeling uncreative.
It may seem counter intuitive to use a timer when you want to let your creative juices flow. When I want to sketch in my journal, paint or create something, I sometimes get that overwhelmed, “Where to begin?” feeling. I set the timer for a short period of time and force myself to just start doing something. I don’t have any expectations to finish or worry about the direction I’m heading, I just start moving. Nine times out of ten I get into a groove quickly.
4. Help your kids focus and stay on task.
My toddler needs this as much as I do. As I teach him about household chores and upkeep, I use the timer. Generally, I never exceed five to seven minutes. We set the timer and straighten our room, bring our laundry downstairs, or sort the socks. This helps him know there’s an end to the task. If he’s reluctant, the game often becomes “Can we finish before Dingy goes off?!”
5. Ensure you take “me-time.”
How many times have you had the opportunity to refuel, relax, and replenish, but choose to use that time doing some task on your to-do list? I must confess this happens often with me. I tell myself I’d feel better if the dishes were done so instead of taking a relaxing bath, I’m at the sink again. Making our self-care a priority often requires that we break the habit of always putting our needs off. I use the timer to ensure I give myself time to relax. Set it for an hour and only take care of yourself. The dishes will wait for you. I promise!
6. Avoid struggles with TV time.
If you have kids that want more TV time than you want to give them, this may be helpful. Before the TV goes on, let them know how long they can watch, then set the timer. When the timer goes off, it deflects the attention from you. “Look, the timer went off, it’s time to turn the TV off.” It’s now less about you removing the TV from them, but just following the plan as it was set out from the start.
7. Let the to-do list go and be present and spontaneous with your kids.
When I become too focused on running my household, being available for play and focused attention with my kids can feel like a distraction instead of the priority that it is. I give myself intervals throughout the day where I am completely free to just be with them to play, talk, read (not feeding, changing, or cleaning them). I can turn off my tendencies to focus on getting things done and my days are punctuated with magical moments that I would have missed.
8. Set time limits on potentially difficult or dragging conversations.
This was particularly helpful when my husband and I were taking the Financial Peace University courses. Though we’ve always enjoyed a healthy and open level of communication, this course required us to have more conversations about money and budgets than we used to. Most of these talks were about the details and mechanics of our budget as we worked to fine tune it. While these aren’t heated or upsetting conversations, we found they became long and exhausting. Enter timer! To help us stay open to having these talks we instituted a time limit on our discussions. When we have a budget talk, we set the timer for 20 minutes, sometimes an hour, but when the timer goes off, we stop. Period. It helped us stay on track with the important points we needed to work through without fear that these talks would consume a whole evening.
This can be effective for any difficult or long-winded conversation. Setting an end time for talks (which can, of course, be picked up later) releases the tension that if you open this up it will be a never ending conversation. It also helps you stick to what’s important.
9. Power through work/homework sessions.
Just like my time in college, I use the “power hour” to help me grind through my work. I always set up a treat after the hour so I have something fun to look forward to. The other benefit of the treat is that it almost always involves the other side of my brain. If I’m working on tasks that include a lot of linear, logical thought and focus, then my treat is often a walk, stretch, or listening to my favorite music. If I need to go back to another power hour, my left brain has had a chance to turn off and rest as well.
Kids need this too. If your children have homework or are home schooled and doing lessons, try timing the focus sessions with intervals involving other-side-of-the-brain activity. I used to teach high school chemistry and I used this technique in my classes. We focused on analytical work for 20-30 minutes, followed by ten minutes of abstract or movement based work (or just a fun no-brainer treat), then went back to the focused work.
10. Wipe out tasks you keep avoiding.
Pretty obvious here. Have something on your to-do list that never seems to get done? Wipe them out in one fell swoop. Set the timer and attack them directly.
11. Help your child to calm down.
I’m still working through different discipline strategies with my son, but one thing I do know is when he physically acts out against a person (often his sister), he needs help leaning how to calm down so he can resume healthy positive play. When I use the timer for my son’s time out to calm down, it takes the focus away from punishment. We set the timer and he goes into his room until he hears Dingy go off. He knows the time in his room is to help him calm down. When Dingy goes off, he has an opportunity to come back and play again. So far, this has been tremendously helpful in keeping a smooth and happy household.
Balancing so many needs in the course of a day requires creative strategies. What tips help you run smoother, more productive and enjoyable days?