Using timers to improve productivity

If you’re a regular visitor to Unclutterer, you know I have a strange obsession with timers. I’m someone who has a meandering mind and am easily distracted. I’ve been tested for ADHD, and I don’t have it. Therefore, I think the technical term for my concentration issues is normal human. Like most people, I would rather do or think about something fun instead of my not-so-fun responsibilities. Thankfully, there are timers to help you (and me) stay focused and complete tasks — specifically the not-so-fun ones and the ones that have to get done — in reasonable amounts of time.

I use a timer when writing to keep me from wandering around the web. I use a timer when doing chores around the house to see how much I can accomplish in a set amount of time. I use a timer when practicing the piano to make sure I get a good 30 minutes in every day. I use a timer when I’m at the gym, running on the treadmill. I also use a timer when I’m goofing off during work hours, to make sure I’m merely taking a break from my work and not wasting an entire afternoon.

My favorite timer right now is the Time Timer app for the iPhone. I think I paid $2 for it about a year ago. It is extremely convenient and simple to use, especially since my iPhone sits on my desk while I work. There are other screens and colors you can use, but these are the main ones I rely on the most:

I also use the timer on my microwave, the timer on the stove, and a stop watch from my days in middle school track (the thing is at least 25 years old and still going strong). If you use a Windows-based PC, I recommend checking out the XNote Stopwatch program that will even import directly to Excel for time tracking work and calls for client billing.

We recently started using an 8″ Time Timer with audible alerts clock for our son who is young enough that he doesn’t fully comprehend time yet. (The timer, made by the same people as the iPhone app, also comes in 3″ and 12″ versions.) We’ve been using it for things like when we tell him he has five more minutes to play with his cars before dinner.

Do you use timers throughout your day to help you stay on track and be more productive? Do you ever race the clock to see if you can get your daily chores finished in less than 30 minutes? What timers do you use and which are your favorites? Share your advice in the comments.

And, as always, none of the companies paid us or rewarded us in any way to write about their products. We just really like them.

44 Comments for “Using timers to improve productivity”

  1. posted by Shalin on

    this is a favorite of mine:

    http://www.online-stopwatch.com/countdown-timer/

  2. posted by Marrena on

    I like using the old-fashioned windup kitchen timer. There is the ticking, the kitsch factor, and that you don’t need to keep looking at the thing (for those of us hard of hearing).

    Then again, I suppose that adds to the clutter, being a unitasker, but it works very well with young children too.

  3. posted by michelle s. on

    I use a kitchen timer. I go through seasons of using it and not. But I know for a fact I stay on task when I use it way better than when I don’t. :)

  4. posted by Joshua Ellis on

    I use e.ggtimer.com a lot. You can just type the time you want right in the address bar. For example, e.ggtimer.com/30min will be a 30 minute timer.

  5. posted by Tracy H. on

    Our boys are 15, 11 and 9. We use an old kitchen timer to settle disputes over whose turn it is on the computer or videogames. If someone else wants to use it, the one using the machine has to set the timer for half an hour; when it goes off it’s the next guy’s turn,. There’s no arguing about how long it’s been and they have plenty of warning to finish whatever they were doing.

  6. posted by Sara on

    I teach students with autism and/or ADHD, and I use the 12″ Time Timer for pretty much all of our daily activities. It’s just a much easier way to communicate and visually conceptualize time.

  7. posted by Anne on

    It’s interesting that you brought up ADHD. Yes, you can be “tested” for it, but the definition for ADHD is so wishy-washy that you have to take it with a very large pinch of salt. It’s an absolute scandal that so many people, especially children, are being “diagnosed” with this fictional complaint and drugged up to the eyeballs, when they are just, as you rightly put it, “normal humans” who are simply bored, “spirited” (as we used to say), have too much energy, or are badly parented with chaotic home lives and multiple or absent father figures. I think timers, or other strategies that help improve behavior, but not drugs, would work wonders for these people.

  8. posted by Kent on

    I use a timer mostly for the Pomodoro Technique: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/. I found that useful when I was having trouble focusing on work. Even at my most distracted, I can usually focus for 25 minutes at a stretch, and then build that up to a productive day.

  9. posted by Richelle on

    I use two great timers to help me out:

    On my iPod Touch- Min to Go http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/timer-minutes-to-go/id418445262?mt=8

    This is great because you can set it to beep 5 and 15 minutes before your time is up. Great for when you need to leave at 8AM, but want to remind yourself to make sure you’ve gathered your stuff and packed your lunch by the 15 min away mark, and you are getting your jacket and putting on your shoes at the 5 minute mark. My 9 yr old nephew also loves using this app-”15 minutes! Oh, I better get to a save spot on my video game!

    Stay on Task for Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=valavg.stayontask

    You define the time period, and this app will randomly ping you within that time zone to see if you are still doing what you are supposed to be doing! No reason to judge, just get back to work :) I sometimes use this on Saturdays to “mix up” my day, changing tasks whenever the timer goes off, alternating between stuff I gotta do and stuff I wanna do!

  10. posted by Martha on

    Thanks for this post. I was looking for a timer I could keep on my windows desktop and not have to have my iPod or a physical timer nearby. I loaded XNote Timer (free version) and have it on right now.
    I’m a technical writer and work from home and I have ADHD. When I get stuck or unfocused the timer really is my best friend. My basic limit is 15 minutes – though I try for 3-15 minute sets – 45 minutes total if I can.
    I also use it for uncluttering for myself and with others that I help. Again – 3 sets of 15 with a 15 minute break.
    I first learned about using timers from Flylady – “You can do anything for 15 minutes.”

  11. posted by Karen on

    Wow! It’s so great to hear that I am not the only person who is timer-obsessed. I’ve been using them for over 60 years and have put them to most of the uses named above. Never had thought about the ADHD aspect; maybe I have it and never knew.

    Did anyone mention naps? I use a loud long-ring old fashioned windup timer to wake me from my short daytime power nap. I’m getting so conditioned that the ticking will put me to sleep.

    In addition to using a timer to make myself do chores for certain lengths of time, I sometimes use one to end my “fun” times of reading or playing computer games.

  12. posted by Stephanie on

    While I don’t really incorporate timers into my day-to-day activities, I did use this technique a couple months ago when facing the daunting task of cleaning and organizing my craft room (when I say daunting, understand that it had gotten to the point where I couldn’t get the door open without doing battle with the stuff piled up behind it). I made myself work for an hour, and then I was allowed to take 15 minutes to get a snack or peruse the internet (I tried to look for inspiration pictures of clean craft rooms to keep me motivated). I was surprised at how effective it was – I actually got the whole room cleaned in one Saturday.

  13. posted by Kate on

    I have half-hour playlist. Some are innocuous, like white noise, when I am doing heavy lifting work-wise, reading or writing. Some are fun for less intellectually demanding tasks, like data entry or cleaning up. I have one or two that are high tempo for when I need to get a rythm and get things done. As with running, i start typing to the beat of the music.

  14. posted by luxcat on

    great post, very useful comments too.

  15. posted by Liz I on

    I use timers all the time. I have the typical digital kitchen magnetic one, a similar one (with a clock) that hangs around my neck, a beautiful Pomodoro app on my iPad and Concentrate ( a very robust app) on my MacBook.

    The principle of all of these is the same: I set a timer to make a game out of tackling an unpleasant task and I set a timer to limit the amount of time I spend on activities I love (or those I get obsessive about–as the “positive” side of my ADD is my ability to hyper focus.)

    They help me focus, overcome resistance, persist, and keep a balance among my activities. I recommend them to my design students and my creativity students as easy ways to bust through the fear that underlies procrastination.

    Timers for me make tasks more like a game, and research shows that engaging our positive emotions makes us smarter and more effective.

    The iPad app I use is “Pomordoro App for iPad” and it has a stunningly beautiful interface. I use that one primarily for studio work, when I am powering through 2 to 4 hours of intense effort.

    My computer app, Concentrate, has scripting capabilities so I set up custom Pomordoro work and break timers (blocking out access to apps that would distract me) and I also have a “blogs” timer that lets me wallow in the internet but for a limited period.

    For me, 20 minutes is all it takes to get the most horrendous project started. And, I usually find that after 20 minutes I’m eager to keep working.

    As to whether one does or doesn’t have ADD: it really may not matter much, as Edward Hallowell, an expert on ADD, contends, in his book “Crazy Busy” that the symptoms of ADD are now the symptoms of modern life. He calls this the “F state”: frantic, frenzied, forgetful, flummoxed, frustrated, and fragmented. He says we don’t have the extended time necessary to complete a thought, develop a conversation or reflect. He says it’s as if we carry an invisible blipper, changing stations the minute a conversation or task takes too much time or becomes boring or hard. A timer helps me counteract that distraction.

  16. posted by Amber on

    I was given a simple kitchen timer, which I still have, when I was a child because my optometrist advised that I look up from the page every 30 minutes or so to help my eyes refocus. Sadly, when I read I don’t hear the timer go off so that didn’t work! I use that timer for my laundry now, which is two floors down in my apartment building and I always forget if I don’t set the timer.

    I also use the alarm on my smartphone for naps during the day. I don’t have an iPhone or Android phone so can’t download any fancy apps but might check out the online timer – a friend uses an online timer app to remind her about her to go take the teabag out of her tea!

    I can’t install anything like that at work, where I could use it to keep me on task or remember my tea in the staffroom!! Anyone know of any online timers that don’t need downloading?

  17. posted by Kimberly on

    I also love the time timer! My piano students appreciate the visual reminder of time remaining in our lesson, and a BIG bonus is the polite, non-aggressive audible alert once the time has elapsed. I bought one for my daughter (also a music teacher) and plan to buy one for daughter #2 once she graduates (yep, music ed!) Great product that does exactly what it’s supposed to.

  18. posted by Jasmine on

    I use a program called TimeLeft on my work computer, it reminds me throughout the day to get up and move a bit (sedentary desk jobs are no fun) and occasionally is used to ensure I focus on a mind-numbing task for a set length of time, like calling people with reminders of their upcoming appointments (boring!)

    It has stop-watch functions, etc. too. Not super pretty looking, but extremely functional.

  19. posted by Tracy on

    Can you set multiple timers on the physical Time Timer? For example, a timer for the time to leave for work and a timer to remind you it’s time to go to bed?

  20. posted by chacha1 on

    Can I confess that I sometimes use HGTV as a timer? On a Saturday when I’m at home with certain mostly-sedentary tasks, I find the half-hour shows a very good way to organize tasks. I do set a mental limit to how much time I’m going to have the TV on, because only a few of my regular chores are sedentary.

    This is probably very lame, but then concentration isn’t an issue for me.

    The only time I use an *actual* timer is when I’m cooking.

  21. posted by Jude on

    I do everything in increments of 15 minutes or 20 minutes because I like to alternate tasks. I use both physical timers and Cool Timer, which I found on download.com Timers make me happy. If I absolutely dread a task, I’ll tell myself that I only have to do it for a minute or two minutes. Once I get started, I can usually push that to 15 minutes.

  22. posted by MelD on

    I also have an iphone and simply use the built-in timer (along with the stopwatch and alarm clock)… why would you need an additional app?

  23. posted by Rachel on

    This timer is simple and amusing (try the sheep…) http://www.teachit.co.uk/custom_content/timer/clock3.html

  24. posted by Shadlyn Wolfe on

    My house is 865 sq ft; most of the time the TV can be my timer and I don’t have to be sedentary at all; I can see it in the living room, kitchen, or laundry room, and hear it in either bedroom and one bathroom. (I like my TV kinda loud).

    So I watch more TV than my other lifestyle beliefs suggest I “should” but I watch it while cleaning, painting, exercising, etc.

  25. posted by Penguinlady on

    When I was going through fertility treatment, some of my drugs I needed to take every 4 hours precisely. I ended up using a kitchen timer at my desk, or my cell phone timer when I was out. It worked for me!

  26. posted by Lizzie on

    Argh…argh…I love timers! I have a secret timer addiction. Secret because when I was moving in with my partner about six years ago, she said something along the lines of “it’s sort of creepy living with you because of the timers.” (I think I was doing something like unpack a box, take a ten minute break. It was just to break up really boring things.) Honestly, it hurt my feelings. But I still use the silent ones on my computer a lot.

  27. posted by Jane on

    I have for years used my basic FM radio as a timer to keep me on tasks. I have a favorite oldies station that plays upbeat music. I mentally divide my task into smaller divisions and give myself one song to complete each division. The upbeat music keeps my mood up. The reminder to move to the next task keeps me from unintentionally spending an hour reorganizing my silverware drawer when my intended task is washing the dishes and straightening the kitchen. And when a commercial or DJ takes time before the next song begins, it’s bonus time to go back and complete a task I left unfinished. I also get a little exercise in when a song tempts me to dance a little instead of just standing still while working!

  28. posted by Cagesjamtoo on

    I use timers esspecially to do laundry. I have to use timers that don’t turn off until I turn them off, or I forget it’s gone off. My microwave and regular iPhone clock timer work for me.
    I also use regular alarms throughout the day to keep me focused. There is the 5 minute warning “coats and shoes” alarm for getting the kids out the door. The “walk out the door” alarm so the bus isn’t missed. The “schools out” alarm reminding me the kids will be home soon. The “I love my kids” alarm that goes off an hour after they got home and things are starting to get crazy. And finally the “it’s 6:00″ alarm that reminds me one I better start dinner if I haven’t and two that the day is almost over.

    Both keep me on task and accomplishing things.

  29. posted by Vickie on

    Does anyone know of a timer that does not have to be reset daily. I’m looking for one for my 89 year old mother-in-law that I can set and it will work indefinitely the way I set it. She needs to take meds 3 times a day and just forgets. Any suggestions will be appreciated; her setting it daily just won’t work.

  30. posted by Katey on

    @Jane – I use music as a time too. I find ticking timers stressful but completing a task, especially housework, in a song or two works well for me and I find it calming too.

    @Vickie – Some ideas.
    3 cheap travel battery clocks, set to each time
    Or
    anything with a calendar can be set with an appointment a few times a day – for example a second hand palm pilot or a cheapy cell phone. The touchscreen makes it easy to turn off.
    Or,
    electricity timers can be set to turn on something at a particular times – they’re very popular for people with aquariums to turn the lights on and off for the fish. You could set a radio to turn on and off.
    Or
    some older style clock radios have multiple alarms. I have one from the ’90s that can have 4 times set as alarms in 24 hours

  31. posted by Katey on

    @ Vickie – ignore everything else I said…. I suspect you need one of these for your mother-in-law http://www.techforltc.org/producttype.aspx?id=2613,2511

    They are pill reminder devices including pill boxes with alarms in the lid.

    I just found them by googling

  32. posted by Vickie on

    Thanks, Katey.

  33. posted by Rachelskirts on

    I didn’t see it mentioned in the comments, but a new timer app was just released this week for the iPhone. I don’t really even know how to describe it, but it’s great if you want a visual reminder of approximately how much time has gone by or is remaining. (The screen displays just a solid color that gradually changes to reflect the passage of time.) The video sums it up well: http://vimeo.com/39914721

  34. posted by Bobby Bluford on

    I’ve been using iPhocus, the iphone app. It’s cool because it allows you to break up tasks into small pieces or organize several tasks around breaks. I agree with others in the post who say it’s easier (or at least possible for us procrastinators) to focus on something for 25-30 mins. I’m going to try some of the other suggestions, including the Time Timer for my kids who have no idea what 5 minutes really is. LOL

  35. posted by Northmoon on

    I love timers! I have four, an old fashioned windup that I use for baking, plus three digital magnetic ones stuck on my cooktop exhaust hood. One is set for 4 minutes to time my coffee brew, one at 10 minutes for grilling/frying etc. and one for 15 minutes for timing tasks like cleanup, decluttering etc. I find I use them all the time. There are some other great ideas in the comments that I’m going to try as well.

  36. posted by Thad P @ thadthoughts.com on

    We started using the kitchen timers (on microwave and stove) when our daughter was little. Interestingly, as she grew older she started setting the timer for herself!

  37. posted by Her from there on

    Gotta love those people (yes, you Anne)who say ADHD doesnt exist. Come to my house from 6.30am to 7am (which is when my oldest son gets up through to when his medication kicks in). Watch my youngest son who doesnt have the disorder. Then tell me it doesnt exist. My son isnt violent or agressive or any of those things. He is simply massively active, disorganised and confused. His language (not speech)is delayed for his age. He is also in the top 5% of the states intelligence for maths/science. He cant concentrate long enough to finish getting dressed without his medication. Once he has his tabs, he calms down right in front of our eyes, can complete his tasks effectively and has a gorgeous (though still flamboyant and spirited) personality. People who deny this disorder exists make his and our lives harder as we fight to get the services which would make his life (and ours) easier. We fight everyday for acceptance for a condition we WISH didnt exist, but that doesnt stop it being very real. Being constantly judged is a normal part of our life too and we certainly wish it wasnt.

    My younger son is easily distracted and cant start things without being told how to but doesnt have ADHD. I’m a daydreamer, and I dont have it either. But when someone really has it, its pretty darn obvious!

    Back to timers, yep, they’re great. My oldest even enjoys just watching one tick away – he finds it relaxing. I use TV as my timer. I watch the shows and race around like a headless chook in the commercial breaks.

  38. posted by Her from there on

    ps: since I’m now on my favourite soapbox, the diagnosis for ADHD is NOT wishywashy, not in Australia. You need concurrence from a paediatrician, a psychologist or psychiatrist AND a speech therapist to be diagnosed. You can only get medication from a paediatrician or psychiatrist. Assessments are done by teachers, parents and the professionals on different levels and you need to be assessed as ‘clinical’ in a number of areas to be diagnosed. It even says in the clinical guidelines NOT to diagnose ADHD if it is possible it is anything else such as neglect, poor parenting skills, autism, food allergies etc. Keep in mind though that 50% of children with ADHD have a parent with ADHD which means that the ‘poor parenting’ may simply be a parent who cant cope as a result of an undiagnosed disorder.

    I have a husband. He’s a nurse. I work in a school. Both of us are intelligent, reasonable, responsible people with good morals and values. My son is still a poster boy for ADHD. We love him dearly regardless.

  39. posted by MizLoo on

    @ Vickie -

    If you still have a landline (your MIL might have one even if you don’t) and your provider is verizon, there’s a voicemail option that lets you set up to 3 calls a day w a recorded message- “Hi Mom, time to take your vitamins” or whatever you record.

    We used it for a friend who had a traumatic brain injury & it got so he would, after about 6 months, go get his pills just before the call came in.

  40. posted by Cari on

    I found this timer to use when I’m working on the computer

    http://www.buffalosoftware.net/pctimer.htm

    It’s free and it serves as a countdown timer and an alarm clock. There is one countdown timer that can be set for seconds, minutes, or hours, and there are 2 alarm clocks. When I am working my online job, I set it for 45 minutes, then I take a 15 minute stretch break.

  41. posted by CDeFnorthernVermont on

    Best timer for me is a wristwatch with a countdown timer. The one I swear by is a Casio 526. I’ve used this model for about 25 years and it’s the timer of my dreams: you press a button to countdown from 1 minute, again to start from 3 minutes, and so on: from 5 min, 10, 15, 20 or 30 minutes.

    Busy on multiple phone lines? Countdown from 1 minute and excuse yourself to check in again with your on-hold customer. Brewing tea – hit it it twice for 3 minutes. The alarm is a series of 4 short beeps.

    At about $21 apiece, they’re a procrastinator’s best nightmare – and cheap!

  42. posted by Karyn on

    A little bit unconventional, but a pleasant alternative and one that does not require downloading: The virtual meditation room at Daily Zen. Go to http://www.dailyzen.com/ and click on “Zendo.” You are given the options of 15, 20, and 30 minute meditation sessions. A chime sounds at the beginning, then three chimes at the end of your chosen time period. :-)

    For those of us who refuse to be assimilated into the frenetic fast-paced unfocused Borg of modern life, using Zen chimes as a “timer” is a gentle reminder of bringing mindfulness to all that we do.

  43. posted by Bobby Bluford on

    Sorry, guys. The app is called Phocus, not iPhocus. Here is the link:’
    http://phocusapp.com/

  44. posted by Laura on

    I use timers all day long. Main uses are to remind me to get clothes out of the dryer, or to move clothes from the washer to the dryer. I can never remember on my own! Also I often set one for 10 minutes before I need to pick up my daughter. This helps me fully dig into a project without having to keep checking the clock. I feel I am much more productive. Finally, my daughter has ADHD, so she sets 2 timers when she showers. One for 5 minutes and one for 10. That way if she starts daydreaming it’s only for 5 minutes. I use a combination of the stove timer and an iPod app. Then we have two kitchen timers that stay in the bathroom.

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