Monday, June 18, 2012

The Humble Timer

Tick tick tick tick tick. I love the sound of an old egg timer counting down the minutes. Serving up a satisfying "bing!" at the end. I use a timer about half the time that I write (especially when I feel sluggish and reluctant). There have been times when I have done nothing but stare at a page for the full 15 minutes (or whatever the designated time was). More often, I jump as if a starting gun has been fired, write lousy and great sentences, and then keep writing after the bell rings.

I thought my dedication to the timer was eccentric, but my students claim it is the most useful help for productive writing as all. (Not all students, of course. Writers, if nothing else, are individuals.) Here's what I get:
  • A ready tool
  • A ritual the reenforces good habits
  • A taskmaster that does not accept excuses; the dial marches forward no matter what I say.
  • Permission -- to write less that perfect prose and to stop when the timer goes off.
I have used the timer primarily for drafting, but I've found it is also a great help for rewriting (my least favorite activity). For me, there is an extra requirement - I need to decide the day before what I will do specifically during that time period (proofing, removing "junk" words, doing a "backward" analysis. Without a plan other than "rewriting," the timer is not a help. With the plan, I stay on task and get the productivity I'm looking for.

I like real timers, but I use timer apps as well. CNET always has a few timers available for download, including free ones.

I'll end with a question. Why aren't timers used more often? The students who rave about timers and report productivity during classes have generally had success with them in the past. Why do they fail to use them on a regular basis? How can the habit be encouraged?


  1. The Flylady ( who teaches women how to get productive around the house with cleaning (can be used by men, too, of course) advocates a timer as well. Even on one of the children's programs, Lunette does a 10-second tidy. I have found that if I am waiting in the kitchen for something, I can set the microwave timer for 2 minutes and then empty the dishwasher. SO, I think that this is a great idea for me. I won't do more than 15-20 minutes I think (even an odd one like 12 might be fun). I can see the immediate benefits of writing down what I will do - search for my personal verbal tics, being verbs, etc. rather than say "rewrite" or flesh out more of a novel's outline, or do some research. I think I may apply's chart on writing down all the things I want to do (back to your spreadsheet, with motivation) and then write the smaller tasks that he says are progress towards the larger one. (Perhaps that's what you had in mind anyway.) Time to build my spreadsheet!

  2. Why? The old timer was extremely portable. Today our primary timer is the oven. Not so portable. :)

    However, this is a lame excuse. My mobile phone has an alarm app. Now where is that phone?