By Jon Sedarati
None of us have much time. And yet you act as if things were eternal[.]
– Marcus Aurelius
Today’s the Day
Picture this: You wake up, triumphantly pull your bed sheets to one side, get up and exclaim “Today’s the day!” Today’s the day I’m going to start that project I’ve been putting off for weeks; today’s the day I’m going to finish that homework assignment that’s due on Monday; today’s the day I’m going to start an exercise regime that helps me prepare for a marathon; today’s the day I’m going to write the first words of what becomes a bestselling novel!
Fast-forward 6 hours: You’re sat in front of your laptop, PC, or television, dejected, fatigued, and oozing with despair. You haven’t written a word, created a slide, or started warming up. Where did all the time go, not to mention your motivation? The word document was open, the blank page was staring back at you, eagerly anticipating its transformation from sterile pixels into carefully crafted prose. What happened? Let’s rewind to this morning.
Sitting in front of your blank canvas, you’re about to begin… But wait, what’s this in the corner of my screen? An email? That looks important, yes, I should check that. But once I’m done, I’ll be right back, limitless canvas of creative possibility! But wait, what’s this? It’s going to rain this evening? Damn, I should check in with my friends to see if tonight’s get together is still on. But wait, what’s this? My old college roommate just contacted me. It’s been years. I’m so happy to hear from her. It’d be rude not to respond. It’ll only take a minute. But wait, what’s this? It’s 11:30am!? Darn… Well, I guess I should eat something. I’m not going to make much progress whilst my stomach is rumbling. Let’s see what’s in the kitchen. Hm, I’m out of fresh fruit. That won’t do. I guess I’ll head over to the coffee shop, they’ll have something. I can bring my laptop. Yes, I’ll have a bite to eat and then spend all afternoon on my paper. But wait, what’s this?…
Sound familiar? If you’re one of the lucky few born with an immunity to the modern world’s innumerable distractions, perhaps not. But for the rest of us, for whom the above morass of debilitating distractions is an all too common occurrence, what are we to do?
Here’s a simple tool to increase your productivity, instantly.
1. First, set a timer. Personally, if I have a writing project to get done, I like to go with a 1 hour time-limit. However, the specific time-limit doesn’t matter so much. It could be anything – 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 4 hours, etc.
2. The duration (e.g. 5/10/60 minutes) you choose represents the Allotted Time (AT) for a given task on a given day. Your AT is the time in which you are permitted to work on a desired task i.e. once you have used up the AT assigned to a given task, you are to cease working on that task until the next day (or whichever day you plan to resume working on it). At first, this rule may seem strange to you. What if I want to keep working after my AT has expired? Shouldn’t I keep going?
Why This Works (Skippable)
Adopting a self-imposed time-limit as a means to increase productivity stems from a basic economic principle: When a desired commodity (e.g. gold) becomes scarce, its value increases. This means people are willing to pay a higher price in order to obtain said commodity. The same principle applies to time. People who struggle to get things done are often suffering from an over-abundance of time, real or imagined. This abundance leads them to undervalue their time and in turn, squander it. By creating a self-imposed time-limit and only working within it, we can harness the scarcity principle in order to increase the subjective value of our time, motivating us to spend it more productively.
3. Once you’ve set your timer, turn off all internet connections (Wi-Fi, network data, etc.) and mute all devices.
4. You are now ready to start the timer, bearing in mind that you must remain in front of your laptop, PC, or
until your AT has elapsed. That means no bathroom breaks (go to the bathroom beforehand!) and no checking the weather, Facebook, or your stock portfolio. Now, you may encounter periods where you don’t know what to write – perhaps you don’t even know where to start – but you must remain steadfast in your commitment to focus on the project at hand. This means that you may spend your first 5 minutes (or hour) staring blankly at a blank word document. But that’s OK. If you are simply able to set a timer and focus on your project for the allotted time, you have succeeded. However, you are likely to find that, without the option to flee to the web, and left with no other alternative but to do what you told yourself you wanted to get done, you will start making progress. So give it a try and see what happens.
Sky’s the Limit
This task is very low risk and has great scaling potential. If your baseline is 5 minutes of productive work a day, then any increase over 5 minutes in time spent working is progress. So if you set a timer for 20 minutes and work productively for 10, despite only working for half of your AT (10/20 minutes), you have just doubled your previous productivity level. Once you become comfortable with shorter durations, feel free to optimise your time-limit to suit your needs.
Add-on: With longer durations, you can also try pausing your timer, say, if you would like to work for 2 hours but would prefer to work for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the afternoon.
 Aurelius, M. (2012). Meditations. (G. Hays, Trans.) New York: Modern Library.
Helpful Articles From Around the Web
Productivity – Psychology Today