2021-08-29 HIGHER ED
Author: Cait Kirby
Read time: 10 minutes

How I use a timer to maintain focus in the hellscape that is late-stage capitalism.

Amidst all the chaos that is happening on the planet right now – pandemic, bigotry, racist police violence, national and international conflict, environmental disasters, sickness, hunger, poverty, to name only some – we are still expected to continue working. This is late-stage capitalism and those of us who need paychecks and health insurance must continue on, toiling away at our desks.

Some of us navigate all the overwhelming chaos by numbing ourselves: turning on a tv show, scrolling through TikTok, liking and retweeting to avoid feeling things. Some of us have become so accustomed to this that when we open our phones, we shut down to the real world. Some of us seek out information about each of the newest world issues that we sit glued to our phones reading articles or watching press briefings (yes, even the bad ones) just to feel like we know something. These distractions can be useful for helping us cope, until they begin to get in the way of tasks that need to get done.

First, given the constant onslaught of issues and challenges, we need to decrease our expectations for productivity and output. Productivity has increased and wages have stagnated, and something has got to give. We cannot keep churning out more labor. We need time and space to grieve. We cannot just keep going. But given that we must do so, to pay our bills, let’s change our expectations and reduce our tasks.

Next, when we’ve pared down the tasks to what need to get accomplished, we can build in some ways to encourage us to stay on task that work with whatever coping mechanisms work for our brains and bodies. I use this little timer clock that I found on Amazon. Here is a similar timer (without a clock) in the event the first clock/timer is sold out. (These are not commission links, they're just links to Amazon.)

So, when and how do I use a clock/timer combination to stay focused and on task?

White cube clock/timer with 60 min on top of cube and 12:48 pm displayed on the clock face.Timer with the clock feature active.

1. I use this as a clock. This little clock sits on my desk and is always visible. It means I never have to struggle to see what time it is and I never have to open my phone to find the time. There is no barrier to me using this clock. When executive dysfunction is at an all-time high, the fewer barriers there are to using anything means I’m more likely to use stuff!

2. I use this as a timer for getting started on a task. Sometimes I struggle getting started on a task because I don’t know where to start, or because I know it will take a really long time. (I have a whole other resource on getting started on tasks, linked here.) To use the timer, I decide how long I can reasonably focus and start the timer for that. Often, once I’ve gotten started on the difficult task, I don’t need the timer to keep me going. So really, I’m just giving myself a little boost to start the task until my brain realizes it can do the task and takes over. White cube clock/timer with 60 min on the cube top and 59:56 displayed on the clock face.Timer with the hour-long timer feature active.

To set a timer on this clock/timer:
You flip the switch on the back and then you simply point the amount of time for the timer to be facing up, and it starts a timer for that amount of time. The timer counts down on the face of the clock, so you can check in to see how much time is left. The timer beeps once time is up, and it beeps for a while, until you turn it off or flip it over again.

3. I use this as a countdown to doing something hard or scary. I hate sending emails, they make me so anxious. I stress about how someone will misread my emails (been there, done that). I stress about typos and accidentally sharing the wrong link and professional colleagues finding out how much I enjoy playing Planet Zoo. Sometimes I edit and edit and edit an email until there can be no more edits and I just need to send it. For these situations, I set the timer and when it goes off, I hit the send button. Okay, most of the time when the timer goes off I turn it to the 5-minute timer one extra time, do fifteen final read-throughs and THEN once the timer goes off again, I send the email. It’s a process that works for me.

4. I use this as a timer to keep me from focusing too long on an inessential task. Sometimes I get so focused and in the zone that I lose all track of time. Having the timer set so that I don’t spend too long fiddling with formatting can prevent me from wasting a good deal of time on minor details. This also keeps me from spinning off onto side projects or projects that are earmarked for another day but that I have a great idea for and want to make sure I write down in enough detail.

5. I use this as a timer to give myself breaks and keep me accountable. I love watching videos on TikTok and scrolling through Twitter. I learn so much and I’ve met so many great people. But I have occasionally found myself losing a lot of time when I only meant to grab a few relaxing minutes. I set myself a quick 5-minute timer and when it beeps, it beeps, I get back to working. The timer just keeps beeping, so it’s really hard to ignore!

6. I use this as a timer to keep myself from spiraling in the chaotic news of the day. Every day there is a new national or international crisis. I feel obligated to be knowledgeable about what is going on, so I check in on the news. But it’s easy to get sucked into the news, becoming glued to it, or trying to understand a complex historical problem by diving into a labyrinth of Wikipedia articles. Yes, it’s important I know what is going on in the world. No, it’s not useful for me to try to learn all about every problem each day. So, I set a timer to check in on the news and when it goes off, I move on. Not only does this protect my time, but it protects my emotions.

7. Having a timer that is not part of my phone keeps me on track and means I don’t open my phone and accidentally end up in the wrong app just by habit, or because I didn’t close out of an app before putting my phone to sleep. I know I’m not the only one who goes into their phone to use their calculator and ends up on Twitter for 5 minutes, right? There are other ways to restrict your access to apps on your phone, but this seems to be the easiest to me, because I can just put my phone away and not be distracted.

8. This timer/clock combination is pretty tiny and could move from room to room with me. I leave it on my desk so I always know where it is and don’t have to spend time looking for it. You might consider how likely it is that you will lose it if you move it from its home, and consider adding a locator tile to it, if necessary. You might even attach something large to it so you can easily find it amidst a pile of stuff.

9. Yes, I understand how ridiculous it is that I started out this post talking about how capitalism is killing us all and then I tell you about a product … you can buy … from Amazon. I know, it’s not ideal. If I could find this exact clock offered from a more ethical retailer, I would. But I need to get my work done and maybe you do, too. While I am personally responsible for my choices, I also can’t topple the Amazon/Jeff Bezos monopoly while I’m not getting any work done, so I am okay with giving my $18 to Amazon this time. YMMV.

Do you want more insights into how I manage my life to make my brain work for me? Do you want to hear about new resources I make to help teachers and learners? Do you want to know when that new thing I’m working on finally comes out? Subscribe to my monthly(ish) updates here.