Get More From your Day, By Counting the Seconds

I’ve only got 59 minutes left to finish this article for you.

But I’m glad to have this time limitation, because it will keep me from going into my usual random sidetracks and wasteful web surfing that can easily end up burning half a day and leaving me with a stiff neck and a guilty sense of laziness.

Like everyone except the most glossy and accomplished self-help guru, I still struggle occasionally with trying to get the most out of my day. I have some days where I absolutely kick ass and get many useful things done, but still too many days where I bumble around and make excuses for why I’m not doing what I should be doing .

Yeah, yeah.. I know I’m supposed to call to make that change to the house insurance policy, but I’m not in the mood to deal with telephone people right now. I think I’ll just check my email instead, or clean the kitchen, or.. oh.. what’s this flyer that just came in the mail? I think I’ll dream about bike parts instead…

This tendency is even more powerful for those of us who are in an office, supposed to be getting work done on a computer. There’s an important but boring or daunting task open in the foreground, but there are also several other tabs open in your web browser – I can see that one of them is Mr. Money Mustache, another one is the news website,  another is Gmail, and then there is that YouTube video a friend forwarded to you that you’ll sneak in when nobody is peeking into your cube. And Oh! An email from your friend just came in, let’s read that one first, and by the time you reply it will be just about lunch time – Perfect!

Is it any wonder that we have productive and non-productive days, and that about 80% of the actual money earning results in brain-intensive industries are attained by the top 20% of the workers?

Getting a whole bunch of great work done in a short time is a worthwhile goal for any worker. Because as much as some like to deny it, good work gets noticed and on average over your lifetime, you will be paid for how much work you get done. But it’s an even more worthwhile goal for your after-work time and your weekends, because your employer is not taking a big cut of the profits. In the Forums of this blog and in emails, I get to read some very happy stories about people who saved $400 on mortgage or insurance costs, with just an hour of work.

Even in my own life without a real job, I get great benefits from getting things done. The biggest one is happiness – I am simply happier at the end of a big day of accomplishment, than after a day of  unguided computer fiddling. But how can I pack more into my days while limiting the time waste?

The solution I’ve been trying out recently with great success is simply putting myself on the clock, at least once a day. If I start a countdown timer on my phone, and put it right next to my computer with the seconds ticking away, I am instantly made aware of the passage of time. I suddenly have a goal to write this whole article, including adding the pictures and re-reading it a few times and editing it at the end, all within the span of an hour. That’s a short time to write something (there are only 32 minutes left), so I’m sure as hell not going to take a break, open up a few more tabs in the browser, see what’s going on in the comments section or the statistics section, or other such nonsense like I usually do.

When you get a task done in an efficient manner like that, you get the full reward of the accomplishment, with none of the extra non-rewarding guilt and time suck that comes along with procrastination.

Even more significantly over the long run, you have planted the seed of a new habit – being an efficient person. Over time, you can force this new habit to overtake the old bad habit of inefficiency. That is a pretty powerful thing when it comes to making money for yourself, since getting things done directly correlates with income.

I’ve also started using the timer for my weight training and crossfit-style workouts. In the olden days, I’d go down to my basement gym with just a vague goal, like “today I want to exercise the chest and back muscles”. Now I write down something specific, like “One set of bench presses, one of pull-ups, one of box jumps – and then repeat the cycle as many times as you can within 18 minutes!

That simple change of going from “get something done”, to “get as much done as you can within a fixed time limit with a counter” makes all the difference for me. I find I do more sets in an 18 minute time period than I would normally do in a 40 minute traditional workout, all with a much greater intensity due to an elevated heart rate. It’s a competition against myself, which is my favorite type of contest.

So next time you have something that you need to get done, just try the experiment on yourself. Write down the goal on a piece of old-fashioned paper. Then put a countdown timer on top of the paper so both things are staring you in the face.

Then get to work.

And it looks looks like I’m done my own work day, with 3:02 to spare.

Happy Monday!

 

 

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45 Responses to “Get More From your Day, By Counting the Seconds”

  1. Amicable Skeptic March 12, 2012 at 6:02 am #

    I love using old business cards for keeping short lists of things that need doing. Unless you’re in sales your company probably gives you hundreds more than you’ll ever need and instead of throwing them out when you change jobs/titles and hang on to the old ones. They fit easily in your pocket or wallet so you can always have a couple with you and unless your company tried to be fancy by coloring the backs they should have a nice white slate perfectly sized for a todo list.

  2. Health plans NC March 12, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    I use to use what my father did for 30 years, a small flip note pad that fits in your pocket. Then I thought I could use my smart phone and that becomes more of a distraction than a help. Open up the smart phone and soon your surfing the news, stocks, email, etc.

    I am going back to the note pad, because I think the more simple I make something, the more likely I will use it.

    Regarding the timed workout. MMM, I recommend keeping a journal with your routines you get from crossfit.com. I have been doing crossfit at a local gym (I pay, I know, but I know if I don’t I will slack off). Either way, as you progress, due to the intensity of the exercise, you never fill like it gets any easier. However, by keeping a journal of the workout, you will see either your times go down or your reps go up, which is proof of progress.

    Thanks
    Rusty

    • gzt March 12, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      CrossFit or similar is usually an okay thing to do (not my cup of tea and not something I’d recommend, but I’m not going to dissuade somebody from doing it), but I recommend against doing the workouts you find on the CrossFit.com site itself. It is generally better, if one wants to do CrossFit(TM) brand workouts, to find an intelligent affiliate that programs sanely and follow their workouts.

      • Health plans NC March 14, 2012 at 6:41 am #

        Gzt,
        I agree, I should have recommended the scaling factor my gym puts on these workouts. Those workouts are for elite athletes (we have a couple in our gym – military personel). For most people you would scale down in rounds, weight, time, etc and slowly work you way up. Most workouts have a time range, so once you get to a lower time, you need to either add more weight/rounds/minutes etc to keep the intensity up.

        Again, those workouts are for upper level athletes and you need to scale back when starting out. It’s more important to work up to those levels after a couple of years. Don’t hurt yourself buy jumping off the deep end. There are resources on the site about scaling the workouts.
        Thanks
        Rusty

    • Alexandre March 16, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

      “Then I thought I could use my smart phone and that becomes more of a distraction than a help. Open up the smart phone and soon your surfing the news, stocks, email, etc.”

      Hmmm? Personally, I always thought that it’s, well, about disciplining your mind. Very moustachy :)

  3. Craig March 12, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    I’ve recently been experimenting with the pomodoro productivity method which has you work in 25 min intervals with 5 min breaks. I implemented a white board list of projects & to do items and utilize a Timex triathlon watch with an interval timer to keep me on track (already had it for running). I’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks now, but I definitely seem to be more productive and have less wandering mouse syndrome while working at home.

  4. Shawn March 12, 2012 at 6:44 am #

    Im coaching my son’s 9-10 baseball team. Much like you are doing for your workouts, I use a timer for every aspect of practice to squeeze the most out of our 90 minute practice. For instance our first practice consisted of timed “HR sprints” after hitting a ball and then to station work in three groups for 20 minutes per station. Having defined goals for every timed portion of the practice certainly takes the vagueness out of the practice time and allows for much more individualized instruction.

  5. MyCanadianFinances March 12, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    What made me push myself to get things done was lists. I always use to have a mental check list of things I had to get done during a day. But I would always procrastinate and never get them done. Lately I have been writing down everything that I need to do. And amazingly I have been able to accomplish every task that I have written down for the past 2 weeks. I should try to time myself and see if it helps even more.

  6. Jill March 12, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    I am naturally lazy though I am a highly productive person. I have to basically play games with myself like this all the time in order to get anything done! I keep my house very clean, but I do things like, set the timer for 15 minutes after my kids go to bed and clean as much as I can until the timer goes off. If I didn’t do things like this I’d never get anything done.

  7. carl March 12, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    Bleah! Why become financially independent if your are going to take the timeclock home with you? Double bleah! Might as well stick with the higher paying job and enjoy the high consumption lifestyle. Nothing kills my creativity like thinking about a clock. Triple bleah!

    • Mr. Money Mustache March 12, 2012 at 9:07 am #

      Hmm.. normally I’d suggest that even after retirement you might want to be open to trying out new ideas like this one, just to see how you like them. But I can see that in your case, you’ve already got everything figured out so it’s best to dismiss them immediately :-)

      The point of timing yourself is that even in a post-career life, many of us still thrive on accomplishing things. And some of us (including me) have self-discipline problems where we could accomplish more if we could build more efficient habits.

      For me, running the occasional clock actually INCREASES creativity, because it increases focus. There’s nothing creative about poking around on Google Finance and refreshing your stock prices, or clicking over to a celebrity website because your eyes are drawn by a nice display of cleavage.

      As for “enjoying” the high consumption lifestyle, what would the typical Mustachian prefer: Maximizing office time so they can have a new luxury car every two years? Or trying to get more out of their post-retirement days of leisure, so they get themselves in better shape AND have time to practice guitar and write more of their novel? Either option requires working pretty hard.

      • carl March 14, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

        Accomplish things, yes! But to focus on the thing itself, vs. the evil ticking timeclock, that is freedom. If you have the clock on, you are telling yourself either that:

        1. I’m forcing myself to put x amount of time into this.
        2. I need to get this done in x amount of time because there are other things that need doing.

        The time clock is for factory wage slaves. Run with your muse.

  8. The Stoic March 12, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    I like the concept and I do something similar, but some may think it is a bit morbid. I looked up my life expectancy on the actuarial tables and then converted those years to hours. I then downloaded a timer that sits at bottom left corner of my screen. This timer is counting down the minutes of my life. Like I said it might sound morbid, but the idea was to constantly remind myself that my time on this earth is a finite gift and I really need to be living the life I want. I still procrastinate, but I am much more aware of the moments that are passing by and try to live those moments a little more deliberately

    • fruplicity March 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

      Wow, I LOVE this concept. I know for some people it could paralyze them with fear/anxiety, but this kind of motivation really works for me – I’ll have to put my clock where I can always see it (but where other people won’t, or will have no idea what it is!!)

      • The Stoic March 12, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

        It’s been really helpful. As I said, I don’t maximize every minute of every day, but I do tend to focus my time and energy on activities that are more in line with what I’m interested in. Hope it is as helpful to you as it has been for me.

  9. Matt W. March 12, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    This idea sounds a lot like the Pomodoro technique where the basic premise is to pick a Task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and work on that task (with email, web, and other distractions off) until the timer expires, put a check mark next to that task (then take a 5 min break.) Wash, rinse, and repeat. (take a longer break after every 4 rounds.)

    The free e-book is at the bottom of this page here: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/book.html

    It goes into greater depth about the technique.

  10. Dollar D @ The Dollar Disciple March 12, 2012 at 8:47 am #

    If acknowledging your own mortality is morbid, then count me in too!

    • Dollar D @ The Dollar Disciple March 12, 2012 at 8:48 am #

      That was meant as a reply to Stoic Investor… I should seriously finish my coffee before I click “submit” :)

      • jlcollinsnh March 12, 2012 at 8:57 am #

        +1 to Mr. Stoic and hope you’re timing your coffee time there DD.

      • The Stoic March 12, 2012 at 9:16 am #

        I caught your comment DD, of course I’ve been hyped up on the juice for the past 12 hrs. I bring my A game to MMM! ;-)

  11. jlcollinsnh March 12, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Wow. that’s a great tool for maximizing productivity during the day. Powerfully effective, no doubt.

    Makes me glad I’m retired and can dawdle over my coffee and this post. ;)

    • Mr. Money Mustache March 12, 2012 at 9:18 am #

      Me too – I have absolutely no timers running right now, and I’m relaxing and watching the birds jumping around in the blossoming maple tree in my front yard.

      You don’t have to accomplish something with every part of your day.. but I will be doing another 18 minute crossfit blast later this morning. Then I’ll go out and get paid to make a few things out of wood in my sunny outdoor workshop (allocated time: three hours).

  12. Poor Student March 12, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    I usually work by the same concept except I only use a clock. This might be why I have such a tendency to not get the task done in the time I have allotted.

    I am going to try this now. I have an assignment that needs done by 5.Before I would have just made sure it got done by the deadline by looking at the clock. But I am going to set a timer for an hour which should be more than enough time to finish it, and then hopefully I will have lots of time to spare before it is actually due to do things I enjoy.
    Even if this idea works I am going to stick with my sane workout compared to the 18 minutes of misery you do.

  13. gzt March 12, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    The fitness idea is great, but I’d caution you about the exact exercises you’re using. Box jumps, bench press, and pullups for speed aren’t the safest and most effective exercises. I’d recommend sandbag cleans, pushups, and some other third option that replaces pullups as a better conditioning exercise. You want the most idiot-proof exercises in your conditioning circuits. Box jumps have too many points of failure, ranging from missing the box (ouch) to popping your Achilles. Sandbag cleans are idiotproof and train the same sort of explosiveness. Plus, sandbags are multiuse and very cheap to make. Barbell exercises for time in a circuit don’t work terribly well and the bench is a particularly bad one. Overhead presses work better, but pushups are even more idiotproof and prevent you from messing up your pristine bench press form by rushing through it. Same problem with pullups, cheating on them is stressful to your shoulder. Throwing together couplets or triplets of exercises in a circuit is a great idea, but you do need to take some care in constructing it.

    • Mrs. Money Mustache March 12, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      Note that while MMM is doing crossfit style workouts, he’s not doing them in the typical crossfit way. In other words, he is doing an MMM-style crossfit workout. Slower, controlled, careful movements but (more recently) with an added intensity of having a time limit.

      I go to a crossfit affiliate and have just started challenging MMM to the Open workouts. In true MMM style, he’s changing them up and doing it the way he wants.

      No need to worry, but thanks for the tips. :)

  14. LadyMaier March 12, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    Wow, it’s like you’re looking over my shoulder!!! Are you here?!?

    Oh wait, I got distracted….please check out this internet comic on working from home, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/working_home

    Capital idea MMM!! I usually have so much to do at work and at home that I’m constantly pulled away from whatever task I’m trying to accomplish: at work it’s due to other coworkers, and at home it’s due to my kids. The timer idea is great, and I’ll try to employ something similar to my daily routine.

  15. Melanie Rabie March 12, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    I must definitely try that!

  16. Parizade March 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    I don’t know if being productive makes me happier but it certainly makes me feel calmer. After I get everything done that needs doing, a wave of serenity engulfs me. I can gracefully handle any surprises that life throws my way because my foundation is secure.

    It’s way more effective than any meditation I’ve tried.

  17. Matt March 12, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    There is an idea that people have natural cycles of inspiration/drive and non-inspiration/laziness. (And I want to say it’s this website where I’ve read the most commentary on this.)

    I’m not saying the timer is a bad idea, but… what if you put yourself on the timer during a natural “trough” of work ethic? Personally, I would find that very stressful. And likewise, when I’m on a natural “peak” of inspiration, I’m “in the zone” and don’t even need a timer to deliver the most results. And this reflection on my natural “work style” is why FI/ERE/MMM appeals to me so much—I can really optimize my life overall by working only when my bio-rhythm says it’s the most optimal time to do so.

    When you talk about using this technique in the office (for those of us who are still building up our ‘staches), it makes me long for a “ROWE”, a results-oriented work environment. You get paid strictly for delivering results, not how long the work takes you. At least my current job is the complete opposite of this: the amount of work I have to do naturally ebbs and flows. There are light times and heavy times. Yet I’m expected to be here 11 hours per day regardless. (Perhaps those with more drive than me might use the time to look for more work and/or more projects and/or learn more, but as it is: I’m getting excellent feedback from my manager, not to mention I’m on the verge of burnout anyway.)

    In the same token, I think a lot of managers fail to realize the power of a timer like MMM suggests. In the spirit of a ROWE—and therefore getting out of the office sooner—with the right personality, I think fewer working hours at the job could result in more (or at least the same) productivity. At least for my personally, I know for a fact that 95% of the time, I could physically be at work two or three fewer hours per day, yet maintain the same level of output. I can’t really bring this up with the boss, though: his first comment would be, “Sounds like you don’t have enough work to do” (see my comment about burnout).

    I think there’s a class of people who are happy to be singularly-focused on a task all day every day. And then there’s the rest of us. The former class ends up as managers and business owners, and naturally equate (and therefore insist on) more working hours with more productivity. Yet the rest of us need (literally, NEED) downtime to maximize creativity, remain engaged, and stave off burnout. For the rest of us, less is truly more. Yet at an intuitive level, “less is more” looks like a contradiction, and the corporate-ladder types won’t ever empathize with it anyway.

  18. Quakerplain March 12, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Enjoy, I hope that it lasts for you, and that I am flat dead wrong. Truly.

    The ISDA has declared Greece to be in default. Fitch has downgraded their
    rating. Kyle Bass has cashed in on his 1100 dollar bet and will pocket
    seven hundred thousand dollars in payouts. The contagion has spread and
    the word is that the City of London is in far worse shape than the PIIGS.

    The default should become apparent at the close of business on March 23rd, This is because the payment on the Greek bond is due on the 20th.
    Look for a false flag disaster to start a war in Iran to divert attention from this event. It may not happen because Russia has made it clear there will
    be no funny business tolerated.

    Once the euro house of cards begins to fall you have three weeks to
    get out of the dollar. As it has been forecast, at that point your paper
    will be worth the paper it is written on. Look for a devaluation of about
    forty percent, just as it happened when Nixon decoupled the dollar from
    the gold standard and gold shot from 35 dollars an ounce to 70 in 1971

    I hope and pray that I am wrong. If I am not, you heard it here first and
    you were warned.

    • Jimbo March 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

      FYI, we didn’t hear it first from you, this has been all over the interwebs for a good two years now…

      If the financial world does collapse, calling it in advance will not help you. we will all be in trouble.

      I don’t think it’ll happen but I sure hope you spent your life savings on a bunker.

      • quakerplain March 12, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

        I did, brother, and there is a hot & cot with your name on it if the golden horde sweeps you my way. It is paid for free and clear

        I’ll leave the light on for you.

        • Mr. Money Mustache March 12, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

          The reason these end of the world guys seem so credible is that they know exactly the appropriate time to chime in about the end of the world. I mean wow, I never would have thought this post about using a countdown timer would be the right time to talk about financial collapse, but that just shows how naive I am!

          Thank you, wise pessimist, for enlightening us yet again. I am really becoming nervous that my unending optimism is unfounded, with rational discourse like this staring me in the face :-)

  19. Dancedancekj March 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Interestingly enough, my line of work is blocked out for each patient, so I find my mind is already set up like this when it comes to accomplishing tasks. Each work I need to do for the patient is broken down into parts as well, and I keep myself with certain time constraints so I am as efficient as possible with my time (and my patient’s time!) While I don’t want to perform procedures sloppily, I have the habit of nitpicking and fussing over some things too long, so the happy medium between efficiency and quality is something I am still discovering.

    I find this helps in other areas of life too. Block out your day, break down your times that you need to be productive into “chunks”, and set aside time to be more flexible or creative with your time. It is important also for me to finish my tasks, which is why the Pomodoro method is not good for me (I never get anything done and end up just taking a lot of breaks)

  20. Diane March 12, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    “And it looks looks like I’m done my own work day, with 3:02 to spare.”

    Seriously? No time allotted to proofread??

    • Mr. Money Mustache March 13, 2012 at 6:55 am #

      Heheh.. Re-reading and rewriting these things takes me almost half the allotted time! I put that 3 minute line in when I was totally done, just before clicking “schedule”.

  21. Oskar March 13, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    After having kids we have started this around the little house projects like when we have to do some cleaning or sort through the closet to get more space or whatever. Previously we had hours and days to spend but now we only have a few hours each night to get everything done. Our kids go to sleep at 7 and after 9 we want to have some ‘free’ time to watch a show or movie, read or write. Therefore we put up little mini objectives for our selfs to get done between 7-9 each night and the times we do that it is usually very successfull.

    Thanks MMM for another great article.

  22. gzt March 13, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Carry on, then. I should’ve known that MMM, being a rather goal-oriented individual, would alter things to fit his goals rather than simply blindly following instructions. As Dan John, one of my favorite fitness gurus once said, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” It’s more profound than it seems when you look at all the people who fail at that goal.

  23. Blaise March 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Whew, I finally finishing reading all the articles on the site, thus securing my Senior Mustache title! It’s going to be tough having to wait 1-2 days for each new article now though. I guess it’s on to the forums! Anyway, you’ve got a great site here, MMM. By far my favorite destination on the internet.

  24. fruplicity March 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    I would love to hear more about how people are able to better manage what time they have to get everything done. Or really, if the time management issue became a matter of “less “doing” became more important to me” vs. “I have x, y, and z tricks to fit it all in”. I’m going to post on the “Continuing the conversation” in the forums…

  25. Dustin March 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Having a timer ticking away would be a distraction to me. What has been working wonders for me though, is carrying around one of those 70 page school notebooks. On it I’ll brainstorm what I should do that day, and I can look back and see what I have accomplished.

    All of the filled in pages gives me momentum of ‘doing’, and I feel that has been the key to keeping my motivation going. I admit that sometimes I’m too tired to be very creative. So instead of trying to force myself to do lots of thinking, I do those tasks that don’t require much thinking (cleaning, organizing, watching a movie, etc.)

    I do think that the brain sometimes processes things in the background, and that processing can take away from your creative energies. In those cases, I usually try to figure out what my sub-conscience is pondering, and wait for it to finish, which may take a few days.

    Using the time based approach, or even the Getting Things Done approach, certainly helps for many people. It’s good to try out different approaches that help you get the most out of your day, and it is usually a mixture of different things that proves most effective for you.

  26. Sara March 13, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    Just the kick I need right now to get me to stop reading blogs and comments right now and turn back to work! Seriously, I have so much to get done tonight! :-/

  27. Barry September 19, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    I just tried this timer technique at work, and behold, it seemed to work great! Got a document out in 35 minutes that I could have lingered over all morning. I suspect it will lose it’s potency if you try to over-use it, though. Any comments from over-users?

  28. Erica / Northwest Edible Life September 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    Love me the timer. I recommend the timer for kids too. “Let’s see how many books we can put away in TWO minutes!”
    In a kinda related way, those people still working Job-Type Jobs that require project/life cycle management type action (notoriously inefficient) might be interested in Scrum Development. It has its history in software dev but is really applicable to any situation where groups need to efficiently get shit done over a time period. While there is all kind of Scrum-specific techniques, it basically boils down to the timer idea on a larger scale. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrum_(development)

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