Use a Timer to Change Your Life
Improve discipline, mindfulness, and enjoyment around everything you do.
Originally published in: The Startup
As I sat down to write this, I set a timer for 20 minutes.
Feeling clear in my intention for this article and for the time that I’ve dedicated to it, I got to work, focusing on nothing except unfiltered output for that period. Accompanied by a steaming mug of tea and my journal, this has become a familiar and welcomed part of my routine that helps me gain and sustain momentum for the day.
I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique (breaking up work into timed intervals) for some time now. It’s helped me focus, and be present and joyful around any work that I do, so I wondered how I could adapt the premise to see the same benefits arise in other aspects of my life.
I started to experiment with timing more of my daily activities, doing so with the intention of being fully focused on those things for the duration of these periods (whether it’s recreational, a chore, or creative work).
Fast forward a few years, and using a timer has made me more disciplined, mindful, and able to enjoy even seemingly mundane tasks.
How and why can a timer positively impact everything from your work to your personal practices? That’s what I hope to address here.
Obliterating the “Should’s”
We’re living in a world where we have a tremendous amount of choice.
While this is something I’m (mostly) grateful for, it can be overwhelming. There are soooo many things that we can choose to do with our time, and we’re faced with these choices in every moment.
I, like so many, am conditioned to hyper-focus on productivity (by the conventional understanding of the term, i.e. output). When you combine the self-inflicted pressure of being “productive” with the endless possibilities of things that I could be doing, you’re left with one often overwhelmed human.
Using a timer has helped me navigate all these “shoulds”, focusing only on what I’m doing and not the other people and things that I so often compare myself to.
After all, if there are a million things that I “could” or “should” be doing, and those million things are always on my mind when I’m actually doing anything, then I’d never really fully be doing what I’m doing at all.
To put it in far, far more simple terms: using a timer helps me to be present with what I’m doing.
And what happens when I’m present with an activity?
The comparison to others, the shame or guilt about things that would be “more productive”, tend to dissipate. I’m left with more capacity to enjoy what I’m doing, and this shows up in how I create, and how I feel.
You Can Time Anything
I time a lot of things: meditations, writing, chores, work intervals…and timing has helped me in all of these situations. Its far from a necessity, but is certainly a possibility: timing can help you bring presence to any area of your life that you’re feeling stuck in.
As I alluded to earlier, I’m a big do-er. So it’s sometimes even been helpful for me to set a timer to relax: reading a book, watching a TV show, or just cloud gazing.
Since I often push myself too much, compromising self-care (which is actually extremely “productive” in and of itself), setting aside literal time where my intention is simply to chill out has been very impactful.
When I set a timer, I’m endeavoring to do nothing but what I set out to for the entirety of that time (yes, even determination to relax).
This means I don’t check my phone or distract myself in any other way, doing my best to utterly devote myself to that intention.
There is a term that comes from Vipassana meditation, called adhiṭṭhāna, that is central to the teaching; it roughly translates to “strong determination”. In the practice, students cultivate adhiṭṭhāna by not moving during the entirety of a sitting (maintaining the same position of the body, and not opening the eyes).
When I first started exploring the technique, it felt impossible to sit still for an entire hour. Encouraged by my teachers and fellow practitioners, however, I started entering the sittings with increasingly strong determination and belief to not move for the entire hour. I noticed, once again, that timing it really helped me.
Doing anything with this degree of intention fundamentally changes the way I approach life, and so it has translated into how I use timers; no matter what I’m doing, setting a timer reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing, and makes seemingly difficult tasks more approachable.
Timers Can Help You Give Yourself Permission
Setting a timer helps me to give myself permission to fully be in whatever it is that I’ve decided is worth my time.
It gives me clarity and conviction.
If I’ve determined that I need to rest, for example, but I’m being hard on myself for not being “productive”, setting twenty minutes aside to focus on rest helps me actually rest.
For mundane (yet necessary) tasks, setting a timer and focusing on being present (no matter how dull or boring something may be), I am afforded a higher degree of presence with what I’m doing. This could be paying taxes, cleaning the kitchen, or mowing the lawn.
Timers Make Things Manageable
Knowing I only need to be focused on what I’m doing for a specific amount of time makes things seem more manageable for me.
I don’t, for example, have to finish this article as I first sit down to write it. I only have to write for 20 minutes.
The difference? 20 minutes worth of words vs. a polished piece.
The former is a lot easier for my mind to digest, and lends itself to more excitement and creative freedom throughout my process.
Using a Timer to be Present? Isn’t that Counter-Intuitive?
Sometimes, I set a repeating timer for something like a yoga practice.
At first, this occurred to me as being counter-intuitive. After all, yoga is often focused on presence and moving with breathe, not with a timer.
Yet when I’m experiencing resistance to doing something that I know I will benefit from, a timer helps light a fire under my bum. Mentally, I’ve found it easier to follow the time instead of struggling to be present with my breathe.
Forcing these things usually yields the opposite results. And, as I gradually sink into a practice or activity, I eventually lose the feeling that I need a timer.
Creating Positive Habits
It may seem to some, as it did to myself, that a timer can be rather restrictive. I’ve found the opposite to be true in most cases.
Whenever I do a movement practice or workout, for example, I generally set a timer for 45 minutes to an hour, unless I have more availability to explore my body more freely.
I track my rest times through breathe, and make sure that I’m not consistently looking at my phone or a clock to keep track of the time.
I’ve noticed in these physical practices that when I free up that hour or so to just be moving, knowing the timer will keep me in check, my mind doesn’t go into overdrive thinking about all the other things that I should/have to do throughout the day.
Distraction Free Time
This goes along with the point I made earlier about giving yourself permission to be doing whatever it is that you’re doing.
When I set a timer with the intention and determination to do something, it means that I have the intention and determination to do only that thing.
Often times, I’ll be inspired to set a timer when I find myself gravitating to my phone over and over again, looking for distraction from whatever activity or emotion I don’t want to deal with at the time.
During these instances, doing only the thing that I’m doing may involve using an internet-connected device like, for example, writing this article.
That’s why my WiFi isn’t turned on at the moment.
I don’t need it right now. Later on, when I have the specific intention to link to other articles or resources that are helpful to readers, or to find pictures, or to actually upload the article, I’ll use the internet. Otherwise, it isn’t supporting the thing that I’m using this time for.
Am I Really Ready to do X?
I’m impulsive. Just like everyone else.
My mind is a bit of a control freak, often convincing me that something needs to be done NOW.
Habitually setting timers has left me better equipped to assess if I really need to be doing something, or if my mind is just stepping into that control-freak role.
It might happen when I’m facing an emotion that I don’t want to deal with, or when I’m feeling bored “need” to fill my time when, in fact, meditation or just doing nothing may be the best thing for me.
Setting a timer, or even just thinking about doing so, reminds me to take a moment to assess where I am mentally and emotionally.
Am I considering doing this thing as a distraction mechanism? Am I really in a space where this is the right thing for me now?
Often times, this affords me the realization that I’m just trying to be distracted.
Give it a Try
Set a timer for something you’ve never tried timing. See if it adds new awareness to a boring chore, a workout, or a meditation.
I’m very interested to hear other perspectives and experiences around this, and encourage you to share your thoughts.
Thanks for reading!