Productivity Hacks: Setting Time Limits

Ever feel like you never have enough time to get things done, even when you think that logically you should? You’re not alone. You and I might not be freelance writers, but the same principles apply. Whether you’re trying to muster up the energy in the short-term to clean the kitchen, or in the long-term to commit to an exercise routine, sometimes having more time leads to complacency.

So how do we get around this? Taking on more commitments until you have to carefully schedule your time is likely to lead to burnout and dissatisfaction. And it’s not necessary. In fact, the solution is so much more simple than that.

It’s setting a time limit.

Whether that’s setting a timer, setting a stopwatch, or committing to a daily habit for a set period of time, by giving yourself a timeframe you’ll find it’s easier to get started and to keep going once you start, both of which are essential for completing everyday tasks and developing long-term habits.

Setting time constraints can boost your productivity with both short-term tasks and long-term habits. Click through to find out more.

In the short term

Set a timer

I think by this point setting a timer is a pretty well-known concept in the productivity world, but at the risk of rehashing common knowledge, there are two primary ways setting a timer helps you tackle your to-do list.

First of all, you can set a timer for, say, 15 minutes, and bash out all of those little tasks that are looming on your to-do list. I find this particularly helpful with mindless household tasks: Emptying the dishwasher, hanging out the laundry, tidying up the kitchen table, wiping down the countertops, cleaning the toilet, making the bed, etc.

Looking at a kitchen full of dirty dishes and a full (clean) dishwasher feels like an enormous task, but it takes me less than five minutes to empty the dishwasher and reload it. In fifteen minutes I can have the drying rack emptied and most of the remaining dishes washed – enough, at least, that my kitchen has that lived-in feel rather than its previous in-need-of-a-healthy-and-safety-intervention feel.

The other major application for a timer is for tackling large, seemingly overwhelming tasks. This ties in the with the one above, in that sometimes a task that seems overwhelming, like cleaning the kitchen, really only takes fifteen minutes to reach a passable state. However, it also works for tasks that really are going to take you a long time to finish, like tidying out all the kitchen cupboards instead of just washing the dishes and wiping down the countertops.

For these tasks I tend to work in slightly larger chunks, usually around half an hour, and just get through as much as I possibly can in that time. Usually by this point I’ve made enough of a difference that the room feels less cluttered, and I’m more motivated to continue at another time. Sometimes, I even switch off the timer and keep going, because I’ve made so much progress in half an hour that I’ve gotten into that tidying groove and I just want to get finished.

Set a stopwatch

Both of the above methods are fantastic for motivating yourself to get started in the first place. When a task or task list seems insurmountable, telling yourself you only need to do it for fifteen minutes or half an hour makes getting started that much easier, because when you’re looking at something that you think will take you hours it’s very difficult to even start.

For the more mindless tasks like those above, getting started is often the hard part, but what about for creative work when you can get started, only to get sidetracked by social media and news outlets?

That’s where I set a stopwatch instead. While a timer is good for breaking down interminable tasks, like keeping entropy at bay in your home, a stopwatch is good for tasks that you perform regularly and that are already broken into manageable chunks.

Maybe your house is tidier than mine, in which case you might find that using a stopwatch for your weekly clean is a great way to keep yourself on task. Or perhaps you’re learning to play an instrument, in which case setting a timer for half an hour’s practice every day might work better.

Either way, a timer is best when you have something that (you think) will take hours to do and you’re avoiding even starting, while a stopwatch is best for things that you know you can get done in a reasonable timeframe as long as you don’t get sidetracked.

So how do I use a stopwatch to keep me on task? Well, I know that it takes me approximately 20-40 minutes to write 1000 words. I know that my blog posts shake out to 1000-1500 words, and that my rough draft scenes in my novel clock in at around the same.

Whether it’s a blog post or a scene, my creative pursuits come already broken down into small chunks, so rather than setting a timer and saying I’ll only write for half an hour, I find it helps to set a stopwatch and aim to be finished writing in half an hour. In fact, I’m using a stopwatch right now to help me write this post.

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In the long term

The short-term applications of time-limiting your tasks have to do with time management on a micro scale, in that they’re methods that help you to use your time efficiently to plough on through your to-do list. The long-term application I’m going to discuss is more related to building habits and routines; however, in both the short and the long term, setting time limits helps you to get and stay on track.

Let me know if this scenario sounds familiar. You notice, during a monthly retro or other period of self-reflection, that your life could do with a little more stress relief. So you decide to start a simple daily habit to help you in that area, perhaps by committing to a daily yoga practice.

For the first few days, or even week or two, things go swimmingly. Every evening you roll out your mat and wind down before bed. It’s starting to become a routine, and you’re loving the way it feels. Then, on your second weekend, everything changes.

Maybe it’s a late night out with friends, or an overnight visit to your in-laws, but something crops up that changes your routine. Tired and without your mat, you decide there’s no harm in skipping just one evening. After all, you can hardly be expected to do yoga every single day for the rest of your life, can you?

But skipping that one evening changes something. The next evening, even though you had every intention of getting onto your mat again, it completely slips your mind. And the next, and the next, until that tentative little habit you were building up completely disappears.

At this point you probably feel disheartened, or angry with yourself. Why can’t you do something so simple as a short daily yoga practice? You have no discipline and no willpower; it’s no wonder you’re always feeling like your life is out of your control.

I get it, I’ve been there. If you’re feeling this way right now, then your first step is to stop beating yourself up. It’s not a lack of willpower that’s gotten you here, but a flawed approach. By committing to doing something for the rest of your life, you set yourself up for failure, because of course it’s ludicrous to expect yourself to do something every. single. day. for the rest of your life right off the bat. And once you’ve developed that habit, you can take a day or two off here and there and easily return to it, because it’s as much a part of your evening routine as brushing your teeth.

Instead of committing to doing something every day for the foreseeable future, you’ll build a habit more easily if you commit to it for a month. When you’ve committed to doing yoga every day for 30 days, then you’re more likely to find ways to work around roadblocks, because you’ve made that commitment and it’s only 30 days.

So you do your yoga before going to the pub with your friends, or do some simple stretches on the bed at your in-laws’, and then the next day, when everything’s back to normal, you’re much more likely to pick up where you left off.

And guess what? After 30 days, chances are you’ve developed that long-term habit you were going for all along.

Whether you’re trying to tackle your to-do list right now, or you’re striving to develop a long-term habit to improve your life, keeping yourself to a specified timeframe will improve your productivity and increase your chances of success.

Over to you

Do you use a timer to tackle your to-do list? Have you ever done a 30-day challenge or similar?

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  1. I use timers all the time, they are so helpful! It’s like you say with cleaning the kitchen/etc, if I think I’ll do just 30 minutes it sounds easy and by the time those 30 minutes are over I’ll be motivated to finish up 🙂 It also helps for social media, I’ll set myself a timer before I open pinterest, so I know I won’t spend hours there if I know I have other things to do 🙂

    I do find it difficult to build habits over time though, so I’m going to try the 30 day challenge and see of it works for me. It’s so true what you said about setting yourself up for failture if you try to commit to something for the rest of your life.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Nicola

      Ooh, setting a timer for social media is a great idea! It’s so easy to think you’ll just take a quick look and then find yourself sucked in for hours.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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