It’s 1:57 PM, and you’re at work.
You’ve got a meeting at 2:30, but it’s just down the hall: a three-minute walk. You realize you’ve got exactly 30 minutes available, which is just enough time to make some progress on that big project.
You dive in, but your brain soon interrupts you. “Hey, buddy, you’ve been focusing pretty deeply. Feels like it’s been a while. You’re not late for your meeting, are you? Better check the time.”
You look at your watch: it’s only 2:08. You get back to work. After a couple minutes, you’re back in the zone.
Soon, the thought returns. “Oh no, the meeting! What time is it?”
2:17, it turns out. Still some time left.
You turn your attention back to the task before you, but your concentration is shot. You’re thinking about the meeting with your boss. Eventually, you open Twitter and while away the remaining minutes.
Let’s do a post-mortem.
The thirty minute block of uninterrupted time yielded an 11 minute “focused work session” and a 7 minute session. That’s 18 productive minutes out of 30. Ouch.
We’ve all been there. In fact, most of us live in this semi-distracted state. Is it a productivity emergency? No, not really. It’s pretty normal. But many things considered “normal” are not the best use of our time.
Fortunately, there’s a solution that’s free, requires virtually no self-discipline or effort, and takes seconds to set up. In terms of bang for your buck, you can’t do much better.
What is this wonderful tool?
The humble countdown timer.
Your Brain Doesn’t Want Two Jobs
A basic tenet of productivity is “the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.”
Put another way: don’t give your brain more than one job at a time.
When you sit down to work on something, you’re giving your brain a job: do this work. Since multitasking is a myth, it’s a waste of cognitive resources to also ask your brain to keep track of the time. Remember, your brain can’t keep time in the background; instead, it must periodically switch from the task at hand to the task of looking at your watch/phone. The momentary feeling of panic that comes with checking the time doesn’t do anything to help your concentration, either.
So, outsource the job of timekeeper. If you have a smartphone, just use the alarm function. Here’s the process I use.
- When sitting down to work, figure out the next time you have to be somewhere where other people are expecting you.
- Calculate how long it will take to get there. Allow time for minor tasks like packing up your stuff, going to the bathroom, making a cup of coffee, etc. Add a couple minutes to your estimate to be safe.
- Set an alarm on your phone for the appropriate time, and work with deep, worry-free concentration.
Try it! This is any easy habit to establish, and you’ll quickly learn to trust it. Let go of the need to check the time, concentrate fully on your work, and get more done in less time!